US census kicks off by counting first person in rural Alaska

Toksook Bay in AlaskaImage copyright
Census Bureau

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Only 590 people lived in Toksook Bay when the last census was taken, in 2010

The US 2020 census has officially begun in Toksook Bay, a remote fishing village on the coast of Alaska.

Steven Dillingham, head of the US Census Bureau, has kicked off the count with a ceremonial visit to a tribal elder, Lizzie Chimiugak Nenguryarr, 90.

The census takes place every 10 years, and most of the country’s residents are counted from mid-March.

But census workers always make an early start in Alaska in January, when the ground is frozen enough to traverse.

If they were to wait a few more months, the ground would turn to marsh and become almost impossible for them to cross.

“Alaska’s vast, sparsely settled areas traditionally are the first to be counted,” the bureau says. “Local census takers must get a head start while the frozen ground allows easier access to the remote areas with unique accessibility challenges.”

Census takers use dog sleds and snowmobiles to get to these places, it adds.

Where is Toksook Bay?

Toksook Bay is on Alaska’s far-west coast, about 500 miles (800km) from the state’s largest city, Anchorage.

In the last census taken in 2010, Toksook Bay had a population of 590. The bureau estimated in 2017 that this had risen to 661.

Toksook Bay is not always the first village to be counted in the census. In 2010, bureau staff began in Noorvik, on the north-western coast. In 2000, they made their start in Unalakleet.

The indigenous peoples in Toksook Bay are Yup’ik – a group that is native to Alaska and the Russian Far East. Ms Nenguryarr speaks Yugtun, one of several distinct Yup’ik languages.

Boats in the iceImage copyright
Census Bureau

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Remote Alaskan villages are counted in January, when the ground is still frozen

A USPS post office in Toksook BayImage copyright
Census Bureau

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While most US residents complete the census by post, residents of these remote villages are counted in person

Alaska has 20 different official languages. Usually, census materials are not available in any of the Alaskan languages, meaning that counters have to work with translators and local experts in order to communicate effectively with villagers.

However, in an effort to boost responses among indigenous groups, the Census Bureau has this year translated its materials into several indigenous languages – including Yup’ik.

What happened after the count?

After visiting Ms Nenguryarr’s home and counting all of the village’s residents, the census team is taking part in a day of celebrations that include ceremonial Yup’ik dance performances and a feast of traditional foods.

A resident riding a snowmobile in Toksook BayImage copyright
Census Bureau

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There are no roads – instead, people travel by snowmobile

Sunset on Toksook BayImage copyright
Census Bureau

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This year, the census materials have been translated into the indigenous Yup’ik language

Mr Dillingham told Reuters news agency that the kickoff wasn’t just about counting the residents of one village – it was also about drawing the attention of the rest of the US.

“It’s the first time the word is really getting across the nation that the 2020 census is here,” he said.

Although it has now officially started, the Bureau is still hiring census takers for the rest of the 2020 count.

It expects between 300,000 and 500,000 new census takers. According to Mr Dillingham, they have already received about 1.8 million applications.

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