There are no restaurants in Toksook Bay, Alaska. No motels or movie theater, either. There aren’t any factories. Or roads.
But the first Americans to be counted in the 2020 census live in this tiny community of 661 on the edge of the American expanse. Their homes are huddled together in a windswept Bering Sea village, painted vivid lime green, purple or neon blue to help distinguish the signs of life from a frigid white winterscape that makes it hard to tell where the frozen sea ends and the village begins.
Fish drying racks hang outside some front doors, and you’re more likely to find a snowmobile or four-wheeler in the driveway than a truck or SUV.
In this isolated outpost that looks little like other towns in the rest of the United States, the official attempt to count everyone living in the country will begin Tuesday.
The decennial U.S. census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the U.S. purchased the territory from Russia in 1867.
Once the spring thaw hits, the town empties as many of its residents scatter for traditional hunting and fishing grounds, and the frozen ground that in January makes it easier to get around by March turns to marsh that’s difficult to traverse. The mail service is spotty and the internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.
For those reasons, census takers have to start early here.
The rest of the country, plus urban areas of Alaska such as Anchorage, will begin the census in mid-March.
Some of the biggest challenges to the count are especially difficult in Toksook Bay, one of a handful of villages on Nelson Island, which is about 500 miles west of Anchorage and only accessible by boat or plane.
Some people speak only Alaska Native languages such as Yupik, or they speak one language but don’t read it.
The U.S. census provides questionnaires in 13 languages, and other guides, glossaries and materials in many more. But the 20 official Alaska Native languages are not among them. Consequently, local groups are bringing together translators and language experts to translate the census wording and intent to help local community leaders feel like they can trust the endeavor as well as understand and relay the importance of the census.
It isn’t an easy task. Language can be very specific to a culture.
For example, there’s no equivalent for “apportionment” — the system used to determine representation in Congress — in the language Denaakk’e, also known as Koyukon Athabascan. So translators have used terms for divvying up moose meat in a village, an example of finding cultural relevancy, said Veri di Suvero, executive director of the agency partner Alaska Public Interest Research Group.
When the official count begins this week, the Census Bureau has hired four people to go door-to-door. At least two of them will be fluent in English and Yupik.
Places such as Toksook Bay that run this risk of being undercounted also desperately need the federal funds assigned based on population for healthcare, education and general infrastructure.
Yet mistrust of the federal government is high. That’s true in many parts of the U.S. but especially in Alaska, where many have strong libertarian views, and it’s even more true in a rural community where everyone knows everyone and someone asking for personal information is seen with suspicion.
“The No. 1 barrier to getting an accurate count throughout Alaska is concern about privacy and confidentiality and an inherent distrust of the federal government,” said Gabriel Layman, chairman of the Alaska Census Working Group. “And that attitude is fairly pervasive in some of our more rural and remote communities.”
The census is entirely confidential, Layman reassures people, and the Census Bureau can’t give information to any law enforcement or immigration official — or to a landlord if you report you have 14 people living in your rental. Violating that privacy could land a census worker behind bars with a hefty fine.
When the count begins on Tuesday, a Yupik elder who is part of a well-known Eskimo dancing group will be the first one counted.
Lizzie Chimiugak, whose age isn’t known because records weren’t kept but is anywhere from 89 to 93, is “the grandma for the whole community,” said Robert Pitka, the tribal administrator of the Nunakauyak Traditional Council in Toksook Bay.
Steven Dillingham, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, will be on hand for Tuesday’s start.
Village officials will greet him at the town’s airstrip and bring him to the school, where community members will have traditional food, which could include seal, walrus, moose or musk ox. They’ll have a ceremony with the dance group that includes Chimiugak, who will come to the school and dance in her wheelchair if the weather allows.
Mary Kailukiak, a town councilwoman, said she was one of the cooks.
“I’m thinking of maybe cooking up dried fish eggs, herring fish eggs,” she said, pausing to speak to a reporter while ice fishing for tomcod and smolt on the Bering Sea. Kailukiak was dressed in a black parka and snow pants and sported a hat made by her daughter from sealskin and beaver. The eggs, she said, will be soaked overnight and served with seal oil.
Then Dillingham will conduct the first official census count, or enumeration, as it is known, with Chimiugak, out of earshot of others to satisfy federal privacy laws.
Pitka is hoping for nice weather — it’s been as cold as -20 Fahrenheit lately — as the nation’s eyes turn west for the event: “It’s going to be a very special moment.”
Joe Asuluk, 75, says it’s important for people in Toksook Bay to be counted in the census.
He’s lived in Toksook Bay since 1965, a year after it was founded, and pointed out local landmarks from the air to visitors on a recent flight from the hub community of Bethel, 115 miles away.
Asuluk stood outside his small plane after landing in Toksook Bay, getting ready to board a four-wheeler for the journey home. How did he feel about the first count of the census being conducted in his adopted hometown?
“We’re pretty proud,” he said, his breath visible in the frigid air.