Why the census is starting months early in this remote Alaskan fishing village

Jan 19, 2020, 9:44 AM
Census counting in remote Alaska...
Toksook Bay, Alaska December 2019 (Matt Hage/AP Images for U.S. Census Bureau)
(Matt Hage/AP Images for U.S. Census Bureau)

NOORVIK, ALASKA (CNN) — It’s so cold that the ground is frozen in Toksook Bay.

And for the census workers who are about to descend on this remote Alaskan fishing village, that’s a good thing.

It means they’ll have a chance to reach more people — and count them.

For most Americans, the 2020 census won’t begin for months. But for decades the decennial count has started early in Alaska, where large portions of the state aren’t connected by roads and can have spotty mail service.

“Alaska’s vast, sparsely settled areas traditionally are the first to be counted,” the Census 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.”

And this year, on January 21, they’re starting in Toksook Bay — where around 660 people live, where snowmobiles are a major form of transportation, and where 54-year-old Robert Pitka says this is the biggest event the community has seen in his lifetime.

As the tribal administrator for the Nunakauyak Traditional Council, Pitka has been working with federal officials for more than a year to prepare for the census, which he describes as a “history-making event” for Toksook Bay.

“I’m still trying to grasp how I can explain it,” he says. “It’s special.”

The island village, where residents rely on subsistence fishing and hunting to survive, is located on the Bering Sea in southwest Alaska.

The Census director says he’s getting his snow gear ready

Just how cold does it get in Toksook Bay? Cold enough that US Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham made a point of offering one piece of advice last week for anyone who’s planning to travel there: Bring a heavy coat.

“We’re in the process of getting our snow gear together,” Dillingham said at a Washington press conference.

The average high temperature in the region in January — their coldest month — is 12 degrees Fahrenheit.

“A cold spell hit in December before Christmas, and it’s been cold since, over a month continuously,” Pitka said. “Some days it’d be minus 10, minus 15, and the wind chill factor is very low, very cold. Frostbite can occur in five minutes.”

Census officials say Toksook Bay was selected to be the place where the first Americans are counted in 2020 because the majority of the village is Alaska Native — about 94% of residents are Yup’ik — and because the village is accessible by plane from the hub city of Bethel, Alaska, about 115 miles to the east.

Residents ride snowmobiles to get around

When the 2010 census began in Noorvik, Alaska, the director of the census traveled by dogsled to meet with residents and leaders there.

But in Toksook Bay, it’s more common for residents to use ATVs or snowmobiles — they call them “snow machines” — to get around in the winter.

In the summer, Pitka said, boats are commonly used to travel from place to place.

“We don’t have highways that go to other villages or cities,” he said.

Census officials point to their efforts in Toksook Bay as just one example of the lengths they plan to go to this year as part of the massive national push that will determine the number of representatives each state gets in Congress and how billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed.

“Different places have different challenges,” Dillingham said.”In Alaska, census takers often use small planes, they use boats, they use snowmobiles and other special means to reach people.”

But not all parts of the state get a head start on the census.

“Residents of Anchorage, Fairbanks and other large Alaska cities will respond to the 2020 Census online, by phone, or mail in mid-March with the rest of the country,” the Census Bureau says.

The village’s oldest resident will be the first person counted

Tribal leaders in Toksook Bay decided the village’s oldest resident will be the first American counted in the 2020 census.

“It’s always been our cultural value, our traditional way of addressing, that elders come first before any event, and elders speak first before any ceremonial events,” Pitka said. “That is our way of life in all villages in Alaska…so selecting an elder for the first enumeration is special.”

Residents will be sharing other parts of their culture as the census begins there, too.

A performance at Toksook Bay’s school will feature traditional dancing.

“It’s a great opportunity for us as a village to kind of show off who we are,” said Michael Robbins, principal of the Nelson Island School, named for the island where Toksook Bay and several other villages sit.

There’s no hotel, so visitors often spend the night at the school

Dance performances and a potluck meal aren’t the only things that will be happening at the school.

Because there aren’t any hotels in town, Robbins said the school is preparing for journalists covering the census to spend the night there.

“They just have to be out of the classrooms by 8 o’clock, because we’re not canceling school,” he said.

The school is used to accommodating guests. Basketball teams who travel to Toksook Bay for games and other groups of out-of-town visitors regularly spend the night there, Robbins said.

For the school’s 191 students and their teachers, Robbins said this year’s census is a lesson they’ll never forget.

“It’s incredibly exciting for the social studies teachers that we have, like myself, to have something like this, and for it to be so important not only to our community but for our whole country,” he said. “It’s great for our kids to see democracy in action.”

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Send it to the KSL NewsRadio team here.

Today’s Top Stories

All News

A group of high school students stand on a basketball court during a free throw. (Amanda Dickson/KS...
Amanda Dickson

Opinion: Is sportsmanship dead in high school basketball?

After a weekend basketball game, it's clear some of our students have a lot of learn when it comes to civility and sportsmanship.
13 hours ago
Powerade is hoping that a revamped recipe and new look will help finally unseat Gatorade from the t...
Danielle Wiener-Bronner, CNN

Is that Gatorade? Or Powerade? It may soon be hard to tell.

Powerade is hoping that a revamped recipe and new look will help finally unseat Gatorade from the top spot in the sports drink arena.
13 hours ago
US President Joe Biden discusses funding for the "Hudson Tunnel Project" at the West Side Rail Yard...
Elizabeth Weiler

FBI finds no classified documents at Biden’s Delaware vacation home

    (CNN) — The FBI has completed its search of President Joe Biden’s Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, home and no documents with classified markings were found, according to a source familiar with the matter. Biden’s personal attorney Bob Bauer confirmed earlier in the morning that investigators were searching the home. The search was planned and had the […]
13 hours ago
Police are investigating a double homicide that happened in Taylorsville overnight. According to Sg...
Simone Seikaly

Suspect arrested, one victim identified after shooting in Taylorsville

Taylorsville police have identified 21-year-old Eduardo Moreno Lujan as one of the victims of a shooting in Taylorsville on Monday night.
13 hours ago
Follow @SimoneSeikaly...
Simone Seikaly

Elk, again, tried to cross roads near I-215/I-80 interchange in SLC

The Utah Department of Transportation reports that a herd of around 40 elk is stranded on the east bench.
13 hours ago
Authorities scanning a remote Australian highway for a tiny missing radioactive capsule have found ...
Hilary Whiteman, CNN

Missing radioactive capsule from Rio Tinto mine found on Australian road

The capsule reportedly contained highly radioactive Caesium-137, and was discovered missing nearly a week ago.
13 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Banner with Cervical Cancer Awareness Realistic Ribbon...
Intermountain Health

Five Common Causes of Cervical Cancer – and What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk

January is National Cervical Cancer Awareness month and cancer experts at Intermountain Health are working to educate women about cervical cancer, the tests that can warn women about potential cancer, and the importance of vaccination.
Kid holding a cisco fish at winterfest...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

Get Ready for Fun at the 2023 Bear Lake Monster Winterfest

The Bear Lake Monster Winterfest is an annual weekend event jam-packed full of fun activities the whole family can enjoy. This year the event will be held from January 27-29 at the Utah Bear Lake State Park Marina and Sunrise Resort and Event Center in Garden City, Utah. 
happy friends with sparklers at christmas dinner...

15 Easy Christmas Dinner Ideas

We’ve scoured the web for you and narrowed down a few of our favorite Christmas dinner ideas to make your planning easy. Choose from the dishes we’ve highlighted to plan your meal or start brainstorming your own meal plan a couple of weeks before to make sure you have time to shop and prepare.
Spicy Homemade Loaded Taters Tots...

5 Game Day Snacks for the Whole Family (with recipes!)

Try these game day snacks to make watching football at home with your family feel like a special occasion. 
Happy joyful smiling casual satisfied woman learning and communicates in sign language online using...

The Best Tools for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Workplace Success

Here are some of the best resources to make your workplace work better for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees.
Team supporters celebrating at a tailgate party...

8 Delicious Tailgate Foods That Require Zero Prep Work

In a hurry? These 8 tailgate foods take zero prep work, so you can fuel up and get back to what matters most: getting hyped for your favorite
Why the census is starting months early in this remote Alaskan fishing village