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'We Are Part Of The United States': The 1st People Counted For The 2020 Census

In the fishing village of Toksook Bay, Alaska, the 2020 census officially began last month. The national head count starts in remote Alaska in January because the frozen ground makes it easier to reach the distant communities.
In the fishing village of Toksook Bay, Alaska, the 2020 census officially began last month. The national head count starts in remote Alaska in January because the frozen ground makes it easier to reach the distant communities.

Cross the treeless, frozen tundra of southwest Alaska, over ice-covered lakes and ponds near the Bering Sea, and you'll find the first community in the U.S. counted for the 2020 census.

Lizzie Chimiugak Nenguryarr, an elder of Toksook Bay who recently celebrated what she considered to be at least her 90th birthday, was the first person counted for the 2020 census.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Lizzie Chimiugak Nenguryarr, an elder of Toksook Bay who recently celebrated what she considered to be at least her 90th birthday, was the first person counted for the 2020 census.

Lizzie Chimiugak Nenguryarr's house in Toksook Bay. The village, home to members of the Nunakauyarmiut Tribe, was established in 1964.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Lizzie Chimiugak Nenguryarr's house in Toksook Bay. The village, home to members of the Nunakauyarmiut Tribe, was established in 1964.

While most of the country waits to take part in the once-a-decade head count of the U.S. population, the residents of Toksook Bay, Alaska — home to members of the Nunakauyarmiut Tribe — are ahead of the national curve. Local counting, which officially started in the village the afternoonafter Martin Luther King Jr. Day, wrapped up on Jan. 27.

Katie Schwartz Nuiyaaq, one of Nenguryarr's daughters, helped interpret during her mother's census interview. Schwartz, who speaks Yup'ik and English, was the second person to be counted for the 2020 census. "Not very many people can say, 'I'm No. 2,' " she said.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Katie Schwartz Nuiyaaq, one of Nenguryarr's daughters, helped interpret during her mother's census interview. Schwartz, who speaks Yup'ik and English, was the second person to be counted for the 2020 census. "Not very many people can say, 'I'm No. 2,' " she said.

The Census Bureau's door knockers finished visiting homes in Toksook Bay in less than a week. But anticipation for the census had been mounting in the village for more than a year after the bureau announced that the national spotlight was coming to Toksook Bay, which was a fishing camp until some residents from a neighboring village, Nightmute, decided to permanently settle closer to the sea. Since 1964, the village has grown to 590 residents, according to the previous count in 2010.

Older residents still remember when they moved their homes, pulled by dog sled, from neighboring Nightmute, Alaska, to make what was once a fishing camp into a permanent settlement. Now dogs abound, but the moving of goods is mainly done with snow machines and all-terrain vehicles<em>.</em>
Claire Harbage / NPR
Older residents still remember when they moved their homes, pulled by dog sled, from neighboring Nightmute, Alaska, to make what was once a fishing camp into a permanent settlement. Now dogs abound, but the moving of goods is mainly done with snow machines and all-terrain vehicles<em>.</em>

Noah Lincoln holds a gun his family uses for hunting. People in Toksook Bay rely on hunting and other subsistence activities.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Noah Lincoln holds a gun his family uses for hunting. People in Toksook Bay rely on hunting and other subsistence activities.

It's the third Alaska Native village selected by the bureau since 2000 to be the site of the first count in remote Alaska, where the census has kicked off for decades before rolling out to the rest of the country by April.

"I'm glad it's behind us now, so we can move on with what we do every day," said Simeon John, a coordinator for a local youth suicide and alcohol abuse prevention group who helped organize a ceremony with traditional Yup'ik dancing and drumming in the school gymnasium to mark the start of the census.

Members of Nelson Island School's basketball team prepare to travel by snow machine-pulled wooden sleds to an away game at a neighboring village.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Members of Nelson Island School's basketball team prepare to travel by snow machine-pulled wooden sleds to an away game at a neighboring village.

Using paper and pencil to collect people's demographic information, census workers are continuing to visit homes in other far-flung villages across the state, taking advantage of the winter months when the still-frozen ground makes traveling easier and village residents haven't migrated yet for hunting and fishing.

The U.S. Post Office in Toksook Bay.
Claire Harbage / NPR
The U.S. Post Office in Toksook Bay.

A tapestry depicting Jesus Christ hangs on the wall of a home where friends and family gather to mourn the death of a loved one in Toksook Bay in January.
Claire Harbage / NPR
A tapestry depicting Jesus Christ hangs on the wall of a home where friends and family gather to mourn the death of a loved one in Toksook Bay in January.

In Toksook Bay, subsistence is a way of life that has been passed on across generations over thousands of years. In the winter months, ice fishers often venture out to crack open the frozen bay to catch smelt.

Top: Mick Chakuchin stands on the ice at the edge of Toksook Bay to fish for smelt. Left: Part of a bait fish at the edge of an ice fishing hole. Right: Chakuchin and his uncle, Jackie Woods, work on opening and keeping open holes in the ice from which they hope to catch smelts.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Top: Mick Chakuchin stands on the ice at the edge of Toksook Bay to fish for smelt. Left: Part of a bait fish at the edge of an ice fishing hole. Right: Chakuchin and his uncle, Jackie Woods, work on opening and keeping open holes in the ice from which they hope to catch smelts.

But Lizzie Chimiugak Nenguryarr, an elder of Toksook Bay who was the first person counted for the 2020 census, wonders how much longer the village can live off the land and water.

"Our ancestors used to say there will come a time of starvation, and we're coming upon that time because of climate change," Nenguryarr said in Yup'ik through interpretation by one of her daughters, Katie Schwartz Nuiyaaq. "The fish are dying off because the water's too hot for them to survive the surface water."

Maria White and her son Lance Jimmie, 3, stand near their home in Toksook Bay. White works at Bayview General Merchandise, one of the three convenience stores in Toksook Bay.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Maria White and her son Lance Jimmie, 3, stand near their home in Toksook Bay. White works at Bayview General Merchandise, one of the three convenience stores in Toksook Bay.

Larry John owns John's Store, the oldest of Toksook Bay's three convenience stores.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Larry John owns John's Store, the oldest of Toksook Bay's three convenience stores.

Nenguryarr recently celebrated what she considered to be at least her 90th birthday based on a baptismal record. She had prepared to give a speech to the village about the growing dangers of climate change after the Census Bureau director ,Steven Dillingham , and another bureau official visited her home last month for a census interview. But bad weather delayed the arrival of the director's plane for hours that day, forcing Nenguryarr to wait inside her home with her daughter and miss most of the ceremony inside the gymnasium of Nelson Island School.

"She felt downhearted because the director of the Census Bureau took so long to get here," Schwartz said about her mother.

A home with the front light on in Toksook Bay.
Claire Harbage / NPR
A home with the front light on in Toksook Bay.

A children's bicycle lays in snow from a recent winter storm.
Claire Harbage / NPR
A children's bicycle lays in snow from a recent winter storm.

Still, Dora Nicholai, the secretary at Nelson Island School, considers all of the hustle and bustle the census brought to their village an honor that helped put Toksook Bay on the map for many in the rest of the country.

"When it's highlighted out there, they know where we come from, our environment," Nicholai said. "Then they can know that we are part of the United States."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

People wait for a plane to arrive at the airstrip in Toksook Bay.
Claire Harbage / NPR
People wait for a plane to arrive at the airstrip in Toksook Bay.