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

Top: Keziah Therchik (left) and Angel Charles take a selfie before performing Yup'ik dancing in Toksook Bay. Left: Dora Nicholai (in pink) dances at a community center, where portraits of the community's elders hang on a wall. Right: Women show Yup'ik dance fans.
Claire Harbage NPR
Top: Keziah Therchik (left) and Angel Charles take a selfie before performing Yup'ik dancing in Toksook Bay. Left: Dora Nicholai (in pink) dances at a community center, where portraits of the community's elders hang on a wall. Right: Women show Yup'ik dance fans.

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.

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 afternoon after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, wrapped up on Jan. 27.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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."

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