TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska — There are no restaurants in Toksook Bay, Alaska. No motels or movie theater, either. There also 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 today.
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 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, they 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 Yup’ik, or 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 none is one of 20 official Alaska Native languages. So local groups are bringing together translators and language experts to translate the census wording and intent so local community leaders could trust, understand and relay the importance of the census.
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 Yup’ik.
Places such as Toksook Bay that run this risk of being under-counted also desperately need the federal funds assigned based on population for health care, education and general infrastructure.