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2020 U.S. Census Kicks Off In Remote Alaskan Village

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. census officially begins today, a massive project to count every person living in the United States. The numbers determine how many representatives each state gets in the U.S. House and how much government money is available to communities over the next decade. The count kicks off in an Alaska Native community in the southwest of the state. From member station KYUK, Anna Rose MacArthur reports on preparations for the big day.

ANNA ROSE MACARTHUR, BYLINE: The town is Toksook Bay, population 590 during the previous census. The man at the center of planning the town's next census introduces himself, peering over reading glasses.

ROBERT PITKA: My name's Robert Pitka. I'm the Nunakauyak Traditional Council tribal administrator.

MACARTHUR: For the past year and a half, Pitka has been preparing for Toksook Bay to be town No. 1 on the U.S. Census. It's a responsibility he never expected.

PITKA: But the count will be very important, and it'll be special.

MACARTHUR: Pitka has been coordinating with the U.S. Census Bureau, helping find local census workers and interviewing with national journalists. There's a lot at stake. Each person counted represents potential government money the community could receive for services like public safety, housing and infrastructure over the next decade.

PITKA: It's not just for us today. It's for our future and hoping that the benefits will come.

MACARTHUR: The town decided the first person in the nation to be counted will be their oldest, Lizzie Chimiugak. She's 89 years old but often feels much younger.

LIZZIE CHIMIUGAK: (Through interpreter) Sometimes when my grandchildren are playing, I try to join them, and they laugh. And I come to and say, oh, I remember now; I'm old.

MACARTHUR: She doesn't look forward to the count. Her earliest memories of the census are of disease and loss. There aren't many records from that time, but she says in 1940, after census workers arrived, many people in her village died of measles.

CHIMIUGAK: (Through interpreter) Children died, adults, mothers. Lots of people died during the measles. I saw it happen.

MACARTHUR: She calls that time the great death and is wary of the census workers returning.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUM BEATING)

MACARTHUR: The census day includes festivities in the Toksook Bay school. The community will welcome guests with a potluck, while students yuraq, traditional Yup'ik dancing and drumming. Census workers and journalists staying overnight will sleep in the school. It's the town's de facto hotel.

MICHAEL ROBBINS: If people are willing to sleep on the floor with a sleeping bag, we're certainly willing to host them.

MACARTHUR: School Principal Michael Robbins just has one requirement.

ROBBINS: Be out of the classroom by 8 o'clock because that's - we're still having school.

MACARTHUR: But he encourages the guests to hang out in the common areas and talk with the students about what they do and where they've been.

ROBBINS: Like yourself or the Wall Street Journal reporter or NPR or AP. And that's kind of a neat thing for our kids to see something that's not ordinary in our village every day.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

MACARTHUR: Down the hall, I ask a group of seniors a question - as the beginning of the census and Toksook Bay hits the news, what do you hope people learn about your community? The most important thing they told me is their culture.

JON TULUK: Our culture is we live off the land.

SERENA SIMONS: How we get food.

JASON OLSEN: The way we dance yuraq.

TULUK: And our ancestors.

MACARTHUR: That was Jason Olsen, Serena Simons and Jon Tuluk.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Rose MacArthur in Toksook Bay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.