Census, Alaska Natives, Native Americans, Minorities, Census Bureau, Alaska

Census, Alaska Natives

Census 2020: Counting Heads Along the Frozen Bering Sea

The census began its 2020 count in a remote Alaskan village amid questions about whether officials can avoid yet another undercount of minority communities.

22.1.2020

The 2020 census officially begins on Tuesday in Toksook Bay, an Alaska n village on the edge of the Bering Sea where census takers hope to show they can overcome language barriers, isolation and government distrust to develop an accurate tally

The census began its 2020 count in a remote Alaska n village amid questions about whether officials can avoid yet another undercount of minority communities.

Updated 8:26 p.m. ET TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska — The 2020 census officially began on Tuesday in Toksook Bay, an Alaskan village on the edge of the frozen Bering Sea where census takers hoped to show they can overcome language barriers, isolation and government distrust to develop an accurate tally for minority groups who have long suffered from undercounts. Visitors traveling to the village of about 650 must fly 500 miles from Anchorage, and then scoot into town on the back of a snow machine or four-wheeled A.T.V. — the same ones that deliver the mail to a post office the size of a small backyard shed. On Tuesday, a small advance team spent much of the day anxiously waiting to see whether a planeload of senior Census Bureau officials, flying in for a ceremonial early start of the once-a-decade national tally, would make it through the thick winter fog. “Counting those who are in hard-to-reach villages has been a challenge for the Census Bureau every decade since 1870,” said Steven Dillingham, the bureau’s director, ahead of his trip to Toksook Bay. “Here in Alaska, we have these very special challenges. The geography is so vast.” The census, scheduled to get underway in most of the country in mid-March, provides a vital foundation of data used to determine everything from congressional representation to federal spending on education, health care and food assistance. This year, there are renewed calls for special attention to minority neighborhoods and Indigenous communities like Toksook Bay. In many such places, traditional methods have historically failed to count some people who may be invisible as a result of the federal government’s inability to overcome geography, language barriers or the reluctance of some residents to interact with government representatives. The Census Bureau estimated that Native Americans and Alaska Natives living on reservations were during the 2010 census, more than twice the rate of the next closest population group. Many advocates fear that a now-abandoned Trump administration effort to ask about citizenship status may have already set the stage for a depressed count among immigrant groups. The census hopes to avoid an undercount by using partners who can help lay the groundwork in minority communities, hiring people with knowledge of local neighborhoods to do the actual count and producing videos in 59 languages that explain how to fill out census forms. A new advertising campaign targeting minority groups is intended to convey that the process is easy, important and confidential. Donna Bach, hired last year as a “ partnership specialist ” to help pave the way for the count in Alaska, said she had already spent months giving presentations to tribal leaders and meeting with local officials to explain why the census matters. Money derived from census data totals about $3.2 billion in Alaska, funding health programs, local clinics and education programs like Head Start. Census-derived funding also goes toward improvements to roads and runways, critical to remote Alaska Native villages like Toksook Bay, where people rely on airplanes that deliver mail, medicine and the food to stock store shelves. Image Frozen ground makes it easier to access remote villages by A.T.V. or snow machine. Credit... Joshua Corbett for The New York Times Image Robert Pitka, the tribal administrator of Toksook Bay, is optimistic about this year’s census count. Credit... Joshua Corbett for The New York Times “We tell everyone there are 3.2 billion reasons why the census matters,” Ms. Bach said. Census representatives are beginning their sweep through rural Alaska during the frigid weeks of winter because frozen ground allows easier access to some villages, and residents are more likely to be home before the spring thaw draws them to their fishing grounds. In Toksook Bay, where small houses painted in vibrant colors of green, orange, red and blue rise from the ice and snow during the long Alaskan winter, almost everyone is Alaska Native. They subsist on the local wildlife: fish, the occasional moose and seal. Garlands of dried herring tied up with braided grass hang outside the doors of many homes. As in most other Alaska Native villages, there are no paved streets and no addresses. People from the outside — the term Alaskans use for the Lower 48 states — do not often visit, and most residents grow up speaking their native Yup’ik language, Yugtun, before learning English. Not everybody has internet access, mirroring trends among Native communities around the country. Despite concerns about reaching Indigenous communities, the Census Bureau, working with a tight budget, has pressed ahead with a plan to prioritize an internet-based head count; much of the country will get an invitation to fill out information online, and those who do not respond will be contacted in other ways. The online option offers a cheaper solution at a time when some states, including Alaska, are ramping up their own spending to make sure their residents participate. Census Bureau officials said they would not rely on an internet count in remote Alaskan villages such as Toksook Bay. After spending hours waiting in Bethel for the fog to clear, Mr. Dillingham and other Census Bureau officials arrived in Toksook Bay to begin the count on Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Dillingham’s first stop was at the home of the village’s oldest resident, Lizzie Chimiugak, to count her as the first census participant. Mr. Dillingham then went to the school gym, where high school students were dressed in red, white and blue handmade shirts known as kuspuks and hand-beaded headdresses — nasqerrun — topped with wolf and beaver fur. “We’re trying to count everyone, and here we are in remote Alaska,” Mr. Dillingham said, out of breath as he ran down the hall toward the gym. After a brief visit, and with snow starting to fall, the census crew rushed off to avoid being trapped again by the weather. Other census workers will be continuing the count in coming days. In Alaska and elsewhere, the bureau has been slow to hire the partnership specialists who are supposed to be key liaisons to build support in local communities before counting begins. There are added worries that people hired to do the counting may not be prepared for a job involving travel by bush planes, A.T.V.s and even dog sleds, along with lodging in schools or in the homes of local residents who may be wary of outsiders from the government. Image Two census workers, Tim Metzger, left, and Dennis Kashatok, traveled around Toksook Bay by snowmobile. Credit... Joshua Corbett for The New York Times As census leaders prepared to begin the count in recent weeks, they readied an advertising campaign to reach Native residents living in remote villages of Alaska to help begin building trust. But the effort stumbled almost immediately. An advocate for Alaska Natives said that when she finally heard a planned radio spot in November, she immediately raised concerns, among them that some names of Alaskan groups had been mispronounced. “I was shocked,” said Nicole Borromeo, the general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives. The census has scrambled over the past several days to prepare a new ad, but Ms. Borromeo said the production quality was not on par with other census advertising campaigns. The delay in bringing partnership specialists on board has been an issue around the country. The Government Accountability Office found that the Census Bureau missed its hiring targets last year and warned that it could have a negative impact in hard-to-count areas. In Alaska, Ms. Borromeo said the census had hired one and was in the process of bringing in two others. She said the bureau should have had 12 partnership specialists in place in Alaska a year ago to begin laying the groundwork for the count. “Better late than never,” she said. Noting the estimated 4.9 percent undercount in the 2010 census, James Tucker, a Las Vegas attorney and vice chair on the National Advisory Committee to the Census Bureau, said the rate was likely much higher. “We received feedback from many communities that the census numbers from 2010 were much lower than the number of people living in those communities,” he said. “The challenge is estimating the number of people who were missed.” Image Many Indigenous people in the United States live in hard-to-count areas. Credit... Joshua Corbett for The New York Times Image A boat pulled ashore for the winter in Toksook Bay. Credit... Joshua Corbett for The New York Times Kevin Allis, the chief executive of the National Congress of American Indians, said local communities have had to fund their own efforts to build grass-roots engagement in preparation for the count. “We’re filling in the gaps here because if we don’t do it, then our folks don’t get counted,” Mr. Allis said. In Toksook Bay, Robert Pitka, the local tribal administrator, said he had talked about the census at public meetings, at evening practices for the community dance group and during a tribal membership meeting this month. He has relayed his message to tribal administrators in neighboring communities: Tununak, seven miles to the north, and Nightmute, about 14 miles to the east. “This is to benefit for the next 10 years for our children, our grandchildren’s future,” he said. Advertisement Read more: The New York Times

Don't do it!

2020 Census Count Kicks Off in AlaskaThe 2020 census started in a remote Alaska n village where the Census Bureau ’s director personally enumerated one of its oldest residents, 90-year-old Lizzie Chimiugak, the first American counted this year Sounds cold.

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