It’s been a long-standing tradition for the U.S. census to begin in Alaska — and on Jan. 21, the 2020 census will kick off in Toksook Bay, the first community in the nation to be counted.

This traditional Yup’ik village in Southwest Alaska, which overlooks the Bering Sea, is very different from most U.S. communities taking part in the census.

Almost everyone there eats a traditional diet of wild foods like seal, salmon and berries — and many speak Yugtun, one of four Alaska Native language groups represented at a recent census workshop at the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

“It’s just amazing,” said Rochelle Adams, the leader of the language workshop. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything like this, where we have this cross-cultural sharing.”

The workshop also brought together speakers from the Inupiat, Gwich’in and Koyukon Athabascan language groups. Many of those who attended were elders, considered experts in their language. Together they brainstormed on how to use their language and culture to raise awareness about the upcoming census.

They were appalled to learn that in 2010, Alaska had the lowest census response rate in the nation — and that rural areas with large Alaska Native populations were undercounted by about 8%.

Annauk Olin and family took part in a recent workshop at the Alaska Native Heritage Center to promote the 2020 census in rural Alaska.

If Alaskans are undercounted, the state will lose out on its share of federal money, which is especially needed now to help offset the state’s fiscal crisis.

Based on Census Bureau numbers, Alaska receives about $3.2 billion in federal funds a year, money that is used for roads, health care, education and public assistance. Population also determines the amount of money a community receives for federal programs.

The census also plays a big role in Alaska politics. The 2020 numbers will be used to draw new voting districts. Based on population changes in the 2010 census, urban Alaska gained more political power, with more legislative seats added, while rural Alaska lost ground.

At the language workshop, there was widespread agreement that more use of Native languages and cultures could help improve population counts.

“When I hear and see that we’re doing the language piece of it, it’s more meaningful to us,” said Maggie Pollock, who was originally from Shishmaref.

There were also worries in the group that many rural Natives, especially those with limited English, are reluctant to give out personal information to strangers, because they don't understand the census process.

Elders in the group said, if Alaska Natives heard in their own language, how the census keeps its information confidential, they would be more apt to share information.

Richard Atuk, an Inupiat who was born in Wales, said he truly didn't understand how important the census is for rural communities until he attended the workshop.

“I never paid any attention to it,” Atuk said. “I thought that all it was, they’re counting everybody in the United States. That’s the extent of my knowledge.”

At a recent 2020 census workshop, Alaska Native language experts worked together to create PSAs like this one in Yup'ik.

The four language groups met separately to develop glossaries for census terms. They also collaborated on public service announcements for the radio, which they hope will raise awareness about the benefits of census participation for local government. 

“If there are communities that don’t understand what these programs do, they become left out,” said Annauk Olin of Shismaref. “I think this is a really great movement that will catch fire.”

That phrase, “catch fire,” resonated with Rochelle Adams, who is Gwich’in.

She spoke of stories she heard about how women took special care to pack fire on their travels, so they would be able to start a fire wherever they camped.

Adams says the census is like a journey for Alaskans, in which she hopes information about this once-every-decade process spreads from community to community — no matter how far, now matter how different.

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