Toksook Bay prepares to be first town counted in 2020 U.S. Census

Toksook Bay selected their oldest resident Lizzy Nenguryar Chimiugak, age 89, to be the first person in the 2020 U.S. Census counted in the nation. Her daughter Veronica Simons sits to her left. Pictured December 11, 2019 at Chimiugak’s home. (Anna Rose MacArthur / KYUK)

The  U.S. Constitution requires that the government undertake the massive project of counting every person living in the United States every 10 years. The numbers determine how many representatives each state gets in the U.S. House and how much government money that’s available to communities over the next decade. 

The national count will begin in two weeks in a town in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: Toksook Bay, population 590 during the previous census.

The man at the center of planning the town’s next census is Nunakauyak Traditional Council Tribal Administrator Robert Pitka.

He has been in his job for a little over a year and a half, and much of his time is taken up preparing for Toksook Bay to be town number one on the U.S. Census count come January 21. It’s a responsibility he never expected.

“It’s overwhelming. But the count will be very important, and it’ll be special,” he said, laughing.

Related: LISTEN: There’s $3.2B dollars at stake in the 2020 Census

Pitka coordinates with the U.S. Census Bureau, helping find local census workers, and interviewing with national journalists. Currently he’s figuring out how to get the approximately 50 people who are arriving on Census Day from the airstrip to town. There are no buses.

“We have a few trucks. We have snowmachines and ATVs,” Pitka said.

The census is important for rural Alaska communities. Each person counted represents potential government money the community could receive for services like public safety, housing, and infrastructure over the next decade.

“It’s not just for us today. It’s for our future, and hoping the benefits will come,” Pitka said.

The town decided the first person in the nation to be counted will be their oldest: Lizzy Nenguryar Chimiugak. She is 89 years old, but often feels much younger.

“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,’” she said Yugtun.

She doesn’t look forward to the count. Her earliest memories of the census are of disease and loss. In 1940 after census workers arrived, she remembers many people in her village dying of measles.

“Children died, adults, mothers, lots of people died during the measles. I saw it happen,” Chimiugak said Yugtun.

She calls that time “The Great Death” and is wary of the census workers returning.

The Census Day will begin with festivities in the Toksook Bay school. Students will welcome guests with yuraq, traditional Yup’ik dancing and drumming.

Census workers and journalists staying overnight will sleep in the school, the town’s de facto hotel.

“If people are willing to sleep on the floor with a sleeping bag, we’re certainly willing to host them,” said Toksook Bay School Principal Michael Robbins.

He just has one requirement: “Be out of the classroom by 8 a.m., because we’re still having school.”

But he encourages the guests, coming from cities across the country, to hang out in the common areas and talk with the students about what they do and where they’ve been.

“Like the Wall Street Journal reporter, or NPR, or AP. It’s kind of a neat thing for our kids to see something that’s not ordinary in our village every day,” Robbins said.

Down the hall KYUK aska a group of seniors a question: as the beginning of the census in Toksook Bay hits the news, what do you hope people learn about your community? The answer for all of them is the same: “Our culture.”

“How we get food. What we eat.” Serena Simons said.

“The way we dance yuraq,” Jason Olsen said.

“Our ancestors,” Jon Tuluk said.

The U.S. Census begins in Toksook Bay on Jan. 21, 2020.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.