It means they’ll have a chance to reach more people — and count them.
And this year, on January 21, they’re starting in Toksook Bay — where around 660 people live, where snowmobiles are a major form of transportation, and where 54-year-old Robert Pitka says this is the biggest event the community has seen in his lifetime.
As the tribal administrator for the Nunakauyak Traditional Council, Pitka has been working with federal officials for more than a year to prepare for the census, which he describes as a “history-making event” for Toksook Bay.
“I’m still trying to grasp how I can explain it,” he says. “It’s special.”
The Census director says he’s getting his snow gear ready
Just how cold does it get in Toksook Bay? Cold enough that US Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham made a point of offering one piece of advice last week for anyone who’s planning to travel there: Bring a heavy coat.
“We’re in the process of getting our snow gear together,” Dillingham said at a Washington press conference.
“A cold spell hit in December before Christmas, and it’s been cold since, over a month continuously,” Pitka said. “Some days it’d be minus 10, minus 15, and the windchill factor is very low, very cold. Frostbite can occur in five minutes.”
Residents ride snowmobiles to get around
In the summer, Pitka said, boats are commonly used to travel from place to place.
“We don’t have highways that go to other villages or cities,” he said.
Census officials point to their efforts in Toksook Bay as just one example of the lengths they plan to go to this year as part of the massive national push that will determine the number of representatives each state gets in Congress and how billions of dollars in federal funds are distributed.
“Different places have different challenges,” Dillingham said.”In Alaska, census takers often use small planes, they use boats, they use snowmobiles and other special means to reach people.”
But not all parts of the state get a head start on the census.
The village’s oldest resident will be the first person counted
Tribal leaders in Toksook Bay decided the village’s oldest resident will be the first American counted in the 2020 census.
“It’s always been our cultural value, our traditional way of addressing, that elders come first before any event, and elders speak first before any ceremonial events,” Pitka said. “That is our way of life in all villages in Alaska…so selecting an elder for the first enumeration is special.”
Residents will be sharing other parts of their culture as the census begins there, too.
A performance at Toksook Bay’s school will feature traditional dancing.
“It’s a great opportunity for us as a village to kind of show off who we are,” said Michael Robbins, principal of the Nelson Island School, named for the island where Toksook Bay and several other villages sit.
There’s no hotel, so visitors often spend the night at the school
Dance performances and a potluck meal aren’t the only things that will be happening at the school.
Because there aren’t any hotels in town, Robbins said the school is preparing for journalists covering the census to spend the night there.
“They just have to be out of the classrooms by 8 o’clock, because we’re not canceling school,” he said.
For the school’s 191 students and their teachers, Robbins said this year’s census is a lesson they’ll never forget.
“It’s incredibly exciting for the social studies teachers that we have, like myself, to have something like this, and for it to be so important not only to our community, but for our whole country,” he said. “It’s great for our kids to see democracy in action.”
CNN meteorologist Monica Garrett and CNN’s Sam Romano contributed to this report.