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Challenging Census Begins Tuesday On the Bering Sea

Terrain and language barriers complicate the count in Alaskan village
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jan 19, 2020 11:55 AM CST
Sophie Woods tosses a part of her catch while ice fishing on the Bering Sea on Saturday.   (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
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(Newser) – There are no restaurants in Toksook Bay, Alaska. No motels or factories. Or roads, even. But the first Americans to be counted in the 2020 census live in this tiny community of 661, at last count, on the edge of the American expanse. Their homes are huddled in a windswept Bering Sea village, painted vivid lime green, purple or neon blue to help distinguish the signs of life from a frigid white winterscape that makes it hard to tell where the frozen sea ends and the village begins. In this isolated outpost that looks little like other towns in the country, the official attempt to count everyone living in the United States will begin Tuesday. The decennial census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US purchased the territory from Russia in 1867.

Once the spring thaw hits, residents scatter for hunting and fishing grounds, and the frozen ground of January by March turns to marsh that’s difficult to traverse. Mail service is spotty and internet service unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important. So the count has to start early. The rest of the country, plus urban areas of Alaska, will begin the census in mid-March. Some of the challenges are especially difficult in Toksook Bay, about 500 miles west of Anchorage and accessible only by boat or plane. The census provides questionnaires in 13 languages and other materials in many more, but none is one of 20 official Alaska Native languages. So translators and language experts are coming together to covey census wording and intent. It's complicated. For example, there's no equivalent for "apportionment" — the system for determining congressional representation — in the language Denaakk’e, also known as Koyukon Athabascan. So translators use terms for divvying up moose meat.

(Read more US Census stories.)

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