At 90, Alaska Native woman is 1st counted in US Census

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In this Monday, Jan. 20, 2020 image, Lizzie Chimiugak, right, gets a hug from her granddaughter Janet Lawrence at her home in Toksook Bay, Alaska. Chimiugak, who turned 90 years old on Monday, is scheduled to be the first person counted in the 2020 U.S. Census on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

TOKSOOK BAY, Alaska – Lizzie Chimiugak has lived for 90 years in the windswept western wilds of Alaska, born to a nomadic family who lived in mud homes and followed where the good hunting and fishing led.

Her home now is an outpost on the Bering Sea, Toksook Bay, and on Tuesday she became the first person counted in the U.S. Census, taken every 10 years to apportion representation in Congress and federal money.

"Elders that were before me, if they didn’t die too early, I wouldn’t have been the first person counted," Lizzie Chimiugak said, speaking Yup'ik language of Yugtun, with family members serving as interpreters. "Right now, they’re considering me as an elder, and they’re asking me questions I’m trying my best to give answers to, or to talk about what it means to be an elder."

The decennial U.S. census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the U.S. purchased the territory from Russia in 1867. The ground is still frozen, which allows easier access before the spring melt makes many areas inaccessible to travel and residents scatter to subsistence hunting and fishing grounds. The mail service is spotty in rural Alaska and the internet connectivity unreliable, which makes door-to-door surveying important.

The rest of the nation, including more urban areas of Alaska, begin the census in mid-March.

On Tuesday, Steven Dillingham, director of the census bureau, conducted the first interview after riding on the back of a snowmobile from the airport to Chimiugak's home.

“The 2020 Census has begun,” he told reporters after conducting the first interview with Chimiugak, a process that lasted about five minutes. “Toksook Bay isn’t the easiest place to get to, and the temperature is cold. And while people are in the village, we want to make sure everyone is counted."

Dillingham was hours late getting to Toksook Bay because weather delayed his flight from the hub community of Bethel, about 115 miles (185 kilometers) away. Conditions didn’t improve, and he spent only about an hour in the community before being rushed back to the airport.