At 90, Alaska Native woman is first counted in US Census

TOKSOOK BAY (AP) — 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 United States (US) 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 US census has started in rural Alaska, out of tradition and necessity, ever since the US 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.

On Tuesday, Director of the Census Bureau Steven Dillingham 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.”

For Chimiugak, she has concerns about climate change and what it might do to future generations of subsistence hunters and fishers in the community, and what it will do to the fish and animals. She talked about it with others at the celebration.

Chimiugak was born just after the start of the Great Depression in the middle of nowhere in western Alaska, her daughter Katie Schwartz of Springfield, Missouri, said.

Lizzie was one of 10 siblings born to her parents, who lived a nomadic lifestyle and travelled with two or three other families that would migrate together, her son said.

Lizzie Chimiugak at her home in Toksook Bay, Alaska. PHOTO: AP