In this icy Eskimo village on the Bering Sea, both typically American and nothing like the rest of the country, the 2000 Census count began today at daybreak, an hour before noon.
Census Director Kenneth Prewitt launched the government's largest peacetime mobilization with a prearranged knock on the door of Stanton and Irene Katchatag, an Inupiat couple in their eighties. Reporters were not allowed to watch because census information legally is confidential, but the three posed for photographs later.
"I never thought this would happen in my lifetime," Irene Katchatag told Prewitt. "I said to my husband, 'Is this real?' "
By fall, Census Bureau officials hope to tally 275 million Americans--from millionaires in gated communities to homeless people living under bridges--although they know they won't get everyone because many do not want to be counted. The 2000 Census is budgeted at a record $6.8 billion, and the first numbers in this portrait of America in the new century are due at the end of the year.
Most Americans will receive their census forms in the mail in March. But in isolated villages such as this one, and in other places without conventional postal addresses, that is not practical. In Alaska, it seems, winter is the best time for census takers to go door to door, when the extreme cold drives people back to their villages.
The complexity involved in arranging a count in this village 400 miles northwest of Anchorage--a place inaccessible by road--is emblematic of the intricate task facing census takers nationwide. They must hire a half-million workers amid the lowest unemployment in three decades, count residents in towns along the Mexican border where few speak English, visit group homes where there is no head of household to fill out forms, and find illegal immigrants who do not want to be found. All this and a cynical public that increasingly views the census form as junk mail or thinks the government is invading privacy.
But at least for today, the census was welcomed warmly in Unalakleet, a village of about 800. Schoolchildren met Prewitt at the airport Wednesday with signs that read: Quyaana quaiplusi mauna, or "Thank you all for coming" in Inupiat, a language that their grandparents were punished for speaking in school. The community threw a potluck dinner party at the school gymnasium, featuring moose liver and whale blubber alongside macaroni casserole and fruit salad.
Cheerleaders for the high school Wolf Pack did a census cheer. The King Island Dancers, a well-known native troupe, invited Prewitt on stage for their last number of the night. People said they were pleased that Stanton Katchatag and his bush village were the first stop on the vast census journey.
"There are over 225 million people standing in line after him--including the president and vice president of the United States . . . including Michael Jordan, the athlete of the century," Mayor Henry Ivanoff proclaimed from the stage at the dinner.
The 2000 Census will document a Unalakleet both changed and timeless since the previous count. The population has nearly doubled since 1970, thanks to new jobs that have helped keep young people here, and to improvements in health care. Town officials say new housing is urgently needed in this plain, treeless village that has breathtaking views of Norton Sound, which sometimes is frozen until June.
For years, the popular thing to do was get out of town, said Tim Towarak, the town administrator, who spent four years working for state government in Juneau before returning to his home town a year ago. Now, people want to come back for the lifestyle. Many families here still live the subsistence life of their ancestors--hunting moose, picking berries, hooking smelt through the ice. But more people now get to the hunt on snowmobiles or all-terrain vehicles, not dog sled. Some people prefer cutting ice for fishing with a $300 auger, not the traditional wood stick with a metal tip.
Cable television, a modern phone system and the Internet (www.nook.net, based in Nome) have arrived since the last census. You can reach the mayor by e-mail now. Old-timers complain that the television culture and electronic games are pushing out traditional Eskimo ways. Yet there also is a new children's native dance team in the village for the first time in two generations.
"Why do we live in Unalakleet?" said Steve Ivanoff, the mayor's brother and president of the Unalakleet Native Corps. "Because our children can go out and we won't see them until dinnertime and we don't worry because the community takes care of them. We have fishing within a block of every home."
Not that there are not problems here. Nearly one in five potential workers is unemployed. Alcohol and drug abuse are persistent social ills. It was below zero for three weeks in a row until a few days ago, and snowfall has been so scarce this year that town officials say they will ask people to ration tap water voluntarily.
The census has helped Unalakleet improve itself. Federal money, based in part on census data, has provided a new fish processing plant and a new building for the health clinic and better-quality low-income housing. Nationally, census figures are used to allocate $185 billion a year in federal money.
The census also has political ramifications for native people, who account for 80 percent of this village but are a small minority of Alaskans. Advocates say Eskimos and other minorities have lost seats in the state legislature because the last census missed many of them. Nationally, minorities and immigrants are disproportionately likely to be missed in the census, and the 1990 count was the first to have a higher undercount than its predecessor.
Advocates for native rights are concerned that the state legislature has voted not to use any census figures that are arrived at by using a statistical sample in the redistricting of the legislature or local offices. The Census Bureau says sampling, which is used to compensate for missed households, will provide a more accurate count. But Republicans succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to rule that sampling-derived numbers may not be used to reapportion seats in Congress.
Now the sampling battle is being fought state by state, and both sides expect lawsuits to follow. Because Alaska is subject to special provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department must rule on whether the prohibition on sampling data is discriminatory.
Only 1.4 percent of the country will be counted door-to-door, but those few people live on a third of the nation's land mass. That requires a huge deployment of enumerators. Ten of them flew into Unalakleet from other native villages to be trained in the rules of the count. Ten others were supposed to come here but were stopped by bad weather. The census will hire 400 temporary workers to count the state's 275 remote villages and pay premium wages.
The Unalakleet count is supposed to be completed this weekend, with a day's pause while the town buries an elderly woman. Prewitt said he expects the count here to be an easy one. In Alaska, the people who are hard to count live in cities, or are government-haters in the backwoods. Still, Prewitt told the townspeople Wednesday night that they are national models.
"You will be setting the standard," he said, urging those on the "edge of the continent to send a signal to the rest of the country."