The U.S. Census Bureau chief is heading to Alaska to formally launch the nation's 2010 count in a remote Inupiat Eskimo village, where residents are planning a huge reception of traditional dancing and a feast of caribou, moose and other subsistence foods.
Bureau Director Robert Groves is scheduled to count the first household in Noorvik at 1 p.m. Monday, after arriving by charter plane at the village not linked by roads to anywhere else. Villagers say the first to be counted will be Clifton Jackson, a World War II veteran and the oldest resident in the community of 650.
But first Groves and other census officials will be greeted by eagerly awaiting residents. For the visitors' sake, locals hope the weather is kinder than the brutal minus-40 temperatures already recorded this month in Noorvik, located north of the Arctic Circle near Alaska's western coast. At this time of year, there's just 5 1/2 hours of daylight in the village.
Sled dog teams driven by schoolchildren will greet the visitors and ferry them to the school, where festivities will continue into the night after the first enumeration is completed. An Inupiat fashion show, a short film on Noorvik and dancing by school children, other locals and groups from other villages are among the planned events. The school also will serve as lodging for Groves and most of the 50 visitors, who will bunk down in empty classrooms.
"We've been organizing this as a community, all planning for this together," said Noorvik Mayor Bobby Wells. "Monday is a big day."
Monday's single count will be the only one conducted by Groves, and the rest of Noorvik's population will be enumerated beginning Tuesday. Census workers and trained locals are expected to take a week to interview villagers from the same 10-question forms to be mailed to most Americans on March 15. Census workers also will visit 217 other rural communities, all in Alaska, in the coming weeks.
Alaskans in rural communities not linked by roads have been the first Americans counted since the 1990 census. The unlinked communities are the places where the process is first conducted in person by census workers. The bureau makes personal visits to nonresponding citizens around the country.
It's easier to get census workers to the Alaska villages before the spring thaw brings a muddy mess, making access more difficult, said Ralph Lee, director of the bureau's Seattle region, which oversees Alaska. Also, residents in many villages still live off the land, hunting and fishing for their food, and it's important to reach them before they set off for fishing camps or hunting expeditions when the weather begins to warm.
"They may be gone for several weeks at a time," Lee said.
In the warmer months, Noorvik residents will fill their freezers with salmon, trout and other fish from the Kobuk River. They will hunt for moose, caribou, seal, geese and ducks. Several people spend even winter in their camps, but they're expected to be in Noorvik for the count because of its impact on federal funding and congressional representation.
"That's important to our community," Wells said. "We want to make sure everyone is counted."
Noorvik was chosen as the launching point after census officials met with leaders in a number of villages. The community met the criteria. It's a good size and only 45 miles east of a hub town, Kotzebue, a destination for commercial flights. From the town of 3,100, officials are taking a short charter flight to Noorvik.
"Noorvik was very accommodating," Lee said. "They had a good plan. And they were very open about wanting us to begin the enumeration there."
Pauline Cleveland, a secretary at Noorvik's school, said she is excited for visitors to learn about the Inupiat culture and how people depend so much on their subsistence lifestyle. Hunting and fishing are crucial for survival for many in Noorvik and other Native communities where jobs are limited and the cost of retail food is painfully high. At the Noorvik grocery store, people pay as much as $4.95 for a quart of fresh milk. A pound of T-bone steak can run in the $17 range when it's available.
Cleveland said that amid all the planning for Monday's festivities, three young residents took the time to raise $247 for victims of the Haiti earthquake. The village may be thousands of miles away, but the death and destruction in the Caribbean country have not been lost on Noorvik residents.
"What's happening in Haiti is affecting everyone here," Cleveland said. "With Haiti, we should be so blessed by what we have here."
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