Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
January 29, 2000 - Issue 02

Census 2000 Kicks Off

In spite of a biting minus-40-degree wind chill, 14 villagers knelt over narrow holes cut through 5 feet of ice and harvested a meal from the frigid waters below. Within an hour, using only crude wooden sticks with 10-foot lines and basic lures, the group had caught more than 250 smelt from the ice-coated Unalakleet River. Not one fish measured longer than a foot, but the effort showed that even in the dead of winter, this harsh subarctic region is full of life - both wild and human.

About 800 people live in Unalakleet. On Thursday, January 20, the U.S. government came to count them, in the kickoff of Census 2000.

Stanton Katchatag, an 82-year-old Inuit, answered a knock on his door Thursday at 10:50 a.m. and found himself facing Kenneth Prewitt, the director of the Census Bureau. Mr. Katchatag invited him in and offered him a chair.

Mr. Prewitt, who rode a dog sled into town at the end of a trip that took him across four time zones, got right down to business. Pulling out the census short form, he asked Mr. Katchatag his age, how he spelled his name, and his race. (American Indian or Alaska Native is the term the Census Bureau uses for Inuits, an ethnic designation now preferred by many of the native people once known as Eskimos.)

Describing the scene to reporters afterward, Mr. Katchatag said Mr. Prewitt asked for similar information about the only other person living in the one-story cedar-frame house, Mr. Katchatag's wife, Irene. When the 15-minute interview was over Mr. Katchatag, whose ancestors were among the first people to inhabit the North American continent, became the first person to be officially counted in the 2000 census.

Displaying plenty of excitement but only a vague grasp of population figures, Mayor Henry Ivanoff said, "That means that over 225 million people will be standing in line behind him, including the president of the United States and the vice president, including the governors and lieutenant governors of all the 50 states, including Michael Jordan."

As about 20 head counters go door to door to begin the $6.5 billion decennial tally of the nation's estimated 275 million residents, this remote Alaskan fishing village will shed its isolated existence for a brief turn in the national spotlight.

"This is bigger than the dog races," said Unalakleet Mayor Henry Ivanoff, referring to the crowds that come in March when the Iditarod dog-sled race passes through town. "There has never been anything like this, so we're really excited."

Organizers had a community potluck dinner Thursday with U.S. Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt and a ceremony featuring native dancers. The menu consisted of the smelt, seal, macaroni and cheese and salads.

Even with the Iditarod's national television coverage, Unalakleet, its culture and its 80 percent Eskimo population of Inupiat, Yupik and Malemiuts are as foreign to most Americans as the ancient Eskimo languages often spoken here.

Located 400 miles northwest of Anchorage and 150 miles southeast of Nome, the town is accessible only by plane. By any measure, it is an unlikely place to begin this most bureaucratic of government tasks. Especially in January, when it is dark for 18 hours a day and gales off the frozen Bering Sea can push temperatures to 60 degrees below zero.

"But waiting for warmer weather would only complicate things," said Prewitt, "Once there is spring thaw, the villagers go hunting and fishing, so they are very hard to find ... and travel is almost impossible. The snowmelt brings heavy mud. The rivers have ice floes, so you can't use boats. Yet they aren't completely frozen, so you can't drive on them or use dog sleds or snowmobiles," Prewitt said.

If census takers are to improve on the 1990 effort - which missed 8.4 million people, counted 4.4 million others twice and was the first in history to be less accurate than its predecessor - success in Alaska is crucial. Only 52 percent of Alaska residents bothered to return the mail-in questionnaire in 1990 - the lowest response rate of any state and well below the national rate of 65 percent.

"If our very first enumeration hits 100 percent in Unalakleet, that will set the standard for the rest of the country," Prewitt said. "We will come back and let you know how well we did there."

Native American leaders are urging compliance with the census. For information on how YOU should fill out the census, visit this article.
Census 2000

Learn more about Unalakleet and the Native Americans of Alaska

Natives of the Midnight Sun

Alaska Native culture, Indian Natives of Alaska, Subsistence

Yukon Quest...The Challenging Trail

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