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First Counted in 2020 Census, 90-Year-Old Alaska Native Reflects on Tradition and Future

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At 90 years old, Lizzie Chimiugak has witnessed a lifetime of change in the windswept western wilds of Alaska. Born to a nomadic family that moved with the good hunting and fishing, she now resides in the small town of Toksook Bay on the Bering Sea. Chimiugak is set to become the first person counted in the 2020 U.S. census, a process undertaken every ten years to allocate Congressional representation and federal funds.

“Elders that were before me, if they didn’t die too early, I wouldn’t have been the first person counted,” Chimiugak said through Yup’ik interpreters. Recognized as an elder, she is often sought for her wisdom and experiences, sharing insights on what it means to hold this respected status.

The U.S. census has traditionally started in rural Alaska since 1867 due to the challenging terrain and the need to reach residents before the spring melt makes travel difficult. This year is no different, with Chimiugak at the forefront. The rest of the country, including urban parts of Alaska, will begin the census in mid-March.

On Tuesday, Steven Dillingham, the Census Bureau’s director, will conduct Chimiugak’s interview, marking the start of the count. A celebration at Nelson Island School will follow, featuring local Alaska Native dancers and traditional foods like seal, walrus, muskox, and moose.

Chimiugak’s son, Paul, expressed her concerns about the future, particularly regarding climate change and its effects on subsistence hunting and fishing. “She’s sad about the future,” he said, reflecting on her worries for the community and environment.

Born during the Great Depression, Chimiugak grew up in a nomadic lifestyle with ten siblings, traveling with other families to hunt and fish. She married George Chimiugak in 1947, and they settled in Toksook Bay after its founding in 1964. Despite the challenges, they raised a family, with Chimiugak engaging in traditional roles like cleaning fish and tanning hides, alongside working as a janitor and babysitter.

A devout Catholic, Chimiugak credits prayer for saving her son from polio. Her hobbies include weaving grass baskets and participating in an Alaska Native dance group, where she continues to perform from her wheelchair.

Chimiugak has also been a cultural teacher, imparting manners, responsibilities, and stories to children using a story knife in the mud. Her granddaughter Alice Tulik praises her as a great teacher, reminding the younger generations about the importance of subsistence, family care, and respecting elders.

As the first person counted in the 2020 census, Chimiugak’s life and legacy shine a spotlight on the rich traditions and ongoing challenges faced by Alaska Natives, emphasizing the importance of cultural preservation and environmental stewardship for future generations.

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