Census Starts In Alaska - Without Native Language Documents

Oct 16, 2019

The United States Census will begin knocking on doors in Tooksook Bay on January 21st, 2020. After that, Census workers will fan out all over the state to record how many people live in Alaska. Census workers are being hired and trained now. But the materials they hand out are in only one official Alaskan language: English. But translation into Native Languages has no funding nor priority from the Census Bureau.

The Alaska Census Working Group says every Alaska Native person not counted in the Census costs their village or region about $3,000 per year in lost services. The group’s presenter, Veri di Suvero says the consequences ripple for the next ten years.

“There are people who are really anxious that there won’t be a big response rate among Alaska Native communities.”

Di Suvero says one of the biggest roadblocks is materials are only in citizens’ second language – English.

 “The U.S. Census Bureau had to prioritize, and if there weren’t 100,000 speakers of a language, then they didn’t translate anything.”

The largest non-English language groups in Alaska are Yup’ik with 11,000 speakers and Inupiaq with about 3,000 fluent speakers, at least inside the US border.

“Today we are trying to translate the outreach materials that we have that start to talk about the Census, and make sure people feel like it belongs to them.”

The Census outreach materials are spread among several tables in a side room at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. We are at the annual Elders and Youth Conference hosted by First Alaskans. Posters on each table describe how the Census data are used to determine voter representation and federal tax allocations. They are in English.

Abra Patkotak and Gabriel Tonosuk worked on Inupiat words for the entire poster.

At another table, Kenneth Frank and Rochelle Adams worked on Gwich’in.

At the center of each table are buttons in Dena, Inupiaq, and Tsimshian saying “I count” or “I matter,” in each language. Barret Wilber of the citizens’ group Alaska Counts says that’s the message the group wants Alaska Natives to hear.

“Billions of federal dollars come to Alaska every year, and those are all distributed and decided by Census numbers. Whether you are five years old or 95 years old, every Alaskan counts. When you are counted, your community reaps the benefits.”

At the end of the workshop, posters in Lingit, Inupiaq and Gwich’in were translated. But there is still a long way to go to get materials translated before the Census stars in January.

The Alaska Census Working Group is holding a week of Alaska Native language translating workshops for the Census materials in Anchorage in December.