The Census Already Started in Alaska. Native Translators Are Working to Prevent Undercount Repeat.

Ketchikan, Alaska

Ketchikan, Alaska Radar7792/Shutterstock.com

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Across the country, tribal and non-English speaking communities are creating guidance and messages in a variety of languages to encourage Census 2020 participation.

As census takers deploy to villages in rural Alaska this month as the vanguard of the 2020 count, they face numerous obstacles, including extreme winter weather and the difficulties of reaching isolated communities.

But one barrier local organizers hope won’t be as prominent a hurdle as in years past is language. That’s because they’ve been working over the last few months to create public services announcements and translate census guides and materials into four Alaska Native languages to improve outreach efforts in traditionally hard-to-count indigenous communities.

“We felt it was critical to have the information available in the languages of the state,” said Erin Willahan, a consultant hired by Alaska Public Interest Research Group (AKPIRG) to support local census efforts.

Across the country, state and local groups like AKPIRG are focused on improving the response to the decennial count through outreach in languages other than English.

The Census Bureau translated its 2020 questionnaire and assistance into 12 languages other than English: Spanish, Chinese (Simplified), Vietnamese, Korean, Russian, Arabic, Tagalog, Polish, French, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Japanese. Language guides and glossaries are available in 59 languages altogether, but Navajo is the only native language included.

Many indigenous people in Alaska speak one of more than 20 native languages. The lack of census translations into any Alaska Native language means there is a critical information gap with native and indigenous communities, said Rochelle Adams, an indigenous language specialist working with AKPIRG.

American Indians and Alaska Natives have historically been underrepresented in the census, with an estimated undercount of 4.9% in 2010.

Much of Alaska is designated by the census as a “hard-to-count” community, meaning residents are at risk of being undercounted. Because of that, the Census Bureau sends workers door-to-door to conduct the survey rather than relying on mail or online responses. The agency starts its efforts in Alaska in January, rather than waiting until March like in the rest of the country, as it is actually easier to get to some villages during the winter freeze. 

“A lot of Alaska Native communities would have someone knocking on the door,” Willahan said of the process. “The nature of that alone makes it difficult to get an accurate count.”

Local communities may be skeptical of unexpected visits by representatives of the government, so having the census form guides in native languages and ramping up education campaigns ahead of time can help build trust in the process, she said.

To create those campaigns, AKPIRG and the Alaska Counts committee invited elders and local leaders to work on the translations and to create public service announcements. Over the course of a week in December, a group of more than 20 people worked to create translations in Yup’ik, Inupiaq, Gwich’in and Koyukon Athabascan.

It’s the first time such extensive translations have been made in those languages for the census, Willahan said. The translations are available on the Alaska Counts website and the group is in the process of working to get them in the hands of census takers who are traveling door-to-door, she said.

The same group also recorded PSAs in those four languages that can be accessed on YouTube and used by community groups to explain the need for residents to complete the census. The PSAs and translation project has been a source of pride among Alaska Natives since they made their debut, Adams said.

The 2020 Census will be crucial in determining how hundreds of billions of federal dollars in about 300 programs are divided among states and localities in the years ahead, including those that provide money  for highway construction, food stamps and health care for the elderly and the poor. An undercount of just 1% of the population could have dramatic implications for state coffers. 

The threat of an undercount and difficulty overcoming language and cultural barriers are not unique to Alaska. Across the country, communities concerned about undercounts among non-English speaking populations have also embraced PSAs as a way to conduct outreach.

The New Mexico Complete Count Commission, for example, is producing audio recordings in eight tribal languages explaining how to fill out the census questionnaire.

In Arizona, much of the non-English outreach has been to Spanish speaking communities and to tribal communities, said Alec Esteban Thomson, executive director of the Arizona Complete Count Committee. The committee hosted one day for tribal leaders to record messages encouraging community members to respond to the census.

But the committee wanted to make sure as many non-English speakers as possible were targeted for outreach as possible. They provided audio and video recording equipment at an event in December so local community leaders from across the state could record video messages. In all, messages in about 15 languages were recorded ranging from Russian to Arabic to Vietnamese, Thomson said.

“Every community is so different in terms of what resonates,” he said. “The intention was for the community to have a tool they could share.”