Image: Noorvik
Al Grillo  /  AP
The Inupiat Eskimo village of Noorvik in Western Alaska.
updated 1/25/2010 6:16:05 PM ET 2010-01-25T23:16:05

One down, more than 309 million to go.

U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Groves on Monday began the 2010 count of the nation's residents in a village in Alaska's arctic hinterlands.

The first person tallied in Noorvik, an Inupiat Eskimo community of 650, was Clifton Jackson, a World War II veteran and the town's oldest resident.

"It's all downhill from now," Groves said after exiting Jackson's house.

Clifton said he was honored to be the first person counted because he thought there were other elders in town who would have been just as worthy.

"It's seemed, to me, OK," he said.

Dog teams driven by children
Groves and other officials were taken from the airport to the village school by sled, with dog teams driven by schoolchildren. He even took a turn on the reins.

After eating whale meat and gathering with village officials and elders, Groves was driven to Jackson's house in a 4-wheeler. Dressed in heavy Arctic gear, he walked to the door with a briefcase in hand.

"Hello. Thank you," he said when the door opened. He walked inside and began the confidential process of conducting the Census.

Residents prepared a day of festivities with traditional dances, an Inupiat fashion show and a feast of subsistence foods including moose and caribou.

A school will provide lodging for Groves and most of the 50 visitors, who will bunk down in empty classrooms before departing Tuesday.

Census workers who stay behind and who trained locals will spend the next week interviewing the remainder of Noorvik's residents using the same 10-question forms to be mailed to most U.S residents on March 15.

Census workers also will visit 217 other rural Alaska communities in the coming weeks.

Image: Clifton Jackson
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
World War II veteran Clifton Jackson, 89, sits at his kitchen table in the remote Inupiat Eskimo village of Noorvik, Alaska, on Sunday. Jackson will be the first American counted in the 2010 Census.
Alaskans in rural communities such as Noorvik that are not linked by roads have been the first people counted since the 1990 census.

Race against spring
It's easier to get census counters to the villages before muddy conditions brought on by the spring thaw make access more difficult, said Ralph Lee, director of the bureau's Seattle region, which oversees Alaska.

Lee also said it's important to reach villagers before they set off for fishing camps or hunting expeditions.

Noorvik Mayor Bobby Wells said a handful of people spend winters in their camps but were expected to be in the community for the count because of its influence on federal funding and congressional representation.

Northwest Arctic Borough Mayor Martha Siitaurak Whiting appreciated the spotlight that Groves attracted to the borough, which is the size of Indiana. There are 11 communities in the area, with a total population of about 8,000 people.

"Sometimes we feel we are a forgotten people, sometimes that we're voiceless," she said. "We're a real strong, vibrant culture. And it just brings more awareness to who we are, that we're still part of America."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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