Remembering Alaska Native health care leader Sally Smith

By Dave Bendinger

The longtime chairman of the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation board of directors has died. Mrs. H. Sally Smith of Dillingham succumbed to leukemia just five days after her 70th birthday. Over her long career, she served on a long list of boards, commissions, and committees, always advocating for the health challenges and sharing the success stories of Alaska Native people.

Sally Smith was a leader in Indian and tribal health care in Alaska like few others. It was a field she worked in for close to five decades, and along the way she received many awards. Those included the National Indian Health Board’s highest recognition, The Jake White Crow Award, the Alaska Federation of Native’s Shirley Demientieff Award, the YWCA Woman of Achievement Award, and she was honored by the members of the Alaska State Legislature after receiving the 2014 Legacy and Leadership Award presented by the Healthy Alaska Natives Foundation.

Attention, however, was something Sally Smith never sought, and was always a little embarrassed by, says her son Jacques Smith.

“My mother worked very hard, but she was a very modest person. Nothing she did was ever to receive an award, and that’s a very Native Alaskan way of being. She did everything to help Native Americans throughout the country, and not many people know the story. She would actually be very happy with that, because she was doing it just purely to help people with cancer, and diabetes, alcoholism … everything she did in her life she did to help others.”

Sally Smith was raised in Clark’s Point, lived in Dillingham, and has been on the board of the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation for 30 years, serving as its chair for 22 years. There is a long list of other titles she held, including chairman of the National Indian Health Board, vice chairman of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, and chairman of the Alaska Native Medical Center.


Sally Smith is spoken of in warm, fond terms by friends and colleagues, and is recognized for bringing good judgment and sound leadership to the BBAHC board.

“Governor Parnell gave my mother an award a couple years ago at AFN,” says Jacques Smith. “And he said something interesting about my mom. He had seen her, others had seen her also … little old Native women would come up to my mother, and they had an unspoken bond, an unspoken language, and they would look at each other smile. And they would understand things that only Native Americans can really understand. That level of thanks meant more than any of the awards.”

In 2014, the Healthy Alaska Natives Foundation presented Sally Smith with its Legacy and Leadership award. In a video on that occasion, current Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson was one of several who paid tribute.

“Sally is one of those rare individuals who really was the architect of the Alaska tribal health system that we know today. When she speaks, you stop what you’re doing and you turn and you listen, because what she says is important and what she says matters.”

Smith battled leukemia for several years, splitting time between Anchorage and Seattle for treatment, but continued to till the end of December. She died Tuesday in Seattle.

Condolences, says Jacques Smith, have been coming in from all over the world, including a call from the White House.

A funeral service was planned in Anchorage on Jan. 20, and a second service in Dillingham on Jan. 22.