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Sudden ANTHC leadership change: Valerie Davidson no longer at helm.

Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, then-president of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, speaks at a press conference on June 14, 2021. (Jeff Chen:Alaska Public Media)
Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson, then-president of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, speaks at a press conference on June 14, 2021. (Jeff Chen:Alaska Public Media)

Valerie Nurr'araaluk Davidson was not only head of one of the largest tribal health organizations in the nation, but also recognized as a trailblazer in Native healthcare. But Davidson is no longer president and CEO of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC).

In a statement on its website, ANTHC announced she had left the organization, but gave no explanation why, other than to say she was “transitioning” out of the job that oversees more than 3,000 workers. ANTHC is Alaska’s second largest health employer.

The news is puzzling to those familiar with Davidson’s track record, who call her departure shocking in that it was so sudden and abrupt.

The news traveled fast to her old boss, former Governor Bill Walker, who was on a trip to London. Walker says he’s both surprised and dismayed.

“It’s just such an awkward situation, I’ll put it that way, because she’s so gifted,” said Walker, who initially tapped Davidson to be his Health and Social Services Commissioner.

Walker says she successfully led the state’s push to expand Medicaid, which saved the state millions.

“I witnessed her literally move mountains on healthcare issues that benefited Alaska,” Walker said. “There’s nothing she wouldn’t do, if it helped provide healthcare in Alaska.”

Davidson, who is Yup’ik and raised in Southwest Alaska, was known as the “Kuspuk Commissioner,” because she dressed in kuspuks, a traditional Yup’ik overshirt. Davidson’s colorful kuspuks were usually handsewn by family and friends. The bright patterns made her stand out in the governor’s office and the halls of the State Capitol, as well as her jokes about how the big pockets in kuspuks are useful for carrying things like baby diapers.

Davidson’s trademark humor masked her skills as a savvy lawyer and negotiator, who helped tribal organizations win battles in Congress. One of those included a fight against the American Dental Association, which sued ANTHC in 2006 over the creation of a new profession, the dental health therapist. Davidson won that lawsuit, which allowed therapists to be trained to perform basic dentistry under the supervision of a dentist. The therapists helped to revolutionize dental care in remote villages with very limited access to dentists.

Davidson's skills as a problem solver eventually led Walker to tap her to serve as his Lt. Governor, after Byron Mallott resigned in a scandal.

It was a similar scenario when Davidson took over the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, after its president, Andy Teuber, disappeared in a solo helicopter crash in March of 2021. Teuber’s fatal flight came just as accusations of sexual harassment were about to emerge.

While the statement from the tribal consortium gives no reasons for the decision to replace Davidson, it heaps praise upon her for guiding the organization through what it described as a “leadership crisis.”

In the statement, the consortium’s Board of Directors credited Davidson with numerous successes during her watch, which included major investments and meaningful improvements that supported what it called the “remarkable transformation of the organization.”

Gary Ferguson, a former colleague of Davidson’s, says she’s one of a kind.

“She has been a solid leader wherever she’s gone,” Ferguson said, “and has been a changemaker.”

Ferguson is an Unangan, who currently works as a researcher at Washington State. He’s a licensed naturopathic doctor, who spent ten years at ANTHC, when Davidson served as the consortium’s attorney.

Ferguson says he has long admired her integrity and passion for bringing traditional Native values to health care.

“Val has been a pioneer, speaking her truth,” Ferguson said, “which I think is very difficult to do in those high-level positions.”

Ferguson says the health consortium has “an incredible mission and does incredible work, but also has an incredibly challenging environment” that pits Native values against the bottom line. Ferguson believes this constant tension has led to high executive turnover.

“There’s a lot of political pressure. There are a lot of regions and peoples to serve, some of which have more resources than others,” Ferguson said, “so delivering health care equity across the state can be challenging.”

Those challenges now fall to Natasha Singh who, like Davidson, is a lawyer -- also with a reputation as a tribal government champion. Singh has taken over as interim president and CEO.

According to the ProPublica Non-profit Explorer database, which looked at tax forms for the 2012-2022 fiscal year, the statewide tribal health organization had revenues of almost $840 million. It listed Davidson’s salary at $806,000.

Repeated requests for comment from ANTHC, Davidson and Singh were not returned. For now, the political undercurrents of this change in leadership remain unclear.