AK: Fishing, Cooking And A Yup’ik Upbringing Made Alaska’s Health Commissioner

When Valerie Davidson agreed to accept the job of Alaska’s health commissioner, it was with one important condition. She made sure Gov. Walker was okay with her working out of Bethel each summer. Davidson was born in Bethel and owns a house in the community, right on the Kuskokwim River.

Download Audio:

Valerie Davidson fillets a silver from the free fish bin in Bethel. Credit: Annie Feidt
Valerie Davidson fillets a silver from the free fish bin in Bethel. Credit: Annie Feidt

In less than 24 hours, Valerie Davidson has 50 people coming to her house for dinner. She planned to catch enough salmon for the main course, but early in the morning, the state opened the river to commercial fishing, shutting out subsistence fishermen.

So Davidson and I have spent the last hour stalking the free fish bin where state biologists deposit their test catches after each high tide.

Davidson can be exceedingly patient, and persistent, when the stakes are high. It’s a strategy she used as she worked to expand Medicaid in Alaska, first as an official with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and then as health commissioner. During this year’s legislative session she answered questions at more than two dozen combative hearings on the subject. Lawmakers eventually blocked Medicaid expansion legislation from coming to a vote. It was a real low point for her:

“I always have a hard time when as a state we make a decision to turn our backs on Alaskans who really need help. That’s a tough one for me.”

So in July, Davidson was thrilled to stand with Gov. Walker as he announced he would expand Medicaid without lawmakers approval. On Sept. 1, the state began enrolling eligible residents.

Davidson didn’t set out to become health commissioner. When Walker was elected, she had recently resigned from her high level job at ANTHC to do some consulting and spend more time with her kids. Then a few people asked if they could put her on a list of potential commissioners. She said no a few times, but the calls kept coming:

“A couple of my friends that I’m really close with called and said, ‘you don’t have to say yes, you can just put your name on the list and you can decide later.’ Now I realize, ‘oh that old trick!'” she says with a laugh.

She agreed to meet with Governor Walker. It was supposed to be a 15 minute conversation. Nearly two hours later, Davidson decided she wanted the job. But only after she guaranteed that she could spend her summers at this house in Bethel.

“I just need to be able to get away from Anchorage and just be home and it grounds me. It’s good for my kids… they can run around on the river and be muddy and dirty and covered in fish scales and fish slime. ”

Silver salmon strips hang in Davidson's smokehouse. Photo Credit: Annie Feidt
Silver salmon strips hang in Davidson’s smokehouse. Photo Credit: Annie Feidt

Dozens of long strips of silver salmon are hanging from racks Davidson’s smokehouse. She opens the door of the wood stove, and stuffs in one more cottonwood log, trying to get the smoke just right to flavor the fish.

Davidson learned this from her mom, a stern woman she lovingly describes as conveying the ‘loudest silence’ you’ve ever heard with just her eyebrows. She talks about her mom’s response when Davidson told her about the health commissioner job.

“I said, ‘well, what do you think mom?’ She says, ‘well, you know, Nurrii (Davidson’s Yup’ik name) – we Yup’iks we’re very hard to impress,” she laughs hard. “Such a classic Yup’ik response!”

Davidson in her kitchen in Bethel. Photo Credit: Annie Feidt
Davidson in her kitchen in Bethel. Photo Credit: Annie Feidt

Davidson tells me this in her kitchen, where her counter has already disappeared under piles of grilled zucchini, asparagus and peppers.

The dinner guests are coming with the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, an organization that, a decade ago, helped Davidson fund a new type of health provider in Alaska — dental health aide therapists. Now, the state has more than two dozen working in villages across Alaska.

Davidson wants to develop more unique solutions to the state’s toughest public health challenges.

“And I think we’ve seen it play out time and time again, that when you can provide services at the local community level, you have better outcomes.”

But right now, Davidson needs salmon. Back at the free fish bin, she is rubbing her eyes and wishing for coffee. Then, finally, a truck backs in next us and Davidson springs out of her seat.

The biologist drops ten huge silver salmon into Davidson’s plastic tote. She is beaming.

Davidson finds cooking a nice contrast to the more extreme patience she needs for her job, where it can take a decade or more to see results.

“With cooking, there’s a start, there’s a finish, you feed people, there’s something to show for it. For me, it’s really relaxing.”

In both instances, she has a lot of work ahead of her.