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Barbara Sweetland Smith

Photo of Barbara Sweetland Smith
Categories: 2014 Alumnae, Conservation, Culture, History


Barbara Sweetland Smith was born in Portland, Ore., in March of 1936 to Monroe Mark Sweetland, a newspaper publisher, and Lil Megrath. A graduate of Milwaukie (Oregon) High School, Mills College, Columbia University and the University of Washington, Smith accepted a position as administrative assistant at the prestigious Harvard Russian Institute in Cambridge, Mass., for two years and studied with Don Treadgold at the University of Washington, one of the premier Russianists in the U.S. When she returned to the Northwest, she became an assistant news analyst at KING TV in Seattle. After the birth of her first child, Barbara returned to graduate school where she did an intensive study of late 19th century Russian philosophers and theologians. In 1970 Smith and husband Floyd moved to Anchorage and she began teaching Russian history as a faculty member of the University of Alaska Anchorage. In this position, Smith was asked to study the long-lost and recently re-discovered records of the Russian Orthodox Church. The book that resulted was named by the American Association of Archivists as the best book published on religious archives in 1982.

Steve Haycox, a Distinguished Professor and historian with UAA, said: “Barbara Smith was an extraordinary person, with discerning and disciplined intellect, keen insight, unfailing courage, and deep compassion. I feel privileged to have known her.”

As a scholar, Smith also focused on identifying and collecting records of the Alaska Native corporations in the early 1970s. One of her many achievements greatly benefited the indigenous Aleuts whose culture and homes were mostly destroyed during the WWII battles in the Aleutian Islands. She put her knowledge of the language and the times into practical use assisting the Aleutian/Pribilof Islands Association to gain recognition of the disastrous Aleut relocation during WWII and later provided the documentation to Congress that resulted in the restoration and rebuilding of the historic churches in the Aleutians.

To further Alaskans’ knowledge of their Russian heritage, Smith curated four major exhibitions at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art: “Russian America: the Forgotten Frontier,” “Heaven on Earth: Orthodox Treasures of Siberia and North America,” and “Science Under Sail: Russia’s Great Voyages to America 1728-1867.” These popular world-class exhibits, some of which traveled the country, portrayed how the Russian presence has shaped Alaska’s history and cultures.

Smith also followed in the footsteps of her father who had served in both houses of the Oregon Legislative Assembly. She became an active advocate, testifying before the Alaska Legislature and Congress for private, state and federal funding and support for archives, historical programs and museums. She was a founder of the respected Alaska History Journal, working to get it started and continuing as an advisor — reviewing and commenting on manuscripts submitted about Russian America and the exploration of Alaska. As a member and consultant she served in many groundbreaking capacities for the Alaska Historical Society.

A friend, Jo Antonson, said of Smith: “I was new to Alaska and beginning my career. I went to work for the Alaska Historical Commission and met Barbara because she had successfully garnered a number of grants to acquire and preserve pieces of Alaska’s history. She was very helpful to me and we eventually became good friends as well as professional colleagues. Barbara was careful, thorough and exacting in all of her professional work.

“I really admired Barbara’s patience and ability to mentor many women, encouraging and training them through her projects,” Jo added.

Another friend, Dana Anderson, called Smith: “A very caring individual.”

Smith’s community involvement included a strong commitment as President for 28 years of the Anchorage Fellowship in Serving Humanity (FISH) which, in partnership with the Food Bank of Alaska, operates a food pantry supplying thousands of Anchorage poor, especially children, with delivered nutritious meals, all on a volunteer basis. Over the years, she helped distribute approximately 3 million meals to families in need.

A strong supporter of women in the professions, Smith served for many years on the board of and in leadership positions with Soroptimists International of Anchorage, the Anchorage branch of an international group devoted to improving the lives of women and girls through programs leading to social and economic empowerment.  Smith also served as a board member of the national Archives of the Episcopal Church.

During her professional career as a Russian historian, Smith published a number of books and curated many exhibits. Several of her books became widely acclaimed earning her international distinction as a scholar of Russian history in Alaska For her work, Smith was one of five Americans awarded the Order of Friendship of the Russian People from the Russian government (two of the fie were U.S. astronauts) and the Order of St. Herman from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Induction ceremony acceptance speech


Obituary, The Oregonian, Mar. 17, 2013