For one Native dental provider, her work is a family affair

Celebrate National Native American Heritage Month.

Arcora Foundation is proud to honor Indigenous people across the region and their enduring legacy. As we continue to celebrate National Native American Heritage Month, we uplift the voices of our Native partners who strive to improve oral and overall health in their communities.

By Angela Johnson

My name is Angela Johnson, my ancestral name is Tat-Sem-Maat. On my dad’s side of the family, I am Lummi and Quinault from my grandfather and Tsawwassen First Nations from my grandmother. My mom is non-native.

I am a dental therapist for my tribe—Lummi Nation—here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. A dental therapist is a mid-level dental provider—like a physician’s assistant in medicine. I provide preventive and routine dental care—such as completing sealants and restorations. I can perform simple extractions—under the supervision of a dentist or when agreed between the supervising dentist and dental therapist— under indirect supervision. I also attend our tribal school and complete procedures there. My profession helps expand access to care to people and areas in need.

Angela at work in her dental clinic.

I love working in my community because I get to see a lot of my family—nieces, nephews, aunties, uncles, and too many cousins to count. We are a small population—Lummi Nation itself serves about 6,000 people—but that makes us a big family. My relationships with my patients are unique in that way. Everyone knows everyone.

When family members come for a dental visit and know they are seeing me, they are happy they can be with someone they know who truly cares about their oral health and is passionate about improving their quality of life. A nephew of mine came in for a filling with our pediatric specialist. He had a tough time cooperating. When I asked if he wanted to do his entire appointment with me, he nodded yes. When he came back for his next visit, we were able to numb him, remove caries—tooth decay—and do a filling. When things like this happen, it makes my job worthwhile. I have done a few more fillings with him, and his approach to the appointments has been much better.

Angela treats a patient.

A lot of my adult family members refused to come back to Lummi Dental due to past trauma from a dentist who had a bad reputation throughout the tribe. Unfortunately, this is common for tribal clinics in the U.S. Our reservations are underserved and usually rural. Some do not even have running water. When providers are hired to work for our tribes, they are not used to this type of situation and population. We have a higher turnover rate as a result.

When asked, “What do you do?” Simply put, I say I do my best. This work to provide my tribal community—people with the same background and from the same conditions as mine—with quality dental care means so much to me. One single visit can be so impactful, positively or negatively, and determine whether a patient comes back to my office or a dental office in general. Oral health affects self-esteem and overall health. Improving my community’s—my family’s—oral health definitely drives me to do my best and continue to deliver excellent care and education.

Angela helps a younger patient with proper brushing technique.

Organizations like Arcora Foundation play such an important and meaningful role for me and my position. Arcora advocates for better oral health for communities with disparities. They have supported us with funding for minimally invasive dentistry. This innovative approach to care tries to preserve the tooth and remove as little tooth structure as possible. They have helped with funding to travel for professional development opportunities and for prizes and supplies—oral hygiene kits, dry mouth supplies, sugar free options—for events. Arcora is a one-of-a-kind organization that makes a huge difference in oral health care. They truly understand and agree dental therapists are the innovative change needed in dentistry.

Angela Johnson is a dental therapist at Lummi Nation.

We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at

A future with healthy smiles for everyone

Personal reflections on the importance of equity in oral health.

By Matt Morton

As National Native American Heritage Month begins and I near the end of my first year on the Arcora Foundation Board of Trustees, I find myself contemplating the journey that led me to serve in this role. Being a Native American on a diverse board has provided a unique vantage point, allowing me to learn about the experiences of other communities and advocate for vital issues that resonate deeply with both my heritage and my passion for promoting equitable access to oral health care.

Unfluoridated water and an ‘inheritance of bad teeth’.

My decision to join Arcora Foundation stems from personal experience. Growing up in unincorporated Thurston County—on the same plot of land my grandmother was born on—I had no idea my life was different from any of my friends in Olympia. We attended the same schools and played on the same teams. My source of water, though, was different. If you’re not familiar with Olympia, let me tell you a secret: “It’s the Water.” Delicious, pure underground artesian wells provided my family with water for generations. It only had one problem: It didn’t have fluoride. With no systemic prevention, caries—the disease that causes tooth decay—were a regular occurrence growing up, and inheriting bad teeth became an acceptable explanation for the common occurrence of dental pain and fillings.

Many years later, as the executive director of the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, I witnessed firsthand the disparity a community experiences when access to proper dental care is limited, including the far-reaching implications of diminished overall health. In 2014, I decided to do something about it. NAYA joined an effort to bring public water fluoridation to the City of Portland. While our efforts did not succeed, I became a member of a special task force that brought together fluoride advocates and opponents in the name of children’s dental health. Major water fluoridation proponents—Northwest Health Foundation and Kaiser Permanente—along with the largest in-state donor for the anti-water-fluoridation campaign funded and led the effort. The task force studied the most workable solutions for improving dental health outcomes for children in Multnomah County—where Portland is—and we made both policy and practice recommendations that are still in effect today. By joining the Arcora Foundation Board of Trustees, I’m continuing to address the disparities experienced by my community and so many others. It was Arcora’s inclusive approach to problem-solving that convinced me that my involvement could bring a valuable perspective to the table.

Arcora: a mission beyond dental services.

At Arcora, our mission extends beyond providing dental services; it encompasses a comprehensive, systems-level approach to promote oral health equity. By fostering partnerships with communities and the nonprofits that serve them, health care providers, and policymakers, we seek to implement sustainable initiatives that target populations who sit closest to the disparities. Our focus lies in bridging the gap between accessible care and those who need it the most. We work to ensure everyone has the opportunity for a healthy smile.

Being part of Arcora’s work has not only allowed me to contribute to a larger cause but has also served as a reminder of the transformative power of advocacy. Witnessing the positive impact of our programs on communities that have historically been neglected or underserved has reaffirmed my commitment. It’s not just about dental health; it’s about empowering individuals, fostering dignity, instilling a sense of well-being and community self-determination.

I do this work because of my community and my ancestors. It’s about ensuring that future generations won’t have to endure the same challenges; it’s about paving the way for a more inclusive and equitable future. It’s a future where access to health care, including oral health services, is not a privilege but a fundamental human right for everyone. This vision continues to drive me. Together, we can build a future where every smile reflects not just good oral health but of a community thriving in equity and compassion.

Matt Morton is an Arcora Foundation trustee and the president of the Community Foundation of Southwest Washington.

We can’t do this work without you. Advancing oral health requires public and private partnerships, policy advocacy, and funding. Join us in our mission to bend the arc of oral health toward equity. Learn more and contact us at