BACKGROUND: Mortality that is due to cervical cancer among American Indian and Alaska Native women in the Pacific Northwest exceeds that among women of other races. Nevertheless, little information is available regarding the prevalence and follow-up of abnormal Papanicolaou smears among American Indian and Alaska Native women in the region. METHODS: We conducted a retrospective review of medical records of American Indian and Alaska Native women seen at 12 Indian Health Service and tribally operated clinics in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho who had an abnormal Papanicolaou smear in 1992. RESULTS: Of 4547 Papanicolaou smear results reviewed, 280 (6.2 percent) had an abnormal result (dysplasia or carcinoma in situ). Of the recommended colposcopies, 167 of 224 (75 percent) were completed. Women with high-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions were more likely to obtain recommended colposcopy than were women with low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions. Women treated at clinics that referred patients to outside providers for colposcopy were more likely to have colposcopy than were those who were offered the procedure on site. CONCLUSIONS: The proportion of Pacific Northwest American Indian and Alaska Native women in Indian Health Service and tribal clinics with abnormal Papanicolaou smears and the proportion who receive colposcopy are similar to those in other populations. The higher rate of cervical cancer mortality among American Indian and Alaska Native women could be due to failure to screen high-risk women. Cytologic screening rates, methods to improve adherence to colposcopy recommendations, and the contribution of other factors to the cause of cervical cancer mortality need to be characterized in this population.