Mt. Edgecumbe High School Academic Principal Bernie Gurule pays tribute to Gil Truitt during a plaque dedication in the MEHS gymnasium on Tuesday evening. The plaque will hang in the entrance of the Gil Truitt Activities Center (Photo by Erin McKinstry/KCAW).

Mt. Edgecumbe High School celebrated Gil Truitt Day on Tuesday (2-23-21) and honored the Tlingit elder and local historian with a plaque dedication and tribute. The holiday has been part of the school’s Founders Week celebrations for two years, but it’s particularly poignant this year, the first since the death of the former teacher and administrator last July.

When Bernie Gurule became principal at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, one of the first people he talked to was Dr. Gil Truitt.

“He emphasized to me that Mt. Edgecumbe High School is more than just a school, it’s more than just a boarding school. Mt. Edgecumbe High School is an institution. Mt. Edgecumbe High School is a family,” Gurule said. “He went on to say, Mr. Gurule, many of our students come from hard lives and tough backgrounds. We will not lower our standards or expectations, and more importantly, Bernie, we will not allow anybody else to do so.”

For Truitt, supporting students like family meant holding them to high standards around self-discipline, academic achievement and personal conduct. It’s advice that Gurule said has shaped his approach as academic principal of the school. And it’s just one of Dr. Truitt’s many legacies. He spent 34 years working as a teacher, basketball coach and administrator at the school, but his influence extended long after he retired in 1990. 

Gil Truitt speaking at a Sitka Rotary Club meeting. (Photo by Robert Woolsey/KCAW)

“His place at Mt. Edgecumbe High School and the significance of his place really can’t be overstated,” Mt. Edgecumbe High School history teacher Dionne Brady-Howard said. She’s a former student of Truitt’s, and she remembers his lectures on sportsmanship, school pride and treating one another as family. They are conversations that Brady-Howard continues to have with her students to this day. 

“We are kind of like their borrowed parents for their one to four years that they spend at Mt. Edgecumbe. And so those conversations are some of the most important education that actually happens,” Brady-Howard said.

Truitt was part of Mt. Edgecumbe High School’s first graduating class. Along with Brady-Howard’s grandmother, he was also instrumental in getting the legislature to reopen the boarding school after the Bureau of Indian Affairs closed it in 1983. Without him the school may not exist today. 

But his legacy extends beyond Mt. Edgecumbe High School. He was also a local historian and shared his knowledge with the community in his Sitka Sentinel column “Gilnettings.” Through his research, he mapped nearly 300 residences of Sitka’s former “Indian Village” and helped the Sitka Tribe of Alaska acquire the land for the current Sheet’ká Ḵwáan Naa Kahídi community house, after discovering that the site of the former BIA school had to be used for Native education.

“He was actually the caretaker of a lot of knowledge about Sitka’s history, about Sitka’s history as far as Native families,” Brady-Howard said. “And you know which clan houses were where and belonging to whom and which families were connected with one another and how.”

Truitt grew up in Sitka’s Cottage settlement, a Native community which stood on Presbyterian mission land at the time. By the age of 15, he’d lost both of his parents. He also faced prejudice growing up in a highly segregated town. 

“But my dad never lived his life as a victim,” his son Ken Truitt said. Dr. Truitt and his wife Shirley had three children. “In spite of the racial prejudice that he would’ve experienced growing up, he also would’ve at real critical moments in his life experienced extraordinary generosity and support from the non-Native community. “

After losing his mother, he was accepted at the BIA school in Wrangell, but had no money to pay the fare to get there. A Sitka businessman stepped in to help. When he couldn’t afford tuition at Harding University in Arkansas, his basketball coach collected donations from Sitka organizations, Native and non-Native.

“I think he had this real sense of a debt to the entire community, and a debt in not a bad way, but a debt that he was going to be committed to to always working to make Sitka a better place,” he said.

Ken will always remember his father for his open affection, his subversive sense of humor, and his love of sports — a love that Ken didn’t share, but that he came to understand as he grew older.

“I asked him, I said, you know, ‘Dad, tell me what’s the big deal about sports?’ And he just said, ‘You know, when I was growing up, we weren’t able to play on the white teams and so we had our own teams and on the basketball courts. Everybody knew what the rules were. And you had a chance to compete and you had a chance to win. And more often than not, we would win.”

Dr. Truitt received countless awards throughout his lifetime, including an honorary doctorate of law from the University of Alaska Anchorage, a President’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and multiple hall of fame inductions. He was a member of the Wooshkeetaan, or Shark, Clan of the Eagle Moiety.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.