Mt. Edgecumbe High School alum Suzzuk Mary Huntington was named superintendent of the school earlier this month (KCAW/Rose)

Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka is undergoing a leadership shift this summer. A new superintendent was hired to take over the state-run boarding school, and she is no stranger to the campus, or to its mission of combining a rigorous academic education with deeply-held cultural traditions.

Suzzuk Mary Huntington sits at the end of a long conference table, sunlight streaming into the windows of her new corner office. From here, she can see both the Sitka skyline, and students as they walk to class each morning, when classes resume at Mt. Edgecumbe this fall.

“The shrubbery right outside, which I just love, at that close proximity to it, I couldn’t see above it. So there is one exact spot,” Huntington laughs and points toward the window next to her desk, “that is precisely where my chair is that allows me to see.”

She’s still unpacking, but she says the first thing that went on the wall was a map above her bookshelf, highlighting the Indigenous Peoples and Languages of Alaska.

“I have really tried to put more effort into saturating our environment with our native languages, and particularly the Iñupiaq language,” Huntington says. “I am a second language learner of my heritage language. And I think the more we permeate the environment with it, the easier it will be to start hearing pieces of it, the easier it will be to remind ourselves that it is an attainable, approachable goal to get to the point where we can actually reclaim and use and understand our languages.”

From an early age, Huntington was interested in learning about other cultures, and languages came easy to her – as did mathematics.

Attending Mt. Edgecumbe as a student in the early 90s, Huntington began her path toward educational leadership. She remembers a project in her social studies class, where they had to propose a “community improvement project” to their legislators, budget and all.

“And it was really about empowerment, it was really about feeling the sense that we can,” Huntington says. “We can work towards our own quality of life improvements. We can address the issues that we face, without having to have somebody come in and teach us how or guide us through.”

Her experiences at Mt. Edgecumbe, and her passion for learning about other cultures, also showed her how integral it was to a person’s education and sense-of-self.

“In particular, as a high school student, part of my journey included liking other people’s [cultures] more than my own, because it looked cooler, or more fun. And I realized, having gone through that, that really, it was coming from less understanding of my own,” Huntington says.

“And so I always want us, myself, everybody, to embrace and understand fully where we come from and our own.”

After graduating in 1994, Huntington moved back to Shishmaref, because she wanted to continue her cultural education, learning how to sew and butcher, while remotely attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her second year, she split her time between her home village and the Fairbanks campus.

“And I thoroughly enjoyed being on campus and getting involved with rural students services,” Huntington says. “I was very shocked to discover that UAF, where all the village kids that I know attend as first choice school, had no Native dance group. And so I found some friends and got all the paperwork together and created the student club. And so the Iñu-Yupiaq Dance Group is still going strong.”

Huntington would eventually earn bachelors and masters degrees in education. She taught kindergarten for four and a half years at the Shishmaref School, then moved to high school math for another four and a half. Then she was promoted to assistant principal. She expected that it would be tough to supervise her colleagues. But she found that having a deeper knowledge of the community and the school was invaluable in the role.

“Overall the sentiment and the feedback I got was “Ahhh, Mary It’s so good to have somebody who just gets it. It’s so good to have somebody who understands,” Huntington says. “The feedback 95% to 98% of the time was relief and appreciation for having that mutual background knowledge, to be able to communicate more fully and deeply.” 

She worked there as assistant principal for two years before moving to Koyuk to be the principal. Then several years ago, a long-standing passion became central to her work, when she was promoted to the coordinator of cultural programs for the Bering Strait School District.

Culturally responsive education will be at the forefront of Huntington’s work at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. She says it’s usually misunderstood as cultural heritage or language courses, but for education to be truly “culturally responsive” goes beyond that.

“Culturally responsive education includes teaching math in a way that allows a student to reach their full potential, because you know enough about the student, and their identity, and their heritage, and how that all fits in together,” Huntington says. “I think being more visible and more intentional with our heritage and identity will allow us to be much more quickly successful with the academic content all across the board.”

Huntington was hired by the state Board of Education on June 1, she succeeds Janelle Vanasse, who has been named president of Alaska Pacific University. Mt. Edgecumbe academic principal Bernie Gurule also left after a 17-year career at the school. He’ll be succeeded by Miranda Bacha.