Longtime Native leader Richard Stitt dead at 74

At his death, Stitt was self-governance coordinator for THCC, director for Sealaska, ANB panel member

Posted: Monday, November 15, 2004

Richard Stitt, a prominent figure in Southeast Native organizations, died of cancer Sunday in Juneau. He was 74.

Stitt was part of management teams that formed Sealaska, the regional corporation for Southeast Natives, and made the Tlingit-Haida Central Council the first Alaska tribe to sign contracts with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to run its social programs. He served six years as president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camp.

And folks remember his guitar-playing as part of the Sargent Stitt Band, which entertained during Gold Medal and on New Year's Eve at ANB Hall.

"They used to pack the house," said Ed Thomas, a longtime friend and THCC president.

At his death, Stitt was the self-governance coordinator for THCC, a director at Sealaska, and an ANB Executive Committee member. He lived in Juneau.

A memorial service is planned for Friday evening at ANB Hall. The time will be announced later.

Stitt, born in Klawock, was an Eagle of the Eagle-Wolf Clan. He leaves a wife, Teresa, and children Christine Swanson and Rodney Stitt of Juneau and Richard Stitt Jr. of Seattle.

"He's been with us every step of the way with every challenge that has faced our community, with a leadership position," said Ethel Lund, a longtime friend and former president of SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. "He had the charisma of a true leader. He was approachable. He had a keen sense of humor and just as keen intellect. A perennial student, always learning."

Thomas said Stitt "was one of those who led by example. Very caring about people."

Swanson said her father served as a Marine in the Korean War. After his return to the United States, he briefly worked as a commercial fisherman and logger but decided he wanted an education. He had graduated from the first class at Mount Edgecumbe High School in Sitka in 1948, she said. Stitt earned a bachelor's degree in microbiology and public health from Seattle Pacific University in 1960.

He worked as a public health sanitarian in Washington state briefly, until the principal in Klawock asked him to fill in as a teacher. He later worked as a public health sanitarian in Anchorage and Juneau.

It was after moving to Juneau in the early 1960s that he became involved in Native organizations.

"He always said the ANB was great training ground for our young Native leaders," Swanson said.

"What I admired," said Richard Jackson of Ketchikan, a former past president of ANB Grand Camp, was "he went through the education process and came back and worked for his community and the Native community in general."

John Borbridge Jr., a former president of THCC and Sealaska, said Stitt can't be replaced. He cited Stitt's analytic ability and willingness to make difficult decisions. During the creation of Sealaska, Stitt "brought something to the table. He had the respect and admiration of the people," he said.

Borbridge said he was later impressed with Stitt's practice of reading about how other corporations and their leaders functioned.

"He made it part of his credo to improve his thinking and challenge his thinking," Borbridge said.

Swanson said her father, whose interests included philosophy and history, began studying the Tlingit language in his 60s. He was rarely without a book or an educational tape.

In October, knowing he was terminally ill, Stitt sent a letter to be read to the ANB/ANS Grand Camp convention in Sitka, said Lund, who called it a love letter.

Stitt told them how much Grand Camp meant to him and how much he had learned.

Lund remembers talking to Stitt over the years about topics as diverse as poetry, philosophy and astronomy.

"We'd often just compare notes and say, 'What is your interpretation of this?' I'm going to miss those kind of discussions," she said.

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