Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - To me, November will forever be the month of the late Rev. Dr. Walter A. Soboleff. I had the pleasure to sit with him on his 101st birthday on Nov. 14, 2010 in his living room. It was nice to hear, in his own words, his history and not read it in others’ accounts.
At that time the longtime Juneau and Alaska Tlingit spiritual leader, elder statesman and Native icon had done a lot, except taken a cruise through the Panama Canal, the birthday present his family had just given him.
Soboleff told me he had never been on a vacation cruise.
“Never out on the ocean in warm weather,” he said at that time. “I think I will just be taking a rest, seeing the canal and the gates open and the ships passing through. I know I will be leaving my wool shirt at home.”
Soboleff never knew what a birthday party was as a child and through high school and college he never paid any attention to his birthday.
“My parents would say, ‘This is your birthday Walter,’ and that is all,” he said.
Soboleff’s mother, Anna Hunter, was a Tlingit orphaned in Sitka, who traveled to Killisnoo (two miles southeast of Angoon) by canoe with her brother to stay with an aunt; his father Alexander Soboleff was Russian and German, the son of Russian Orthodox reverend father Ivan Soboleff on assignment in Killisnoo with his wife and four sons.
Walter was born in Killisnoo in 1908 as Kha’jaq’tii (One Slain in Battle); his tribal art collected over his many years would be that of the Raven moiety and Dog Salmon clan in the Tlingit nation.
Soboleff giggled when he told me, “I compare my birth in Killisnoo as the year the Tongass National Forest celebrated its first birthday.”
He grew up in Tenakee just 10 steps away from the U.S. Government School.
“I loved every class there,” Soboleff said. “I loved the red school, its smell in the rain, the sound of the bell and writing on my slate in English and Tlingit… and I remember the biggest lesson I ever learned in the chapel there, 'Take care of the old person you are going to become.'"
They had no telephone, radio, newspapers, electric lights or running water.
The forest made Killisnoo a bustling productive community and its people processed everything from herring to whales and used everything from blueberries to Sitka spruce.
“We enjoyed what we had,” Soboleff said. “It wasn’t very much but I never heard anyone complain.”
A mail boat from Juneau to Killisnoo once a week would provide any news needed.
He remembers his father and uncle talking of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.
“The fellows on the boat had been talking about it,” Soboleff said.
At 5 years old he began boarding at Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson School. At 10 he interpreted for a visiting doctor during the 1918 flu epidemic. He had a thirst for knowledge and civic duty.
“I really admired the Gettysburg Address and would recite it in Tlingit,” he said regarding a favorite lesson. “Abraham Lincoln was one of my heroes. It’s a great speech, a gem, he just put the words together so wonderful.”
Among his other early role models he cited his parents Alexander, who died when Walter was 12, and Anna; Booker T. Washington; and Rudyard Kipling. Another influence was the Tlingit reverend George Benson, who’s only written biblical translation existing today is in the gospel of John.
“He could open the Bible and make a free translation of English into the Tlingit language,” Soboleff said. “And he could do it so beautifully.”
In 1925, while a freshmen at Sheldon Jackson High School (‘28 grad), Soboleff took his first real job earning 25 cents an hour working 10-hour days at a Hood Bay fish cannery. He would continue working at a fish plant in Killisnoo in the summers.
“It was a lot of back-breaking work,” Soboleff said. “None of the modern machinery like today. That was the way life was then… you had to work hard, you couldn’t just sit and earn money. We were just coming into the western culture and cash economy. We would work part time and other time prepare food for the winter.”
In 1928 Soboleff left Sitka on board an Admiral Lines steam ship to Seattle and hitchhiked to Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University).
“My four years of high school were wonderful, it was such an exciting time of learning,” Soboleff gushed. “But college, now that was exciting. You have to study to produce; you just can’t talk off the cuff all the time. A lot of people do that and it’s like hot air.”
The great economic depression limited him to a semester of science at OAC and he hitchhiked to Seattle via freight train, staying at a YMCA. He received a scholarship in 1933 to the University of Dubuque (Iowa), earning a B.A. in education (’37) and graduate degree in Divinity (’40). In those summers he found work on the seine boats out of Sitka or the cold storage. One summer he hitchhiked seven days from college to Seattle when returning to work in Alaska. “Hitching was an experience I enjoyed… I survived.”
The price of salmon then included humpies selling for 4 cents per fish, dog salmon 5 cents, and red salmon fetched 35 cents each.
“You could buy something for a dollar in those days,” Soboleff said.
After college and ordainment he married Haida sweetheart Genevieve Ross and settled in Juneau as pastor of the Memorial Presbyterian Church (now Northern Light United Church) in 1940, broadcasting half of the service over the radio each Sunday morning. He would also do news in Tlingit for the town and short meditations out to the fishermen. His Tlingit congregation soon grew to include all racial and ethnic groups in Juneau.
Ministry travel via the vessels Princeton Hall, Anna Jackman, and "an assortment of fishing boats if needed," included many small villages, lighthouse stations and logging camps in southeast Alaska.
“I loved the boats and the routes we took and the people I met,” Soboleff said. “Time seemed to go by so fast and I think I learned more than I taught.”
When Alaska became a state, both Soboleff and the Tongass he so loved had turned 50. When they both turned 100 Soboleff was still championing the cause of Native rights, cultural education and a love for humanity.
Soboleff attended as many functions in Juneau as possible and was a settling presence at Central Council, Sealaska, the Alaska Native Brotherhood, the Gold Medal basketball tournament, Centennial Hall, the state Capitol and Celebration events.
Among his many accomplishments are: past-president of the ANB (7 terms) and Scholarship Committee Chairman; started the Alaska Native Studies Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; board member of Sealaska, Kootesnoowoo (also CEO), and Shaanseet Corps; Trustee of SJ College and Alaska Heritage Foundation; State Board of Education Chairman; served on Board of National Missions, United Presbyterian Church; 20 years as Alaska National Guard Chaplain (retired ’71); the Alaska Legislature's Senate and House chaplain; spiritual, educational and administrational leader; and Alaskan Native historian.
Genevieve Soboleff passed in January 1986. Walter remarried in June 1999 to Tshimshian Stella Alice Atkinson (she passed in April, 2009). He had four children: Janet C. Burke, Sasha, Walter Jr., and Ross Vincent Soboleff.
He only stopped driving in 2006 (learned in ’40) because he figured he should stop while he was ahead and because there was no place he needed to go in such a hurry.
When I asked Soboleff what he wanted for his birthday, he smiled and thought about the big wild game stews he grew up on. Then he asked for no more wars.
“What do people fight about? Isn’t this a civilized world? Nobody wins.”
He was adamant in dislike for airport security checks and shoe removals and the fear that exists today.
He leaned forward when he told me, “Do we have to live like this? Is it necessary? People are getting so used to accepting this. It is crazy. And races not liking each other… Alaska had it and the United States had it. People just can’t grow up. The world needs a good philosophy of life. My philosophy of life is tolerance, it doesn’t hurt you.”
He then paused and looked at the tribal art adorning his trailer walls; the art of the Raven (moiety) of the Dog Salmon clan in the Tlingit nation.
“Sh yáa.awudanéiyi a kwáan (respect people),” he said in Tlingit. “Respect People. Respect yourself, too, and other people will respect you.”
Soboleff died on May 22, 2011 at age 102 from bone and prostate cancer, surrounded by loved ones.
The governor at that time, Sean Parnell, ordered state flags to be lowered to half-staff.
“A humble man of great wisdom, Dr. Soboleff will be remembered for his decades of service to Alaskans, his kind and gentle manner and his quick wit," Parnell had said. "I was honored to meet with Dr. Soboleff recently. He reminisced about his love for Alaskans, his favorite sermons, and the joys of hosting the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament in Juneau. His legacy will live on in the many generations he touched. Alaska has lost a true treasure.”
Hundreds attended his funeral at Centennial Hall.
Soboleff once said there are many types of totem poles. Old traditional totems that speak of a clan’s history and legends, and new contemporary totems that bring the past and present together, “but the importance of each is for people of all backgrounds to gather together and enjoy the craftsmanship and each other’s friendship. To honor our stories in wood and retell them over again.”
At his funeral Soboleff was honored by a totem-sized memorial stretching higher than Tlingit legends spoken to him by his mother in childhood, and wider than the waters crossed by his Russian father to reach this land.
At the base of this totem memorial stood the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans and the Juneau Police Department Honor Guard who posted colors, and the procession of Executive Committees of the Alaska Native Brotherhood and Alaska Native Sisterhood walking arm in arm.
In the Tlingit language Selina Everson gave an opening prayer to bless the sturdy structure.
There were verbal carvings by then-state Sen. Albert Kookesh and then-Gov. Parnell.
Kookesh offered a tale of when Soboleff was a minister of the airwaves.
“He made a mistake of saying on the radio that, 'I envy those of you who are sitting down and eating dry fish,'" Kookesh said. “Over the next week he got a box from almost every town in southeast Alaska. He always said after that he was very careful not to make his wishes known on the radio.”
Kookesh told Parnell it was important to the state of Alaska that the governor came to an event such as this.
“Dr. Soboleff believed in you,” Kookesh said to Parnell. “Dr. Soboleff for all of his good stuff was a Republican.”
Parnell acknowledged the witticisms: “Senator, I did not know that Dr. Soboleff was a Republican.”
Parnell recounted a surprise visit to his office by Soboleff and what Parnell learned.
“The scriptures teach of people who are close enough to God that you can actually see his presence in their face,” Parnell said. “I think about Moses, I think about Daniel, about Joshua, those are the types of leaders the scriptures teach were close enough to God to see God’s presence in their face.. and Dr. Soboleff was one of those men…. You could not sit with him and look into his face and not see the love that is beyond human love.”
The totem at Soboleff’s funeral would grow thicker and stronger as more carvers who whittled there spoke of wisdom and gentleness.
Soboleff’s name was placed in the Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camp Book of Remembrance and on the Roll of Honor. His accouterments were transferred to four grandchildren. ANB Grand Camp President Richard Jackson gave the Coogeinaa to Christopher Burke, ANB executive Brad Fluetsch gave the hat to Jacob Soboleff, ANB executive Willard Jackson gave the pin to Alexander Soboleff, ANB executive Alfred McKinley presented an ANB beaded tie to Stephen Soboleff. The grandchildren were then given the Oath of Office by ANB executive Dewey Skan.
Soboleff’s son Sasha said, before reading from his father’s Bible Micah 6:6-8, “He would often tell me, make sure when you read this book that you don’t just read it but you live it.”
Sasha’s reading ended with, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good: and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
Soboleff’s 15 Native values were spoken of:
1 – Be obedient; the wise never test a rule.
2 – Respect elders, parents, property and the world of nature. Also, respect yourself so that others may respect you.
3 – Be considerate and patient.
4 – Be careful of how you speak, for words can be either pleasing or like a club. Traditionally, when you speak, those listening can imagine seeing your clan family line.
5 – Your food comes from the land and sea. To abuse either may diminish its generosity. Use what is needed.
6 – Pride in family, clan and traditions are found in love, loyalty and generosity.
7 – Share burdens and support each other. This is caring.
8 – Trespass not onto other’s rights, or offer royalty and/or restitution.
9 – Parents and relatives are responsible for the family education of children; men teaching boys and women teaching girls.
10 – Care and good health is important for the success of the person or clan.
11 – Take not the property of others; an error reflects on the family and clan.
12 – In peace, living is better.
13 – Through famine, ice age, sickness, war and other obstacles, unity and self-determination is essential to survival.
14 – Good conduct is encouraged to please the spirit we believe is near.
And 15 – Humor.
Soboleff’s totem at his funeral was built with many different posts and appointments and clubs. Past District Governor of the Lions Club Neil Atkinson wondered who would sit in Soboleff’s recliner at the end of the basketball court during the Gold Medal Tournament. Then Sealaska Corporation President and CEO Chris McNeil told how greatly his wisdom would be missed. Another mentioned that Soboleff joined the Alaska National Guard in 1951 and retired as a Lt. Colonel in 1971.
A significant assurance that Soboleff’s teachings would endure longer than the totems carved from the great red cedars of his youthful forests, was the announcement by Sealaska Heritage Institute President Dr. Rosita Worl of a special honor in his name.
Soboleff has been a SHI trustee since 1985, served as its chair since 1988 and chaired a meeting of the SHI eight days before his passing.
Worl said Soboleff had helped lead the SHI almost as long as it has been in existence.
“In addition to that he served as our Council of Traditional Scholars,” she said. “His writings are there for our historic and cultural teachings... and it is my privilege to announce that the new Sealaska Heritage Center will be called the Dr. Walter Soboleff Center.”
And as food was served among the many family, friends, and guests that day inside Centennial Hall, the reminder by Soboleff to “gather together and enjoy the craftsmanship and each other” spread amongst all.
Much like Soboleff’s Tlingit and Russian heritage had moved through the state of Alaska, through Haida, Nisga’a, Gitk’san, Tsimshian, Haisla, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Oweekeno, Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-Chah-Nulth, Coast Salish, Makah, through the Eskimo people, through the prejudice of early days, through battles for Native rights today, and through his own words, “In order to be a clan leader in this society you have to have children and grandchildren because then your words will be worth speaking.”
(Author Klas Stolpe is a life-long Alaskan, born and raised in Petersburg)
Dr. Walter A. Soboleff in his home, Nov. 14, 2010. (Klas Stolpe)