Soboleff, Walter: Tlingit leader, Walks on

By Klas Stolpe
Juneau, Alaska June 2011

Long time Juneau and Alaska Tlingit spiritual leader, elder statesman, and native icon Walter Soboleff died early May 22 in his home, surrounded by family.

According to daughter Janet Burke, Soboleff died from bone cancer and prostate cancer.

“Memorial services are pending,” Burke said. “No date is set yet. This very quickly can get out of our hands because we know the scope of our father’s influence on so many people. When we think of him we think of the knowledge he had, the knowledge of his culture and the love for his family. That was so important to him.”

Soboleff had turned 102 years old on Nov. 14, 2010.

Soboleff’s mother, Anna Hunter, was a Tlingit orphaned in Sitka who traveled to Killisnoo, which is located 2 miles southeast of Angoon, by canoe with her brother to stay with an aunt. His father, Alexander Soboleff, the son of Russian Orthodox minister Ivan Soboleff, lived in Killisnoo with his parents and three brothers.

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 liked to compare his birth in Killisnoo as the year the Tongass National Forest celebrated its first birthday.

As a child, Soboleff never knew what a birthday party was. 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,” Soboleff said.

Walter grew up in Tenakee just 10 steps from the U.S. Government School.

He loved every class there and once stated, “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.”’

The Tongass Forest made Killisnoo a bustling productive community and its people processed everything from herring to whales and used everything from blueberries to Sitka spruce.

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.

He admired the Gettysburg Address and would recite it in Tlingit. His favorite lesson was a speech by Abraham Lincoln, one of his heroes.

Other early role models were his father, who died when Walter was 12, and mother; Booker T. Washington; and Rudyard Kipling. Another influence was Tlingit Rev. George Benson, who made a written Bible translation of which only the gospel of John is known to exist today.

In 1925, while a freshman at Sheldon Jackson High School, Soboleff took his first real job, working 10 hours a day at a Hood Bay fish cannery for 25 cents an hour. He would continue working at a fish plant in Killisnoo in the summers.

The work was hard, with no modern machinery like today.

“You had to work hard, you couldn’t just sit and earn money,” Soboleff said in a past interview. We were coming into Western culture and cash economy, working part-time and the 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.

Soboleff loved his four high school years as exciting learning, but was enthralled by college.

“Now that was exciting,” Soboleff said in a past interview. “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 Depression limited him to just a semester of science at OAC and he hitchhiked to Seattle, staying at a YMCA once there.

He received a scholarship in 1933 to the University of Dubuque in Iowa, earning a bachelor’s degree in education in 1937 and graduate degree in divinity in 1940. In the summer, he’d return to Alaska and work on the seine boats out of Sitka or the cold storage.

The price of salmon then included humpies selling for 4 cents a fish, dog salmon for 5 cents, and red salmon for 35 cents.

Soboleff once said “You could buy something for a dollar in those days.”

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.

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.

Soboleff loved the boats and the routes he took and the people he met. He said the time seemed to go by so fast and he learned more than he taught.

When Alaska became a state, both Soboleff and the Tongass he so loved 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.

Walter was preceded in death by wife Genevieve in January 1986. Walter remarried in 1999 to Tshimshian Stella Alice Atkinson, who passed in April 2008.

Five years ago Soboleff said he stopped driving because he figured he should stop while he was ahead and because there was no place he needed to go in a hurry.

When asked, at that time, what he wanted for his birthday, he smiled and thought about the big wild game stews he grew up on, but in typical Soboleff sincerity he asked for no more wars.

“What do people fight about?” Soboleff had said at the time. “Isn’t this a civilized world? Nobody wins.”

Walter disliked airport security checks and shoe removals and the fear that exists today.

He questioned why people live like that and people getting used to it and accepting it.

Walter questioned why races did not like each other and had experienced it in Alaska growing up and saw it through the world.

“People just can’t grow up,” he once said. “The world needs a good philosophy of life. My philosophy of life is tolerance, it doesn’t hurt you.”

And then he said in Tlingit, “Sh y·a.awudanÈiyi a kw·an. Respect People. Respect yourself, too, and other people will respect you.”