This profile of Walter Soboleff appeared in the March 27, 1998 issue of the UAS student paper, Whalesong. By Eileen Wagner
The Soboleff Building pays tribute to Native leader
Walter Soboleff was born in Killisnoo, Alaska in 1908. His grandfather was a Russian Orthodox priest serving in Southeast Alaska. His mother, Anna Hunter, was a Tlingit born in Sitka. His father, Alexander (Sasha) Soboleff, who died when Walter was 12 years old, was the mechanic or engineer of the family. His uncle, Vincent Soboleff, was an accomplished photographer who left hundreds of photos of Tlingit cultural events, Russian Orthodox church events, and the fishing industry.
Walter Soboleff grew up in a rich multicultural atmosphere. He remembers hearing his grandmother speaking German to him, Russian hymns from his time at the mission school in Sitka, and most of all, the Tlingit language and oral tradition of his mother.
His memories of childhood reveal a close-knit and serene picture of loving adults watching over happy, playful children. He remembers how physically close the homes were, the constant interaction of children and adults, the feeling of security and mutual respect. The good memories extended to his school years.
"I had a very happy school experience. My teachers were very good. The U.S. Government School at Killisnoo was a genuine red schoolhouse with a bell, and we each had a little slate to write on."
In the fifth grade, he began to board at the Sheldon Jackson School in Sitka, and continued there through high school.
He doesn't recall being prohibited from speaking Tlingit, although the Sheldon Jackson School expressly forbid the use of Native languages. Possibly, since Soboleff was already bilingual, he didn't suffer the trauma that many Native people did in school. English was just the language of school.
After working at Cold Storage in Sitka and fishing for five years, he enrolled at Dubuque University in Iowa. He said that it was not his first choice, that he really wanted to become a medical doctor, but that's where the scholarship money was. He received his B.A. in education from there in 1937, and his Divinity degree in 1940, and began to serve as minister of the Memorial Presbyterian Church in Juneau.
The church, which later merged with the Northern Light United Church, was just two years old when Soboleff became pastor. The church grew from one Sunday school classroom to nine classrooms and a large chapel. Under his leadership, the church, originally built to serve the Tlingit people, extended such a warm welcome to people of all races, that it came to serve Haidas, Tsimshians, Caucasians, Blacks, and Filipinos, as well as Tlingits.
Soboleff's return to Juneau in 1940 coincided with a revival of interest in their heritage among Native people.
"In 1940, an interest in Tlingit culture started to awaken. People wanted to raise
money to build an ANB hall. We had a performance of some of our traditional dances
and songs. We rented the Gross-Alaska Theater and I was the emcee. People came from
Angoon, Hoonah, and Haines to help. I think that's when people started to appreciate
their culture again," he said.
Soboleff served seven terms as president of the ANB, and for years was chairman of its scholarship committee. He also was appointed to the state Board of Education and served as its chairman. For several years he did radio broadcasts of the news in Tlingit, and also broadcast his church service over the radio.
From about 1962 to 1970, Soboleff began to serve as minister-at-large on the Princeton Hall and other mission boats which served villages that had no resident pastor.
In 1970, he retired from the ministry to start and direct an Alaska Native Studies Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He taught Tlingit history, language, and literature until his retirement in 1974. Soboleff spoke of this part of his life as a very exciting time. "There were 500 Native students, from Barrow to Metlakatla, hungry to know their language and the history of their villages. I was given a generous budget to bring people from villages all over the state to Fairbanks as resource people. The students were so eager, they never missed a class."
Soboleff said he felt fortunate to have lived in such a time of transition for Native people. He is very aware of living in a time that will never be experienced again. "Culture is always changing. People are always in transition. Some manage it gracefully, and some struggle. Right now, everyone wants to claim a subsistence lifestyle. One of the first things you change, when a culture changes, is the language. The last thing to go is the food."
The remarkable thing about Soboleff is that even though he spent years and years of his life in Western schooling, he speaks as if he spent his life outdoors. He once surprised someone in Nome, saying it must be herring season there because the gulls were making a peculiar sound. Sure enough, when they came in sight of the shore, it was "like milk" - full of gulls feeding on herring.
"I used to hear them every day when I walked along the shore in Sitka," he said, but his years in Sitka were school years. He must have learned these things as a young child, and never lost them. "We Natives were the first Audubon Society members," he said with a twinkle in his eye, "we were the first conservationists."
Education is a subject close to Soboleff's heart. "We need to rethink the native cycle of education in Alaska. Children need practical knowledge—how to hunt, how to put up fish —they need to know how to adapt to village life when they come back. When they experience what their parents had to go through, they gain a new respect."
A look of deep sadness crossed his face as he said that the recent school board allocation of a small amount of money for Tlingit language instruction in Juneau schools was just "a beginning." The loss of their Native language has had the most devastating impact on Alaska Natives of all the changes they have lived through.
Soboleff has said, "In the Native culture, your older people are the Native libraries." Walter Soboleff is a library himself. He has been both a participant and an observer of a changing culture. He has lived in two worlds, and continues to help each one understand the other.
Dr. Walter Soboleff died on May 22, 2011 at his home in Southeast Alaska. He was 102.
Walter Soboleff is also mentioned in this article:
Honorary Degree Recipient 1968
Dr. Soboleff, "Man of God" by David W. DeLong, Juneau, Alaska.
This is a link of a commercial of Rev. Walter Soboleff endorsement of Elmer Rasmuson for U.S. Senate. Link provided by UAF Archives, Rasmuson Collection
A google search on Walter Soboleff provided the following results.