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Alaska House Votes to Create Dr. Walter Soboleff Day

Day honors Tlingit Elder, Minister, storyteller, scholar, businessman

The Alaska state House of Representatives voted unanimously to set aside November 14 of each year to honor the life and work of Dr. Walter A Soboleff, a revered Tlingit elder who passed away in 2011 at the age of 102. Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins (D-Sitka), Representative Peggy Wilson (R-Wrangell), Representative Cathy Muñoz (R-Juneau), and former representative Beth Kerttula (D-Juneau) sponsored the legislation (HB217). Representative Sam Kito III (D-Juneau) co-sponsored the legislation after filling Kerttula’s seat in the Legislature.

“The reception in the State House for creating Dr. Walter Soboleff Day has been tremendously gratifying. Dr. Soboleff was a cultural and civic leader for all Alaska; it’s fitting we honor a man whose life has shaped those of so many others,” said Kreiss-Tomkins.

“Celebrating Dr. Soboleff every year will be a fitting honor to this wonderful statesman and his family,” said Kito III.

“He worked tirelessly to preserve his Tlingit culture in a city that shunned it.  Dr. Walter Soboleff was the first Alaska Native pastor in Juneau and he practiced what he preached. He welcomed all to his church, even though at the time Juneau was segregated,” said Wilson.

“Dr. Walter Soboleff was a man we all loved and admired as a spiritual leader and as a teacher,” said Muñoz. “He led by example. His words, deeds, and his very presence were imbued with grace. Soon, there will be a cultural center in Juneau to honor this remarkable man. We hope there may be a day set aside as well to commemorate this great man.”

A member of the Yéil (Raven) moiety, L’eeneidí (Dog Salmon) clan, Dr. Soboleff was a translator and scholar of Tlingit language and storytelling, and was the first Native Alaskan to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister. A trustee of the Sealaska Heritage Institute since 1985, he served as its chair from 1988 until May of 2011, when he “walked into the woods” at the age of 102. Dr. Soboleff also served as President of Kootznoowoo, Inc, a director of Sealaska Corporation, Grand Camp President of the Alaska Native Brotherhood. He was the first Alaska Native to serve on the State Board of Education, where he served as chairman.

Dr. Soboleff was known to speak of “Tlingit Protocols.” Among them, he prized the Tlingit value of Haa Shagóon—honoring the past and preparing the future for generations to come.

The Sealaska Heritage Institute broke ground on the Walter Soboleff Center in August 2013. The center, located in downtown Juneau, will be devoted to the study of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures. The building will also house the Sealaska Heritage Institute, where Dr. Soboleff devoted so much of his life’s work. It is due to be completed by the end of 2014.

The legislation now goes to the Alaska Senate for consideration.

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