Governor Parnell Orders Flags Lowered for Doctor Soboleff;
May 23, 2011
“Sandy and I were saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Soboleff – a humble man of great wisdom,” Governor Parnell said. “Dr. Soboleff will be remembered for his decades of service to Alaskans, his kind and gentle manner and his quick wit. 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.”
Congressman Don Young said, “My thoughts and prayers are with the Soboleff family as they mourn the passing of Walter. Alaska has lost one of its great leaders. Walter was a dear friend to Lu and me and I am deeply saddened by his passing. Walter and Lu worked together on numerous Alaska Native issues throughout the years and I was always amazed at the humbleness and deep dedication to Alaska he showed. Throughout his life, Walter affected the lives of countless Alaskans and today while we mourn his passing, lets also celebrate the life of a true Alaskan hero.”
“The Native community is mourning the loss of our esteemed Elder and dear friend,” said Albert Kookesh, Sealaska board chair. “Walter touched the lives of so many people with his kindness and infinite wisdom. He served in so many capacities throughout his life and was active until his last day. I am saddened by his loss and will miss his warmth and sense of humor.”
“I know our tribal member shareholders will join us in extending our condolences to the Soboleff family. We are here to lift you up in this time of need,” said Albert Kookesh, Sealaska board chair.
Dr. Soboleff was born on November 14, 1908, to a Russian father and Tlingit mother. He spent his early years in Killisnoo on Admiralty Island, speaking fluent Tlingit and English. At age 12, when his father died, his mother moved with him to Sitka, where he spent the remaining years of his childhood.
He graduated from Sheldon Jackson School in 1928. Determined to go to college, he eked out a living at a cold storage plant and finally won a full scholarship to the University of Dubuque in Iowa in 1933. He returned to Juneau in 1940 as an ordained Presbyterian minister, assigned to the Memorial Presbyterian Church, now the Northern Lights United Church.
“Dr. Soboleff witnessed so much progress for our people through the last 103 years,” said Chris E. McNeil, Jr., Sealaska president and CEO. “Walter played an important role from the formative years of the Alaska Native Brotherhood through land claims. He has been an inspiration to us all, leading by example and I know his spirit will continue to live on as we carry the wisdom he bestowed on us forward.”
“He was part of each of our families through the Presbyterian Church and his personal guidance.”
Dr. Soboleff spent the rest of his life ministering to his parishioners and fighting for Native rights.
In 1940, anti-Native racism was prevalent and overt, mirroring what was happening across the country at the beginning of the struggle for civil rights. At the time, Memorial Presbyterian was a haven for Alaska Natives, who were unwelcome at other churches. Despite the hostile environment in Juneau at the time, Dr. Soboleff decided to open the church to all races. In a 2008 Juneau Empire article he was quoted as saying of this time, “It works both ways. We have to learn to live with each other. And the sooner we learn, the better the world will be.”
A Tlingit Elder, Dr. Soboleff was also the cultural and spiritual standard bearer for our people and for all Southeast Natives during his lifetime. His influence can be seen in the strength of our corporation and the resilience of our people. He was an early member of the Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB), which was formed to advance Native civil and human rights. He was Grand Camp president seven times, a testament to his commitment to Native rights and the respect in which our people held him. Over the years, he also served as sergeant at arms, secretary and treasurer.
“When I heard the news our beloved Dr. Soboleff walked into the forest this morning my heart broke having lost my mentor and a teacher to all,” said Dr. Rosita Worl, Sealaska board vice chair and president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. “He was a cultural treasure and working with him was always an awesome experience. His patience, wisdom and sense of humor put you at ease and his lessons were profound.”
As a voice for our people, Dr. Soboleff fought with passion along with other legendary leaders to secure passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) in 1971, the seminal land rights bill which paved the way for the return of nearly 375,000 acres of land to Southeast Alaska Natives to address our spiritual, cultural and economic needs. During his time, he also fought for the Native right to vote and an end to school segregation. Every Native vote cast in Alaska today is the living embodiment of Dr. Soboleff’s determination and belief in a better way.
Dr. Soboleff was a Sealaska Corporation board member for nine years, helping to foster the success of the corporation and keeping the focus on what was good for tribal member shareholders. More recently he served as the long-time chair of the Sealaska Heritage Institute Board of Trustees and an active member of the Council of Traditional Scholars. He was also ANB Grand President Emeritus.
“Once in awhile someone comes along and makes a giant footprint on their people, their culture and their community,” said Sealaska Director Clarence Jackson, Sr. “We shed tears for the loss of our dear friend and leader but we celebrate the tremendous contribution he made. I will always remember his kind and gentle way, his laugh, his stories. He will be greatly missed.”
State flags will be lowered on Wednesday, May 25. Flags will return to full-staff the following day.
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