Native Rights Leader Turns 102
February 16, 2011
Yet, one of the longtime promoters of Native rights and culture is still among us.
Last November, Dr. Walter Soboleff turned 102.
Dr. Soboleff was born in Killisnoo on Admiralty Island on Nov. 14, 1908. His mother, Anna Hunter Soboleff was Tlingit and his father, Alexander “Sasha” Soboleff was Russian and German. His grandfather, John Soboleff, was an Orthodox priest who moved from San Francisco to Killisnoo in the early 1890s.
Dr. Soboleff’s father died when he was 12 and his mother remarried. He spent some of his early years in nearby Angoon besides Killisnoo. At eight years old, he began attending the Russian Orthodox School in Sitka, according to “Haa Kusteeyi, Tlingit Life Stories” by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer. He was the only the Tlingit at the school among a large group of Aleuts.
He also served as an Altar boy at St. Michael’s Cathedral.
“The robes were too big for me, I’d fall down,” he told the Dauenhauers. “”My Dog Salmon aunts used to get a kick out of it.”
In a 2009 interview with the Juneau Empire, Soboleff noted that he had many role models growing up.
"I really admired the Gettysburg Address and would recite it in Tlingit," he told the Empire. "Abraham Lincoln was one of my heroes. It's a great speech, a gem, he just put the words together so wonderful."
Soboleff also noted that his father was an early role model as were Booker T. Washington, Rudyard Kipling and Tlingit Rev. George Benson who translated the Bible into Tlingit.
"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."
From the fifth grade through high school, Dr. Soboleff attended Sheldon Jackson School in Sitka. It was there that he converted to the Presbyterian Church. Soboleff said the main reason for his conversion was that he spoke English and the Orthodox services, in Russian, were difficult to understand and less meaningful to him. Soboleff also remembers translating for the visiting doctors during the Flu epidemic of 1918.
Soboleff initially went south to the study at Oregon Agricultural College - the forerunner of Oregon State University. But the Depression limited him to a single semester there.
Soboleff then attended the University of Dubuque, Iowa – on a scholarship - from 1933 to 1937, receiving a bachelors degree in education and then continuing on for three more years to get his graduate divinity degree. In 1940, he was ordained and sent to the Memorial Presbyterian Church - Now the Northern Lights United Church - in Juneau, where he presided for 22 years.
In 1938, Soboleff married Genevieve Ross, a Haida woman he had met at Sheldon Jackson. She was a nurse who played a major role in reviving interest in the Haida language in later years, according to the Dauenhauers.
They had four children, Janet, Sasha, Walter Jr. and Ross. Genevieve Soboleff died in 1986. Dr. Soboleff married Stella Atkinson in 1999. She died in 2009.
Soboleff was one of the early Alaskan ministers to see the value in broadcasting and early on began producing a weekly 15 minute radio show in Tlingit. By the 1950s, he had expanded to a 30 minute program and an additional 15 minute program aimed specifically at the fishing fleet in the summers.
Soboleff also ministered on board the Sheldon Jackson boats, the Princeton Hall and the Anna Jackman, riding the regular “circuit” of the villages without resident pastors.
For twenty years, from 1951-1971, Soboleff was a chaplain in the Alaska National Guard and also served several terms as chaplain for the State Legislature.
Dr. Soboleff was also very active in the Alaska Native Brotherhood serving as sergeant at arms, secretary and treasurer. Most notably he was the Grand Camp President seven times and was still attending Grand Camp as recently as 2010 in Saxman.
By 1970, Soboleff was ready for a change and retired from full time ministry and joined the University of Alaska to create and direct an Alaska Native Studies Department in Fairbanks. He also taught Tlingit history, language and culture. He retired again in 1974 and moved to Tenakee.
Among Soboleff’s other accomplishments over the years have been being the first Tlingit to be appointed to the State Board of Education, where he was chairman, and a nine-year stint on the Sealaska Board of Directors. He was also a long time member of the Kootznoowoo Native Corporation board. He was also a member of Sealaska Heritage Foundation board for many years.
In 1952, he received a divinity doctorate from Dubuque and an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks in 1968.
Dr. Soboleff told the Empire that he is making some concessions to his “senior” status. He said he only stopped driving four years ago because he figured he should stop while he was ahead and because there is no place that he really needs to go in a hurry.
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