A glorious spring day provided the backdrop for the grand opening of the Walter Soboleff Building Friday as a crowd of hundreds gathered to mark the dedication of a major new Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultural facility in downtown Juneau.
Attendees, many dressed in colorful regalia — yellow and green Chilkat robes and blue and red button blankets — celebrated with dancing, singing and formal speeches and oratory that emphasized the building’s role in supporting the ongoing vitality of Northwest Coast Native art and culture.
Sealaska Heritage Corp. former chairman Albert Kookesh and Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl presided over the 10-hour event, held in front of the new building.
“Thank you for being here as we join in honoring the memory of a great man, Dr. Walter Soboleff, as we stand here together, standing strong as Alaskans, and celebrate the rich culture and diversity of Alaska,” Worl said. “This building ... was purposefully intended to reflect our ancient heritage and yet at the same time, our movement into the future and the modern world.”
The dual goal was echoed by many who took the podium throughout the day and was reflected in the two-part structure of the opening itself. A formal ceremony was held first, beginning at 8:30 a.m. with a performance by the Angoon Yatx’i Dancers. It included speeches by political leaders: Gov. Bill Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, Juneau Mayor Merrill Sanford, and Alaska Reps. Sam Kito and Cathy Munoz, as well as Sealaska Corp. President Anthony Mallott and Chairman Joe Nelson and Soboleff family spokeswoman Janet Burke, Walter Soboleff’s daughter.
A traditional ceremony followed at 2 p.m. that honored historical cultural protocols. It featured oratory in Tlingit and in English by elders including David Katzeek and Paul Marks of the Eagle and Raven moieties, respectively, as well as the ceremonial transfer of clan hats to SHI, the naming of the clan house (“Shuká Hít” or “Ancestors House”), the dedication of the archives in honor of Tlingit civil rights activist William Paul, and the unveiling of two major artworks — a clan house front created by Tsimshian artist David Boxley and a glass clan house screen created by Tlingit artist Preston Singletary. The building’s third major work, exterior panels created by Haida artist Robert Davidson, was installed two weeks ago. All three artists were present at the opening, along with others including Nathan Jackson, Delores Churchill, Nicholas Galanin, Da-ka-xeen Mehner, Steve Brown, Wayne Price and Northwest Coast art scholar Bill Holm.
Between the formal and traditional ceremonies, the crowd moved to Marine Park to greet the arrival of North Tide Canoe Kwáan and watch performances by four dance groups.
During the morning’s formal ceremony, Gov. Walker, who became an adopted member of the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan Clan in April, said the opening was a historic event for the state.
“This is an incredibly great day for Alaska,” he said.
Lt. Gov. Mallott said the building and its role in the community will stand as an example of the strength and contributions of Alaska’s First Peoples for generations to come.
“It will make Alaska stronger,” he said. “It will make the rest of the world look at Alaska and say, ‘There is a place where people came together in a way that is an example for the rest of us.’”
During the traditional ceremony, Tlingit master carver Jackson of Ketchikan said the artwork created as part of the center would also be an inspiration for the children and grandchildren of those present, and was powerful in its representation of all three tribes of the region — Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian — in one place.
“I’m really thankful ... being here to witness all that is taking place, and with other tribes being involved,” he said.
Elder Katzeek, speaking in Tlingit and translating into English, called the facility a “symbol of healing” that extends beyond the community to include the land itself, ushering in positive change for Alaska.
“Can you feel the wind?” Katzeek said, referring to the steady breeze that blew all day. “May it blow into your spirit a spirit of joy, a spirit of peace, a spirit of harmony and a spirit of prosperity.”
Though a few of the leaders on stage began to look a bit tired as the event entered its 10th straight hour, the final dance, led by the Angoon Yatx’i Dancers, brought many to their feet, ending the event on the festive note with which it began.
• To read more about the grand opening of the Soboleff Building, and see many more images, read this week’s Capital City Weekly.