Celebrating An Alaska original

Native leader Walter Soboleff marks 100th birthday today

Posted: Friday, November 14, 2008

One day when Bill Martin was 14 and working at a grocery store in Juneau, a man he knew for his Tlingit radio broadcasts spotted him and said, "Tell your father I said, 'Hi.'"

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

Martin had never met the man and wondered how he'd made the connection.

"All he had to do was see you, and he knew," Martin recalled his father telling him. Martin, now 65, is president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes.

The man was the scholar, Native leader and longtime Juneau resident Walter Soboleff, whose place in the community is as strong as ever as he celebrates his 100th birthday today.

Soboleff, born in the village Killisnoo, has lived through periods of great transition for Natives. Addressing a crowd Thursday at the Southeast Alaska Native Summit downtown, Soboleff said the Tlingit words for "working intensely to survive" came to mind when he thinks back to the economic transition that came with the booming fishing industry in the 1910s.

In the new economic culture, survival was dependent on working intensely for the dollar sign, Soboleff said. But embracing that new culture didn't have to come at the expense of the old.

"In my case, I tried to take the best of two worlds, the best sides of both cultures," he said.

His son Ross Soboleff, 57, said that pluralist attitude was novel in his father's time.

"It certainly was presented to us, and to his generation, 'The Native ways are old. We've got to put those aside and take on the new life.' He was someone who pioneered the idea that, well, no, you don't have to put those aside, those things are part of who you are. ... I can make it in this greater society we live in, but I'm still a Native. Things that are part of our way of life have validity and value. Someone had to come up with that idea. This guy was one of the first to see that it's possible - not just see that it was possible, but to actually do it."

Walter Soboleff earned a scholarship to go to the University of Dubuque in Iowa. After graduating, he moved to Juneau in 1940, a time when anti-Native racism was overt and prevalent. He became the pastor of the city's old Memorial Presbyterian Church and despite the racist environment, he and the other church leaders decided to open services to everyone.

"It works both ways. We have to learn to live together. The sooner we learn, the better the world will be," Soboleff said.

He learned the Tlingit language in Juneau and broadcast news and sermons in it over the radio.

Martin remembers listening to the broadcasts as a child. He didn't understand the words, but knew it was important because of how intently his parents and grandparents listened.

Brad Fluetsch, grand president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood - also a position Soboleff held - said Soboleff predates the brotherhood and has been a part of the success of the organization, which has a history of expanding civil rights across the state.

"He's been a participant in some small way, shape or form of bringing civil rights to Alaska, desegregating the schools, voting rights for Natives," Fluetsch said.

Soboleff said he's seen housing, education and health care for "the underprivileged" improve in his lifetime, but said the economic transition that began when he was a boy must continue.

"There's more yet to do economically," particularly with affordable energy in rural villages, he said.

As for his big birthday today, Soboleff said he doesn't have anything special in mind.

"I'll just be myself," he said with a grin.

His family has some plans of its own. The Soboleffs are holding a public birthday celebration from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22, at the Tlingit Haida Community Center at 3235 Hospital Drive.

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