At a retrospective in honor of the second annual Walter Soboleff Day, observed Nov. 14, speakers including family, friends and a pastor told stories that showcased the late Tlingit leader’s sense of humor, generosity, faith, and his extraordinary grace, especially under circumstances that would embitter many people. (We’ve pulled some of those stories aside so that you can read them on their own.)
Here’s one, though, that’s indicative of his grace: after he graduated divinity school, Soboleff moved to Juneau and wrote a letter to a landlord who had advertised a place to rent. The man told him the place was his for the taking.
Then Soboleff got to Juneau. With his name and the fact that he was writing from the Lower 48, the man hadn’t realized Soboleff was Tlingit, theorized Albert Kookesh, Soboleff’s good friend and nephew.
“When they met face-to-face, the guy told him ‘I’m sorry, the place is not available to you,’” Kookesh said. “I would have gotten mad. He said ‘I’m sorry to have bothered you.’”
Soboleff, Kookesh said, was born in Killisnoo, which burned down in the 1920s. Its residents, including Soboleff, moved to Angoon.
Soboleff’s father was a Russian Orthodox priest, and his mother was a fluent Tlingit speaker, but neither of them wanted him to speak Tlingit. He ended up learning it from his friends while young, and from his grandparents, Albert and Martha Kookesh.
Kookesh, a former state legislator, said after legislative efforts to get Alaska history taught in the schools failed, “sometimes, we have to tell the history ourselves.”
“You’re not going to find this in a book anywhere,” he said.
Phil Campbell, pastor of Northern Light United Church, spoke on a different wrong Soboleff weathered with grace: the closing of Memorial Presbyterian Church, where Soboleff was pastor for 22 years, in 1962. It was closed suddenly, without an opportunity for discussion, Campbell said. Soboleff once told him that he never knew why they closed it; decades later, it was still clearly painful for him.
Campbell believes the church closed because of “liberal racism.”
Juneau then had two Presbyterian churches — the predominantly white Northern Light, then Northern Light Presbyterian Church, and Soboleff’s Memorial Presbyterian Church.
At the time, Presbyterians were chagrined about their history of segregation, Campbell said.
“They hadn’t known Tlingit people and white people were already worshiping together at (Soboleff’s) church,” Campbell said.
Northern Light had a recently constructed building, and to get everyone to worship together, they closed one. And it was Soboleff’s.
“It was rooted in the assumption of white Christianity being superior,” Campbell said, noting “the painful irony” of the decision, and that it was time for the church to apologize for the act.
Just the same, Soboleff attended Northern Light faithfully, missing only two services since Campbell began serving as pastor in 2010, until his death on May 22, 2011 — once because he was in the hospital, and once because he was giving a sermon himself, via phone, to a church in Wrangell.
“I do not believe he saw a contradiction between his Tlingit values and his Christian faith,” Campbell said. “There is absolutely no justification for the ending of his ministry, and for what happened next by church edict. But I also want to offer to you that the legacy of Dr. Soboleff is that he did not dwell on the offense — on what might have been — but saw the rest of his life as an ongoing opportunity to serve others. To serve Tlingit people, and to serve all people in the state of Alaska.”
Friday’s commemorative ceremony was held at the building which bears Soboleff’s name, the headquarters of Sealaska Heritage Institute. In another part of the ceremony, Sealaska President and CEO Anthony Mallott and Sealaska Board of Directors Chair Joe Nelson gifted a portrait of Soboleff to the Sealaska Heritage Institute, through the Chairman of the Sealaska Heritage Institute Board of Trustees, Marlene Johnson.
It was the only individual portrait of any leader in the Sealaska building, Mallott said.
“He had powerful, powerful, deep knowledge of who we are as Native people,” Nelson said. “I also believe that Walter is very much here today with us…. His compassion, his humility, and his sense of service that we all try to carry… and take that to heart, and do what we can to follow in his lead.”
Soboleff’s daughter, Janet Burke, and sons Sasha and Ross Soboleff, spoke on their memories of their father or read letters, on which many commemorative events this year focused.
Afterwards, a dance group from Harborview’s Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy Program walked in stormy weather from the school to perform.
“He showed the world what you can achieve when you live your values,” Mallott said. “He took the power of values, the power of kindness, and the power of caring to improve people’s lives… He’s going to continue to touch peoples’ lives, and I think there’s some responsibility for all of us here to carry forward in his legacy… You yourselves can spread this message… speak to others of the power of values, and kindness, and caring. We can carry his legacy forward together.”
Here are a few stories people shared during the Walter Soboleff Day Retrospective on Nov. 13:
Sasha Soboleff: Each night before a meal, the family said a prayer. Soboleff asked if any of his children would like to say one. No one volunteered.
“So Dad said, ‘Okay.’ He prayed for the governor and his cabinet, by name. For the senators and representatives, and their staffs, by name. For the Congressional representatives, and their staffs and families by name. For all the fishermen who were on the fishing grounds in their boats, and their captains, by name.” The prayer went on for about 30 minutes, Kookesh later estimated.
The next night, “hands went up right away.”
“He counseled all of us who speak in public to be sharp and clear with what you say,” Sasha Soboleff said. “He said ‘Well, you have a message to give, and if you tend to go overboard and continue to deliver the message, some will get it, and others will wake up greatly refreshed.”
Phil Campbell: After one of only two of Campbell’s church services Soboleff missed before his death, Campbell went to visit him at the hospital. The doctor came in, and, Campbell said, Soboleff had a pained expression on his face.
The doctor asked him what was wrong. Soboleff, very seriously, said “You’re in my way.”
March Madness was on, and the doctor was blocking Soboleff’s view of basketball.
Albert Kookesh: Soboleff and Kookesh were talking about the problems of Alaska Native suicide and alcoholism one day, Kookesh said.
“I asked him ‘When you were growing up, did you have suicide and alcoholism as a problem in your society, among your age group?’” Kookesh asked.
Soboleff thought and said that he couldn’t remember that it was a problem. And the reason, he thought, was because you knew your ancestors – your mother, your father, your grandparents, their parents — were all around you. In modern times, Soboleff thought, people had lost that feeling of connection. “We thought that when our mother, and our father, and our aunts and our uncles died, that they never left us. That they still surround us,” Kookesh said Soboleff told him. “So there was no thinking that we would do something like get drunk, or commit suicide, in their presence.”
“His message was ‘We are never alone,’” Kookesh said.
Albert Kookesh: Walter was spending the night with Kookesh’s sister-in-law and her husband, Kookesh’s brother, in Angoon. One day the couple had an argument, “we wives and husbands are wont to do, and there was a little bit of a temper flare,” Kookesh said.
Kookesh’s brother left the house. Soboleff and the sister-in-law were quiet.
“Walter walked over to her and said ‘You should keep your temper. Nobody else wants it,’” Kookesh said, to laughter.