Family, friends celebrate first annual Walter Soboleff Day

Today was the first annual Dr. Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska, and dozens of the late Tlingit elder’s friends and relatives marked the occasion with a parade through downtown Juneau.

Soboleff’s oldest son, Sasha, says humility and inclusiveness are his dad’s lasting legacy. The Presbyterian minister opened his church to people of all races at a time when Juneau was segregated.

“This man worked well over a hundred years to do things for not only the people of Alaska, but for those who strove to better themselves to do what they need to do,” Sasha Soboleff says. “And what was key to his heart and key to his spirit was the service to his God and Jesus Christ.”

Former state Rep. Bill Thomas remembers hearing Soboleff’s sermons on the radio as a kid growing up in Haines.

“If we didn’t go to Sunday school and we missed church, we had to sit in front of the radio and listen to Rev. Soboleff on the radio,” he says.

Soboleff would’ve been 106 years old today. He died in 2011 at the age of 102.

He was involved with the Alaska Native Brotherhood throughout his life, including during the Native civil rights movement of the 1940s. Later in life he helped launch efforts to revitalize Native languages, as well as traditional art and spiritual practices.

Earlier this year, the Alaska Legislature made 20 indigenous languages official state languages. Soboleff’s daughter, Janet Burke, says that would have made her father proud.

“When we were children we never got to do things like this,” Burke says. “It wasn’t that we weren’t taught how to do this. But we didn’t do things publicly like we’re able to do now.”

Today’s informal parade included about 70 people making their way from Marine Park, through Juneau’s Willoughby District, and to the Salvation Army church.

Ed Thomas is the former president of the Tlingit & Haida Central Council. He says he got to know Soboleff through the Alaska Native Brotherhood.

“He is one of those that started off by writing down Tlingit values,” Thomas says. “So that people can have a starting point on what it meant, what our values meant.”

Thomas says those values include honoring your elders and having a sense of humor.

State lawmakers unanimously approved the bill making Nov. 14 Dr. Walter Soboleff Day. He joins other notable Alaskans like Elizabeth Peratrovich, Jay Hammond and Ted Stevens in having a day named for him.

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