Walter Soboleff

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Walter Alexander Soboleff (November 14, 1908 – May 22, 2011) was a Tlingit scholar, elder and religious leader.[1] Soboleff was the first Native Alaskan to become an ordained Presbyterian minister.[2]

Early life[edit]

Soboleff was born in Killisnoo, Alaska, on November 14, 1908, to a Tlingit mother and a Russian father.[1][3] Soboleff was born into the Tlingit name Kha'jaq'tii, meaning One Slain in Battle.[1] His mother, Anna Hunter, who had been orphaned in nearby Sitka, had canoed to Killisnoo with her brother to stay with their aunt.[1] His father, Alexander "Sasha" Soboleff, resided in Killisnoo with his parents and three brothers.[1] Walter Soboleff's paternal grandfather, was a Russian Orthodox minister named Ivan Soboleff, who moved to Killisnoo from San Francisco during the 1890s.[3] His father, Alexander, died when Walter was twelve years old[1] and his mother remarried.[3]

He was raised in Tenakee.[1] He first attended a U.S. Government School in Tenakee before enrolling at the Sheldon Jackson School boarding school in Sitka when he was five years old.[1] He began working as a Tlingit language interpreter for doctors at ten years old during the height of the 1918 flu pandemic in Southeast Alaska.[1]

Soboleff was hired for his first job at the Hood Bay fish cannery when he was a freshman at Sheldon Jackson High School in 1925.[1] He earned 25 cents an hour at the cannery.[1]

In 1925, Soboleff sailed from Sitka to Seattle aboard the Admiral Lines steamship.[1] He then hitchhiked from Seattle to enroll at college at Oregon Agricultural College, (Oregon State University).[1] However, he was only able to stay at Oregon Agricultural College for one semester due to the financial pressures of the Great Depression.[1] He hitchhiked back to Seattle, where he stayed at a YMCA in the city until he could return to his studies.[1]

Soboleff won a scholarship to the University of Dubuque in 1933. He completed a bachelor's degree at the University of Dubuque in 1937 in education.[1] Soboleff went on to earn a master's degree in divinity, also from the University of Dubuque, in 1940.[1]

Soboleff returned to Sitka, Alaska, during the summer of 1940, where he initially worked in cold storage or seine fishing.[1] He was ordained a Presbyterian minister and married his wife, Genevieve Ross, a Haida woman and nurse who was involved in the revival of the Haida language in Alaska.[3] Walter and Genevieve had four children - Janet, Sasha, Walter Jr. and Ross.[3]

Ministry and activism[edit]

Soboleff moved to Juneau, Alaska, where he served as a minister at Memorial Presbyterian Church in 1940, a then-predominantly Tlingit church which grew to include members from other ethnic groups.[1] He also began broadcasting radio news in the Tlingit language.[1]

Soboleff traveled to remote Alaskan settlements, fishing villages, and even lighthouses as needed by the Presbyterian ministry.[1] He also became a Tlingit and Native Alaskan advocate for cultural education, human rights and rights of indigenous people in Alaska.[1]


Walter Soboleff died at his home in Juneau, Alaska, on May 22, 2011, at the age of 102, of complications from bone cancer and prostate cancer.[1] His first wife, Genevieve, died in January 1986.[1] He married his second wife, Tshimshian Stella Alice Atkinson, in 1999.[1] Atkinson died in April 2008.[1]

Legacy and honors[edit]

Alaska Governor Sean Parnell ordered that all state flags be lowered to half staff in Soboleff's honor.[4] Hundreds of people, including Governor Parnell, attended Soboleff's memorial service at Centennial Hall in Juneau.[5] The service was broadcast live on television throughout the state of Alaska.[6]

In May 2015, the Sealaska Heritage Institute opened the Walter Soboleff Building, a cultural and research center in downtown Juneau, Alaska.[7][8]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z Stolpe, Klas (2011-06-22). "Noted Tlingit elder Walter Soboleff dies". Juneau Empire. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  2. ^ Quinn, Steve (February–March 2011). "Words of Grace for a Century". First Alaskans Magazine. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  3. ^ a b c d e Kiffer, Dave (2011-02-16). "Native Rights Leader Turns 102, Dr. Soboleff was longtime preacher, teacher and broadcaster". Juneau Empire. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  4. ^ "Governor Parnell Orders Flags Lowered for Doctor Soboleff; Dr. Walter A. Soboleff Dies at 102". SitNews. 2011-05-23. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  5. ^ Stolpe, Klas (2011-05-28). "Hundreds attend memorial service for Dr. Walter A. Soboleff Sr". Juneau Empire. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  6. ^ "Soboleff's memorial to be televised live statewide". Juneau Empire. 2011-05-27. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
  7. ^ Forgey, Pay (2015-05-15). "Walter Soboleff Center opens in Juneau as a hub for Southeast Native culture". Alaska Dispatch News. Retrieved 22 December 2015.
  8. ^ Alexander, Rosemaire (2011-05-30). "Sealaska Heritage Institute Cultural Center Named After Soboleff". KTOO. Alaska Public Radio. Retrieved 2011-06-19.