Soboleff was born in Killisnoo, Alaska, on November 14, 1908, to a Tlingit mother and a Russian father. Soboleff was born into the Tlingit name Kha'jaq'tii, meaning One Slain in Battle. His mother, Anna Hunter, who had been orphaned in nearby Sitka, had canoed to Killisnoo with her brother to stay with their aunt. His father, Alexander "Sasha" Soboleff, resided in Killisnoo with his parents and three brothers. Walter Soboleff's paternal grandfather, was a Russian Orthodox minister named Ivan Soboleff, who moved to Killisnoo from San Francisco during the 1890s. His father, Alexander, died when Walter was twelve years old and his mother remarried.
He was raised in Tenakee. 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. 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.
In 1925, Soboleff sailed from Sitka to Seattle aboard the Admiral Lines steamship. He then hitchhiked from Seattle to enroll at college at Oregon Agricultural College, which is now known by its present-day name, Oregon State University. However, he was only able to stay at Oregon Agricultural College for one semester due to the financial pressures of the Great Depression. He hitchhiked back to Seattle, where he stayed at a YMCA in the city until he could return to his studies.
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. Soboleff went on to earn a master's degree in divinity, also from the University of Dubuque, in 1940.
Soboleff returned to Sitka, Alaska, during the summer of 1940, where he initially worked in cold storage or seine fishing. 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. Walter and Genevieve had four children - Janet, Sasha, Walter Jr. and Ross.
Ministry and activism
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. He also began broadcasting radio news in the Tlingit language.
Soboleff traveled to remote Alaskan settlements, fishing villages, and even lighthouses as needed by the Presbyterian ministry. He also became a Tlingit and Native Alaskan advocate for cultural education, human rights and rights of indigenous people in Alaska.
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. His first wife, Genevieve, died in January 1986. He married his second wife, Tshimshian Stella Alice Atkinson, in 1999. Atkinson died in April 2008.
Legacy and honors
Alaska Governor Sean Parnell ordered that all state flags be lowered to half staff in Soboleff's honor. Hundreds of people, including Governor Parnell, attended Soboleff's memorial service at Centennial Hall in Juneau. The service was broadcast live on television throughout the state of Alaska.
- Stolpe, Klas (2011-06-22). "Noted Tlingit elder Walter Soboleff dies". Juneau Empire. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
- Quinn, Steve (February–March 2011). "Words of Grace for a Century". First Alaskans Magazine. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
- Kiffer, Dave (2011-02-16). "Native Rights Leader Turns 102, Dr. Soboleff was longtime preacher, teacher and broadcaster". Juneau Empire. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
- "Governor Parnell Orders Flags Lowered for Doctor Soboleff; Dr. Walter A. Soboleff Dies at 102". SitNews. 2011-05-23. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
- Stolpe, Klas (2011-05-28). "Hundreds attend memorial service for Dr. Walter A. Soboleff Sr.". Juneau Empire. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
- "Soboleff's memorial to be televised live statewide". Juneau Empire. 2011-05-27. Retrieved 2011-06-19.
- 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.
- Alexander, Rosemaire (2011-05-30). "Sealaska Heritage Institute Cultural Center Named After Soboleff". KTOO. Alaska Public Radio. Retrieved 2011-06-19.