Walter Soboleff already had a distinguished career as a minister, educator and Alaska Native leader when he arrived in Fairbanks in 1970. But he felt it was time for a new challenge.
So that year he became the founder and first chairman of the University of Alaska’s new Department of Alaska Native Studies. He stayed four years while creating the department, which at UAF today offers bachelor’s degrees in Alaska Native studies and both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in rural development.
Soboleff was born in the Southeast Alaska village of Killisnoo in 1908, the son of a Tlingit mother and a father of Russian-German ancestry. His father died when he was young, and he was educated through high school at Sitka’s Sheldon Jackson School. After working in Sitka a few years, he secured a scholarship to the University of Dubuque in Iowa, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1937 and a divinity degree in 1940.
Returning to Juneau with his new wife, Soboleff established a church. After 22 years, state and national church leaders ordered it closed and demolished.
Soboleff then spent several years on a converted fishing boat working as an itinerant minister for villages and logging camps across Southeast Alaska. He also served as a chaplain in the Alaska National Guard.
Alaska Native land claims were advancing in Congress in the 1960s, so Soboleff became involved in that struggle, eventually working five terms as president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood. After passage of the settlement act in 1971, Soboleff served eight years on the board of Sealaska Inc., the Southeast Alaska regional corporation created to receive the land and money granted by Congress.
Soboleff died in 2011. A few months earlier, First Alaskans magazine published a profile of him that described the impact the pastor had on former Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg, now director of UA Anchorage's Matanuska-Susitna College. As a boy in the 1960s, Colberg lived for a few years in Angoon, where he first met Soboleff.
“He’s the first pastor I remember listening to,” Colberg said. “He would have a children’s message in an age where children’s messages were unusual. I still think of him as my pastor to this day.”
In the same profile, former Alaska legislator Bill Thomas of Haines, who is of Tlingit descent, said that, while in office, he enjoyed receiving Soboleff's handwritten notes commenting on issues of the day.
“Walter always has an important message, and he’ll always have a church," Thomas said. "He just doesn’t need a building.”
More online about Walter Soboleff:
A profile in the February-March 2011 edition of First Alaskans magazine.
Text, supporting documents and legislative history of a resolution naming Nov. 14 as Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska.
A page about the Sealaska Heritage Institute, located in a downtown Juneau building named for him.
A 1998 profile published by the Whalesong, the UAS student newspaper, and preserved at the UA Journey website.