Op - Ed: He made Alaska a better place for all

When one thinks about the giants of Alaska’s history the names of Reverend Dr. Walter Soboleff and Elizabeth Peratrovich immediately spring to mind. Elizabeth is well remembered for her advocacy in the struggle for Native civil rights and equality, and her contemporary Reverend Walter Soboleff, will always be remembered for his vision of peace and spiritual love connecting all people, across the man-made barriers of race or culture. This weekend we grieve the loss of Reverend Dr. Walter Soboleff who died last week at the distinguished age of 102.

Reverend Soboleff came of age in an Alaska that is vastly different than the Alaska we enjoy today. Elizabeth and Walter were young adults during a period of time in which some Southeast Alaska businesses displayed signs that read, “No dogs or Indians allowed.” After earning his divinity degree Outside, Reverend Soboleff returned to Alaska in 1940 to find that because of his Native ancestry he was turned away when he tried to rent a room in Juneau. But that didn’t dissuade Reverend Soboleff. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he felt a true, deep sorrow for the innkeeper. That was his way — a way that will never fade from the Alaskan mind.

His response to the tumultuous racial relations of the day was to open the doors of the Tlingit Presbyterian Memorial Church in Juneau, where he served as the first Alaska Native Presbyterian minister, to any and all who sought to worship God. Amid violent upheaval and racial unrest, Reverend Soboleff created within his church a sanctuary that embraced diversity. His congregation included Blacks, Filipinos, and Caucasians as well as Tlingits, Haidas and Tsimshians. His greatest message was for people to love one another — he is often quoted as saying that the greatest gift of civilization is for people to know who they are and to love each other regardless, because when there is love, there is peace. Always active, Reverend Soboleff took his ministry to the waters of Southeast Alaska preaching at logging camps, villages and Coast Guard facilities as well as the radio. His ministry and the beauty of his words extended across the vast expanses of Alaska. He was a revered Tlingit elder but his spirit extended across all cultures.

While love of God was central in Walter Soboleff’s life, devotion to ministry was but one dimension of this extraordinary Alaskan. He served seven terms as president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood as well as Grand President Emeritus. In 1952, the Reverend accepted a commission in the Alaska Army National Guard, serving as Chaplain for 20 years, retiring with rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He went on to found the Alaska Native Studies Department at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks where he taught Tlingit history, language and literature. He was the first Alaska Native to serve on the Alaska State Board of Education and as a testament to his considerable leadership skills, served as Chairman.

We are blessed that the considerable life experiences of Walter Soboleff have been preserved in manuscripts and oral histories so that future generations of Alaskans can understand their roots and the roots of this great land we call home. Yet it is difficult to accept the fact that Reverend Dr. Walter Soboleff, a tireless man fueled by the spirit of God, is no longer among us.

At 102, on Sunday May 22, 2011, during the breaking light of that morning’s first dawn, the Reverend Doctor Walter A. Soboleff quietly stepped from a restful sleep into the Northern winds, into the budding spring of the Southeast forest, to begin his final flourishing journey from Earth to Heaven. All Alaska is better for the 102 years he graced us with his life and love.