Perpetuating and Enhancing Southeast Alaskan Native Cultures

(Video Short on SHI) (Video Short on Indigenous People of Southeast Alaska)

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. Sealaska Heritage also conducts scientific, and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

We offer numerous programs promoting Southeast Alaskan Native culture, including language and art. We maintain a substantial archive of Southeast Alaskan Native ethnographic material. We partner with local schools to promote academics and cultural education. Biennially, we produce Celebration, Alaska’s second-largest Native gathering. We own and operate the Sealaska Heritage Store, and curate an ongoing cultural exhibit on the first floor of our headquarters in Juneau’s landmark Walter Soboleff Building.

In 1996, scientists in Southeast Alaska discovered ancient human remains in a cave on Prince of Wales Island. DNA analysis and other testing proved he was a Native male and that the remains were at least 10,000 years old. We named him Shuká Kaa (Man Before Us). For more than 10,000 years, we have been guided by ancient values that allowed our people to adapt to rapid cultural changes and to survive as a distinct cultural group. Today, we are seeking to integrate our cultural values into the institutions that directly serve our people. The values in Tlingit are:

  • Haa Aaní: Our Land: Honoring & Utilizing our Land (Haida: Íitl’ Tlagáa; Tsimshian: Na Laxyuubm)
    • Our ancestors, who have lived in this land for more than 10,000 years, taught us that everything has a Spirit. When we utilize our resources, we must acknowledge the Spirits of the Land, Sea and Air and tell them the benefits that their use will bring to our People. Our ancestors protected the ownership of our land for their children and grandchildren just as we must do for future generations.  Watch a video short on Haa Aaní produced by students in SHI’s Voice on the Land Program.
  • Haa Latseení: Our Strength: Strength of Body, Mind, and Spirit  (Haida: Íitl’ Dagwiigáay; Tsimshian: Na Gatlleedm)
    • The “Way of the Warriors’” path is to achieve physical and inner strength.  Above all, young men and women are taught to protect and to care for their families and clans.  They are taught to seek truth and knowledge and to adapt to changing times while maintaining the integrity of our ancient values. Watch a video short on Haa Latseení produced by students in SHI’s Voice on the Land Program.
  • Haa Shuká: Past, Present, and Future Generations: Honoring our Ancestors and Future Generations (Haida: Íitl’ Kuníisii; Tsimshian: Na Łagigyetgm)
    • We maintain strong bonds with our ancestors whom we honor through our lives and in our ceremonies. We also have responsibilities to our future generations, and we must ensure that we protect our land and culture for our children and grandchildren and those who will follow them. Watch a video short on Haa Shuká produced by students in SHI’s Voice on the Land Program.
  • Wooch Yáx: Balance: Social and Spiritual Balance  (Haida: Gu dlúu; Tsimshian: Ama Mackshm)
    • Wooch Yáx must be maintained to ensure social and spiritual harmony lest ill will goes wandering and causes harm. Wooch Yáx governs
      • Interrelationships between Eagle and Raven clans
      • Interrelationships between the Tlingit and others, including tribes, nations and institutions
    • Wooch Yáx  includes Kaa yaa awuné or Respect for Others and Át yaa awuné or Respect for All Things. Wooch Yáx requires that our People and our organizations conduct business with Yán gaa doonéekw or “Dignity,” realizing that everything has its rightful place and that all action and business must be done with integrity. Watch a video short on Wooch Yáx̱ produced by students in SHI’s Voice on the Land Program.


Sealaska Heritage was founded in 1980 by Sealaska after being conceived by clan leaders, traditional scholars, and elders at the first Sealaska Elders Conference. During that meeting, the Elders likened Native culture to a blanket. They told the new leaders that their hands were growing weary of holding onto the metaphorical blanket, this “container of wisdom.” They said they transferred this responsibility to Sealaska, the regional Native corporation serving Southeast Alaska. In response, Sealaska founded Sealaska Heritage to operate cultural and educational programs. The late George Davis (Kichnáalx—Lk’aanaaw)  of Angoon spoke these memorable words:

“We don’t want what you did here to only echo in the air how our grandfathers used to do things… Yes. You have unwrapped it for us. That is why we will open again this container of wisdom left in our care.”

Sealaska continues to provide an annual donation that has provided stability for SHI and allowed the institute to leverage those funds in seeking additional support from the private and public sectors. Although SHI is a separate entity as a 501 ©(3), it maintains a strong relationship with Sealaska, and two Sealaska directors sit on the institute’s board of trustees. Sealaska also supports SHI’s biennial Celebration and made significant contributions to the construction of the Walter Soboleff Building and Sealaska Heritage Arts Campus. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee, and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

Walter Soboleff Building

The Walter Soboleff Building

In May 2015, we dedicated The Walter Soboleff Building, our new iconic home in downtown Juneau. It is a special place for Southeast Alaskan Natives, and a place where everyone–Native and non-Native alike–can feel welcome and learn something about their heritage.

The Soboleff Building is like a traditional bentwood box in that it holds our at.óowu–our treasures. In addition to housing our administrative offices, the building contains our climate-controlled archives, our classrooms, the Sealaska Heritage Store and our True Southeast experience. A work of art in its own right, the building contains space for art demonstrations and exhibits, as well as a traditional clan house clad in hand-adzed cedar. The clan house was given the name Shuká Hít (Ancestors’ House) during the grand opening ceremony. The Walter Soboleff Building features large-scale work by several prominent Native artists, including Robert Davidson, David Boxley, Preston Singletary, Steve Brown, and Wayne Price. The building was designed by Juneau’s MRV Architects. The booklet, A Guide to the Walter Soboleff Building, offers a comprehensive look at how this building came to be, what’s inside, and how Sealaska Heritage incorporated traditional protocols into the grand opening ceremony, as does the program for the event.

The Walter Soboleff Building has conference rooms and a cedar clan house (Shuká Hít) that are used for meetings and special events.

About Walter Soboleff

Our building is named for Dr. Walter A. Soboleff, a Tlingit of the Raven, Dog Salmon clan. Dr. Soboleff was a spiritual leader who helped Native and non-Native people alike at a time when segregation was the norm. Throughout his life, he worked tirelessly to advance Native civil rights.

Dr. Soboleff’s generosity of spirit and small acts of kindness made him a giant of a man to people across Alaska. He practiced our traditional Native values, especially the concept of haa shuká”honoring our past while preparing a better future for our children’s children. In 2011, Dr. Soboleff “walked into the forest” at age 102. But his accomplishments, and the people whose lives he touched, live on. The Walter Soboleff Building is a physical manifestation of haa shuká and the ideals Dr. Soboleff held dear. Read: Biographical Article by First Alaskans