Event held in honor of Walter Soboleff Day
Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) next week will sponsor a panel discussion on the controversial closure of a Juneau church 60 years ago that was ministered by the late Tlingit spiritual leader Walter Kaajaakwtí Soboleff.
The discussion will examine recent efforts to atone for that decision by Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church, Northwest Coast Presbytery and Presbyterian Church U.S.A.
The discussion, scheduled in honor of Walter Soboleff Day, will be led by the Ḵunéix̱ Hídi Northern Light United Church’s Native Ministries Committee, which organized in recent years to research the sudden and unexplained closure of Soboleff’s facility, Memorial Presbyterian Church. The committee led a successful local and national campaign to share the results of their research and reveal the injustice done to Soboleff and parishioners.
The group’s effort addresses a very old wound delivered to Soboleff that was also suffered by his widespread congregation, said SHI President Rosita Worl.
“I think Dr. Soboleff would be proud of the work done by the committee, particularly the Native people who took up this quest to address what was one of the most painful chapters of his life,” Worl said.
Soboleff, who was Tlingit of the Raven, L’eeneidí clan, was wildly successful in his calling as a pastor. He was the Presbyterian Church’s first Alaska Native ordained minister, and he assumed the pulpit at Memorial Presbyterian Church in 1940 at the age of 32. At the time, Juneau had two Presbyterian churches: a Native one and a non-Native one, which was later named Northern Light.
At his first service, only three people attended, but his congregation grew and soon the church became the communal heart of Juneau’s Indian Village, where it accommodated many functions and events in addition to sermons.
To reach other Southeast Communities, Soboleff also took to the radio to give sermons delivered in-part in Lingít. He grew a great following across the region during a painful time for Native people when racism was rampant and Juneau was segregated. Soboleff himself opened his church to all people—Native and non-Native alike—and his voice and messages were a source of comfort.
And so it was with shock that his congregants received news of the church closure from Soboleff in 1962. The moment was summed up in October by Tlingit Lillian Petershoare, who grew up in Juneau Indian Village during that period.
“Standing alone before his congregation, Pastor Walter Soboleff announces the closure of the memorial church. Silence from the Alaska Presbytery and National Board of Missions. No words of remorse. No explanation from the Presbyterian officials. They are absent. Just an abrupt closure,” said Petershoare, a member of the Northern Light United Church and one of the activists who pushed the church for reparations at a national level.
Soboleff himself was a kind and humble man, and he did not publicly criticize the Presbytery for its decision. But, he disclosed to family members the anguish it caused him. One day he opened up to his nephew, the late Tlingit leader Albert Kookesh, who had inquired about the closure.
“He said to me ‘That was the worst political thing that ever happened to me, and I should have said something. I should have said something,’” Kookesh recalled in 2019 at a SHI event celebrating the life of Soboleff.
Kookesh also said it was clear the Presbytery closed Soboleff’s church because it was growing too popular with non-Native people.
In 2021, the Native Ministries Committee wrote an overture, basically a resolution laying out the injustices that were done, and the group was successful in working with the Northern Light church to endorse it, eventually moving the issue through the Presbyterian hierarchy all the way to the national Office of the General Assembly in June.
SHI’s panel will consist of Barbara Searls, Chairperson of Native Ministries Committee and Overture Advocate; Petershoare, former Church Council Member, former Council Liaison to Native Ministries Committee and Co-leader of the Overture Subcommittee; Maxine Richert, Overture Subcommittee Member, Healing Task Force Committee Member, Council Member and Overture Advocate; and Myra Munson, Overture Subcommittee Member, former Council Member and Healing Task Force Chairperson.
During the discussion, panelists will recount their journey to rectify a wrong that until now stood for 60 years and came too late for Soboleff to witness. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 102.
The discussion is scheduled at noon, Nov. 14, which was Soboleff’s birthday and now Walter Soboleff Day. The panel will speak at SHI’s Walter Soboleff Building at 105 S. Seward Street. Everyone is welcome. The talk will be streamed live through SHI’s YouTube and also posted there for later viewers.
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. SHI also conducts social 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.
CONTACT: Kathy Dye, SHI Communications and Publications Deputy Director, 907.321.4636, email@example.com.
Caption: Dr. Walter Soboleff giving a sermon to part of his congregation at a harbor. After his church closed, Soboleff took his ministry to Southeast villages by boat. Photo from SHI archives. Note: News outlets are welcome to use this photo for coverage of this story. For a higher-res image, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece was informed by writings by Steve Quinn, Joaqlin Estus and the Gastineau Heritage News.