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To the many speakers and attendees at its May 15 opening ceremonies, the Walter Soboleff Building is a work of art, a home for culture, and a powerful symbol of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people's perseverance and strength. It's also a fitting tribute to Dr. Walter Soboleff, an ordained Presbyterian minister who passed away in 2011 at the age of 102, inspired many in Southeast Alaska with his Sunday morning radio broadcasts, and worked to cultivate Alaska Native pride at a time it was much needed.
More than a building 052015 AE 3 CAPITAL CITY WEEKLY To the many speakers and attendees at its May 15 opening ceremonies, the Walter Soboleff Building is a work of art, a home for culture, and a powerful symbol of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people's perseverance and strength. It's also a fitting tribute to Dr. Walter Soboleff, an ordained Presbyterian minister who passed away in 2011 at the age of 102, inspired many in Southeast Alaska with his Sunday morning radio broadcasts, and worked to cultivate Alaska Native pride at a time it was much needed.

Mary Catharine Martin

David Boxley dances as part of the Git-Hoan Dancers at the dedication ceremonies for the Walter Soboleff Building on May 15. Boxley is a Tsimshian artist who with his son, David Boxley Jr., created the house front screens one sees upon entering the Walter Soboleff Building.


Mary Catharine Martin

David Boxley Jr., speaking, collaborated with his father, well-known Tsimshian carver David A. Boxley, on the Tsimshian house front screens visible behind him. The screen is called "The Man Who Holds Up the Earth," and the central figure is the land.


AMY FLETCHER

SHI president Rosita Worl, center wearing a Chilkat robe, dances at the very end of the 10-hour grand opening ceremony for the Walter Soboleff Building Friday in Juneau.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Story last updated at 5/20/2015 - 9:47 am

More than a building

To the many speakers and attendees at its May 15 opening ceremonies, the Walter Soboleff Building is a work of art, a home for culture, and a powerful symbol of Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people's perseverance and strength. It's also a fitting tribute to Dr. Walter Soboleff, an ordained Presbyterian minister who passed away in 2011 at the age of 102, inspired many in Southeast Alaska with his Sunday morning radio broadcasts, and worked to cultivate Alaska Native pride at a time it was much needed.

"He taught us the word of God, but... he also taught us the word of respect for our culture," said speaker Bill Thomas, who loaned historic Tlingit regalia to the building's museum.

"Our people have been through a lot, to the point where 50 years ago, this might not have been possible," said David Boxley Jr., who, with his father, created the Tsimshian house front screen just inside the building's entrance. "When (people) walk by, I hope they remember the strength that they come from."

Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott spoke about listening to Soboleff's sermons as a boy in Yakutat.

The building represents a commitment to Southeast's Native children, he said.

"We will use our strength to add to the collective strength of Alaska, so that generations from now, Alaska will be a place in which is recognized the strength of first peoples... It will make Alaska stronger, and it will make the rest of the world look at Alaska and say 'There is a place where people came together in a way that is an example for the rest of us,'" he said.

Dozens spoke and hundreds danced, because most of all, the day was a celebration of all the building symbolizes. Attendees from Metlakatla, Angoon, Yakutat, Klukwan, and many other Southeast Alaskan communities attended, wearing stunning regalia - masks and headdresses, blankets, and winter ermine furs draped over dancers backs on one of the warmest, sunniest days so far this year.

The Aangun Yat'xi (Angoon Children) represented both the past - Angoon was Soboleff's hometown - and the future, with dozens of children in button regalia singing in Tlingit and dancing. At times, the dancing was ecstatic, as when Git-Hoan Dancers, led by Tsimshian carver David Boxley, performed.

That dancing and the formal arrival of the North Tide Canoe Kwáan of Chilkoot and Chilkat marked the day's split from the formal ceremony in the first half to the traditional ceremony in the second half.

After returning from Marine Park to the Walter Soboleff Building, the ceremony moved inside to unveil Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary's screen inside Shuká Hít, the clan house inside the Walter Soboleff Building, which Singletary called "definitely the biggest and most important piece I've done to date." (See related story, page 7)

"We have opened the center of Juneau to our children, our grandchildren... can you hear our ancestors? They're... saying look, you're not losing your culture, you're not losing your language. ... Our culture and our language is with us forever," said Joe Zuboff, speaking at the unveiling of Singletary's screen.

After that, a grandson of former State Sen. Albert Kookesh imprinted his hand, in red, inside a carved outline of Kookesh's hand in the far corner of the house. The grandson is a member of the Dog Salmon clan.

The ceremony then moved to the front entry of the building, where Tsimshian carver David Boxley and his son, David Boxley Jr., spoke on the Tsimshian house front they'd worked on together. David Boxley Jr. drew the design. At the four corners are the four clans of the Tsimshians - raven, wolf, eagle and killer whale. The central figure is the land, and beneath it is the man who holds up the earth.

The Rasmuson Foundation was a substantial donor to the building. Instead of naming a room in honor of itself, it chose to honor two distinguished artists. One room will be the "Delores Churchill Artist in Residence Studio." Churchill is a Haida master weaver. The other will be the Nathan Jackson Gallery. Jackson is a well-known Tlingit carver who was in attendance at the celebration.

Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl spoke throughout the day. She recognized William Paul, known as "the father of Alaska Native land claims," and the struggle to get the federal government to recognize Native Alaskans' land rights. His grandson, Ben Paul, was also present.

Towards the end of the day, during the ceremonial transfer of clan hats to the museum, Worl spoke about her "love-hate" relationship with museums, and the departure that this facility will represent from the role museums have played in the past. Museums took sacred objects, or at.óow, away from Native peoples. But they also preserved those objects and kept them from going into private collections, where the cultures that created them now have no chance to even see them. SHI, with partners, has been working to find a way to return those objects to their homeland. The collections inside the Walter Soboleff Building is by Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, celebrating both art created by ancestors and that created today.

Worl also spoke about the importance of the Walter Soboleff Building in educating the public at large, pointing out that it was from misunderstandings and stereotypes in mainstream America that, in decades past, Native peoples absorbed a sense of shame about their heritage.

Things will be different going forward, speakers said.

"Today is... just an incredibly great day for the state of Alaska," said Gov. Bill Walker. "This facility represents... a movement, an attitude, a major step in the right direction for the future of this great state."

"Can you feel, can you sense the sunlight and love that's coming down upon you right now?" asked Tlingit elder David Katzeek.

"This is where the stories will be told, as they are told in our homes," said Mike Tagaban of the Wooshkeetaan clan. "This is where the food will be shared, as it is shared in our homes. This is where prayers will be offered, as they are offered in our homes. I can see nothing but love coming from this house, nothing but love. And that's what Walter had for each and every one of us ... Gunalchéesh. Welcome to our house."

• Contact CCW staff writer Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@capweek.com.