Sasha Soboleff, from forward center, Ross Soboleff, and Walter Soboleff, Jr., talk about what the center means to their family. The center is being named in honor of their father.
Cecelia Unick performs with the Yees Ku Oo dance group at the groundbreaking of the Walter Soboleff Center on Thursday, Aug. 1.
Story last updated at 8/7/2013 - 4:58 pm
Dancers in bold regalia chanted and swayed sharing local Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian songs and dances. They also danced to songs to them from around Alaska. Those in the audience were amazed not only at their skill and artistry but at their endurance wearing wool button blankets, leather gloves, fur boots. When planning an outside event here in Juneau, we often have to consider wind, rain, and cold, but protecting our elders from heat and sun is a rare concern. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Walter Soboleff Center on Thursday, Aug. 1, the only umbrella was a parasol one of the attendees used to shade herself from the bright noon rays.
Shovels were at the ready, while cameras, video cameras, and cell phones all captured images, sound and video of the ceremonial groundbreaking. Alaska Native, local, and political dignitaries were all on hand to celebrate the newest center for arts and culture that will be built right in the center of downtown.
The Walter Soboleff Center is envisioned by the Sealaska Heritage Institute as a space for cultural education, a showcase for art, and a center for preserving and teaching Native languages. At today’s groundbreaking we heard glimpses of Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, and other Alaska Native languages both in song and oratory as local Alaska Native leaders spoke about Walter Soboleff and cultural significance of the new center.
Sealaska Heritage Institute estimates that there are only around a hundred speakers of Tlingit, fewer than a dozen speakers of Tsimshian and only three living Haida speakers. Preserving and revitalizing these endangered languages will be a major focus for the new Soboleff Center. SHI plans to offer language instruction and also make and preserve recordings of living native speakers.
Native artists will find space in the new center to showcase their work, and offer classes and workshops. The SHI archive will be available for artists and researchers to view and study important documents and artifacts. There will be exhibit space for display of objects of historic and cultural significance. The building will also feature a living history center that will focus on public education and cross-cultural understanding. Participants in the groundbreaking ceremony wore intricate carvings, weavings, fiber art and jewelry as part of their ceremonial regalia giving attendees a close-up view of our area’s rich artistic history.
Many of the speakers at the ceremony gave a glimpse into the life and work of the Rev. Walter Soboleff, for whom the building is named. Several of Soboleff’s family members attended the ceremony and many others who knew and loved him spoke of his work in Juneau and around Alaska. Soboleff passed away in May of 2011 at the age of 102. Throughout his life in Alaska, he was known for his work as an advocate for the human rights and the rights of indigenous people of Alaska. Soboleff served as chairman of the Alaska state board of education, as ANB Grand Camp President and as director of Sealaska Corporation. He was a Presbyterian minister and a gifted Tlingit orator.
The new Walter Soboleff Center will fill a presently blank spot in the core of downtown Juneau. The building will be on Front Street, directly across from the cinema and across from the existing Sealaska Heritage Institute.
“It is fitting that the Walter Soboleff Center sits on land occupied for thousands of years by the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people,” said Sealaska Corporation Board President Albert Kookesh in a press release. “The center represents and shares our Native cultures with everyone who will visit. It is a reminder that we have been here for 10,000 years and through perpetuation of our culture, in collaboration with so many others who call this region home, we will be here for ten thousand more.”
The downtown location means that the center will be a draw both to local residents and seasonal visitors to town. The cruise ship industry took notice and recently the Cruise Industry Charitable Foundation made a $75,000 gift towards the building. The center has raised about 75 percent of the $20 million needed to complete the building.
Sealaska Heritage Institute is taking a 21st century approach to promoting ancient culture as they work to build the Walter Soboleff Center. Those not able to be in Juneau for the groundbreaking could follow along on Twitter as community elders spoke in Tlingit and English of the core values of love and caring for all people that make their community strong.