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Native leader's rise against all odds inspires hope

Harold Napoleon

1908 was the year that the 88 million Americans living at the time heard about a "ball" dropping in New York's Time Square to celebrate the coming of a New Year; it was the first year that Americans would honor their mothers (Mother's Day). Teddy Roosevelt was president, a postage stamp cost 2 cents, and Henry Ford was developing the Model T, which would sell for $850.

Born that year were a number of "notables": Amy Vanderbilt, Bette Davis, Edward R. Murrow, Edward Teller, Jimmy Stewart, John Kenneth Galbraith, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Thurgood Marshall, William Randolph Hearst Jr., and in Alaska, a Tlingit boy, Kajakti, the subject of this letter.

At the time of Kajakti's birth, Alaska had a population of about 63,000, 25,000 of whom were non-Native. It was a "frontier" to the wild-eyed gold rushers and fishermen who had stampeded north to get rich on gold and fish. It had no central government, no legislature, and no "law and order" but for the U.S. marshal. It had an appointed governor, Walter Clarke -- and for the first time that year -- a popularly elected delegate to Congress, James Wickersham.

Kajakti, "One Slain in Battle," was born November 14, 1908, to Alexander Ivan Soboleff, the son of a Russian Orthodox priest, and his wife, Anna Hunter of Killisnoo, Alaska. Kajakti (also spelled Kha'jaq'tii) was born into a world where his mother's Tlingit culture was being forever changed by his father's European one. He was named after an Angoon Clan leader to whom he was related.

As a 7 year old, Kajakti was taken to an Iicht (shaman) by his mother and was treated for reasons he never understood. He also experienced being sent to the "Russian school" in Sitka as an 8-year-old, only to be sent home again because it closed due to the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, its benefactor (1917). A year later, the 10-year-old served as an interpreter for a doctor who visited Killisnoo during the 1918 flu epidemic that brought many Alaska Native tribes to the edge of extinction.

In 1922, his father died at the age of 35 and his mother had to take the 13-year-old boy to Sheldon Jackson at Sitka where he would live and receive an education. He received his 8th-grade diploma in 1924 and completed high school in 1928, a great accomplishment for an Alaska Native of any tribe at the time.

But that was not enough for Kajakti -- he was so determined to go on to college that he enrolled at Oregon State College knowing full well that he only had enough money for one semester. When his money ran out he lived at the YMCA in Seattle till he was able to work his passage back to Sitka on a steam ship.

In Sitka, he would eke out a living working at a cold storage plant and as a fisherman's helper. And having taught himself how to play the trumpet and violin, he played on the Sitka Fireman's Band at night -- this in addition to selling suits on the side.

Then in 1933, he got called by the administrator of Sheldon Jackson where he got great news. He had received a scholarship to the University of Dubuque in Iowa. That fall, Kajakti took a steamer to Seattle and hitchhiked from Seattle to Dubuque, much of the trip being made lying on the front of a truck already covered, as if by fleas, by Depression-era hitchhikers. He would receive his A.B. degree in 1937, having studied Greek and Hebrew, and his bachelor of divinity in May of 1940. Then, having achieved his goal, he again hitchhiked his way back to Seattle -- this time underneath a freight train carrying heavy equipment, literally lying flat atop bolts.

Having been ordained, Kajakti married his high school sweetheart, Genevieve Ross, a Haida, and arrived in segregated Juneau in the fall of 1940 to become missions minister of the Memorial Presbyterian Church there. The rest, as they say, is history.

Kajakti, "One Slain in Battle," had chosen the shepherding of God's people as his field of "battle," and to our benefit and delight he is still in the field.

Kajakti, Dr. Walter Alexander Soboleff ,will be 100 on November 14, 2008. I told these brief snippets of his youth because they illustrate what all young people can achieve if they put their minds to it: even a young Tlingit boy with no father to support him during a time when all Americans were undergoing a "Great Depression."

Walter has many accomplishments, too many to list here. But needless to say, he was an exemplary son, grandson, brother, friend, husband, father, grandfather, pastor, missionary (with his mission boat, the Princeton Hall), educator (architect and first director of the Native Studies program at the University of Alaska, 1971), corporate leader (Sealaska, Kootznoowoo, Sealaska Heritage Foundation), adviser and friend to governors, and now, elder to a whole generation of Alaska Natives -- a direct link to a world that no longer exists.

Dr. Soboleff is a humble man, a leader, who in his lifetime has overcome all those things that keep Alaska Natives, indeed all people, from reaching their potential as human beings: poverty, bigotry, ignorance, shame, guilt, and fear.

Kajakti, Dr. Walter Alexander Soboleff, a Tlingit warrior, is a witness to history, a living treasure -- a man to model our sons and grandsons after. Walter has four children: Janet C. Burke, Sasha, Walter Jr. and Ross Vincent Soboleff. He also remarried in 1997, 11 years after his beloved Genevieve's passing, to another wonderful lady, Stella Alice Atkinson, a Tshimshian from Metlakatla. Walter is still very active and lives in Juneau. Happy birthday, my brother.

Harold Napoleon is administrator for the Native village of Paimiut and author of "Yuuyaraq: Way of the Human Being."


By HAROLD NAPOLEON