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Walter Soboleff Center opens in Juneau as a hub for Southeast Native culture

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  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 15, 2015

JUNEAU -- Sealaska Heritage Institute dedicated its gleaming new Walter Soboleff Center on Friday, bringing to life a $20 million dream that it took a decade to complete.

The new cultural center will do something unusual in the world of art and museums -- it will feature the story of Alaska's Native people being told by Alaska Natives themselves.

"This building is much more than a physical facility," said Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage. "It symbolizes the effort of Native people to ensure our cultural survival, but at the same time selectively embrace the benefits of our modern society."

With the building now complete, the irony of the building's design nearly being stopped by the city of Juneau's historic preservation ordinance now seems just a humorous aside.

But at the time, it seemed a problem because Sealaska Heritage, the nonprofit affiliate of the Sealaska Native Regional Corp., wanted to build on a vacant lot in the city's downtown historic district.

But it didn't want to use the Victorian-era building standards the ordinance called for in the district.

That might have meant beadboard, rather than the hand-hewed yellow cedar that was traditional in the clan houses in which Southeast's Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people had lived for millennia before Victorian architecture was invented.

"This building was designed around the architectural design of our traditional clan house, and was purposefully intended to reflect our ancient heritage, yet at the same time our movement into the future and the modern world," Worl said.

That means the yellow cedar sheathing on the outside, with extensive use of glass and copper trim. Inside, where many facilities have a conference room, the Soboleff building has a "fire pit," a terraced sunken pit in the middle reminiscent of the cooking and heating fires in clan houses.

The glass in the building, not only in windows but engraved internal walls, is post-contact, but shows adoption of new ideas as well, speakers at Friday's daylong dedication ceremony said.

The dedication ceremony also served as a remembrance of Dr. Walter Soboleff, a revered Tlingit religious leader who died in 2011 at age 102.

Soboleff was an ordained Presbyterian minister who was known throughout Southeast for his Tlingit-language broadcast sermons that families gathered around the radio to hear on Sundays.

He was also a leader on civil rights issues and active politically, including speaking at the inauguration of Gov. Sean Parnell in 2010.

Soboleff's children attended the ceremony, including Janet Burke.

"We are so proud of this building; we feel our dad is here," she said.

The dedication ceremony was held outside the building Friday, on a glorious Juneau day as the tents that might have more typically provided protection from the rain instead provided much-needed shade on a day that hit 69 degrees.

The ceremony then moved inside, where the building's art exhibits are displayed and its ethnographic and archival collections are housed.

"This building speaks of the spirit of our ancestors," said Tlingit elder David Katzeek of Juneau.

Community leader Mike Tagaban praised the art in the building, which ranged from historic to pieces commissioned for the building to the clan house itself, but said that calling it "art" diminished its true importance.

"They call it 'art,' but to us it's our history, our story, it's what our ancestors are passing down to us," he said.

The building is opening on schedule, and at an opportune time. It is located close to Juneau's waterfront just as cruise ships will begin bringing an estimated million or more visitors. And it's opening at a time when the Alaska State Museum is closed and its collections are in storage while its new building is under construction.

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