Sealaska Unveils Its New Building in Downtown Juneau

The Sealaska Heritage Institute unveiled its new structure in downtown Juneau on Friday. It’s called the Walter Soboleff Building after the late Tlingit scholar, elder and religious leader. Inside stands a full-sized replica of a traditional red cedar clan house.

Download Audio:

Singers in front of the newly unveiled artwork on the clan house (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)
Singers in front of the newly unveiled artwork on the clan house (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

At the opening ceremony, the Aangun Yatx’i dance in their regalia in front of the Walter Soboleff building.

Davina Cole is the arts assistant here. She clutches her four-month-old baby girl tightly to her chest.

“We’re Yanyeidí from the T’aaku Kwáan area. We’re little wolves. She’s my baby pup,” she says.

Cole says she’s looking forward to what the Soboleff Building will offer her daughter. They’ve already gone to a Baby Raven Readsclass before the grand opening. It teaches pre-literacy through Native stories.

“So even right now she’s benefiting from the center because it’s going to be really good for her to be surrounded by that and even have a place to go and learn that,” she says.

The building is a museum for Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian artifacts, a space for cultural ceremonies and it houses a gift shop. The building is part of an initiative to turn Juneau into the Northwest Native arts capital. But designing a space that could serve all those functions and reflect the past was difficult.

“When we got the responses, the designs were all very traditional,” Rosita Worl says.

Worl is the president of Sealaska Heritage Institute and a Tlingit from the Eagle moiety. She says the Native artist committee wanted a structure that was more “traditionally inspired.”

“They don’t like the word ‘contemporary,’” she says.

A large crowd gathered in front of the Soboleff Building listen to a series of speakers (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)
A large crowd gathered in front of the Soboleff Building listen to a series of speakers (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

SHI sifted through submissions and picked architect Paul Voelckers’. The design was influenced by the form of ceremonial clan houses with chunky beams of yellow cedar. It has an open feel and a wall of glass at the entrance.

“I will tell you that we made the right decision in selecting Paul. It might not have even been the lowest bid. But we all said we got to go with him,” she says.

Voelckers is the president of MRV Architects. The firm’s founder Linn Forrest Sr. specialized in totem pole and clan house reconstruction.

“The firm has sort of tried to maintain that legacy of involvement in the cultural design issues from Southeast ever since,” Voelckers says.

Most recently, MRV worked on a clan house in Kasaan. For the Walter Soboleff Building, Voelckers looked at old photos of clan villages. Some were covered in moss from age.

“But it would have the angles of the house. You know, the big massive beams on the front. And sometimes the old house post inside. That became the essential element that was left in these villages. And so what we tried to do in the new design was capture some of that heavy framework,” he says.

The basement level floor houses the research lab and mechanical room. The whole building is heated using wood pellets.

“It simply flows down like grain or something,” he says.

The building was designed to meet the U.S. Green Building Council’s gold standard for energy efficiency. The wood pellets come mostly from the Sealaska Corp. land on Prince of Wales Island. Rosita Worl says that’s part of keeping the core cultural values in the design.

“Haa Aani: our relationship to the land,” she says.

On the main floor is a full-sized replica of a clan house. It can seat 300 people and fits with tradition: pitched roof, windowless and built with adzed red cedar. The floor is tiered with sunken-in seating. Worl says she knew it would a special place.

“But what we hadn’t counted on, what I hadn’t thought about was this almost sacred feeling that you get when you go into that clan house.”

Worl says she has a strong connection to her ancestors.

“And it was almost like they were saying to us, ‘Rosita, you know you’re talking about being progressive, you want to move into the 21st century.’ It almost became like their space and they said, ‘This is where we are.’”

At the the Walter Soboleff’s closing ceremony, the clan house was given the name Shuká Hít.

Canoe coming in to dock (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)
Canoe coming in to dock (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)