A bill to establish Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska cleared a state House committee on Thursday, after lawmakers on the panel heard heartfelt testimony from the late Tlingit elder’s friends and family.
The bill does not have any more committee stops before a vote on the House floor.
Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand President Bill Martin recalled listening to Soboleff’s church services on the radio as a child growing up in Kake.
“His delivery was low key and his message was simple: Love your neighbor, for love is God,” Martin said.
Soboleff was the first Alaska Native minister in Juneau, at a time when the town was segregated. He became a cultural and spiritual leader in the community and statewide, impressing both Natives and non-Natives with his teachings.
Selina Everson with the Alaska Native Sisterhood said Soboleff meant everything to the Native community in Southeast Alaska.
“He performed marriages of our people. He gave comfort when there was sorrow. He stood by us. How else can we honor him?” Everson asked.
All four of Soboleff’s children testified before the House State Affairs Committee. Son Ross said his father always told him to feed his spirit.
“I think he fed the spirit of people from many walks of life,” Soboleff said. “In his church and in his service, and sometimes as chaplain at this legislature.”
House Bill 217 would establish Nov. 14 as Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska. That was the day he was born in 1908. Soboleff died in 2011 at the age of 102.
“He truly was a towering figure in the Native community, statewide through the Alaska Federation of Natives, through the early Native civil rights movement,” said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, prime sponsor of the legislation.
Kreiss-Tomkins envisions Soboleff Day as similar to Elizabeth Peratrovich Day, just celebrated on February 16th. It marks the day territorial Gov. Ernest Gruening signed the 1945 Alaska Anti-Discrimination Act, which Peratrovich championed.
“That’s noted in a lot of schools – the history of anti-discrimination legislation in the state or territory of Alaska,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “It’s really how groups, schools, institutions, choose to honor or observe the person and what the person represented.”
There’s recent precedent for the legislation. Last year, lawmakers created Jay Hammond Day to honor Alaska’s self-proclaimed “Bush Rat Governor.” In 2011, the legislature established Ted Stevens Day, honoring the state’s longtime U.S. Senator.
HB 217 has several co-sponsors, including every House member from Southeast Alaska. After the hearing, State Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Bob Lynn, R-Anchorage, and Vice Chair Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, said they would sign on, too.