South Seward Street in Juneau, Alaska was blocked off the entire day of Friday, May 15th for the opening festivities of the Walter Soboleff Center

Hands down, many have stated the Walter Soboleff Center is the most beautiful, newly-built building in all of Juneau, Alaska.  I must agree.  The local architect did an amazingly beautiful job fitting this fineness sandwiched between the early 1900 buildings.  Sealaska Heritage Institute’s president, Rosita Worl has worked hard to make what SHI is today; the manifestation of this building had to be her ultimate vision.  She had every right to hold her head high during this grand opening occasion. I commend her and her team on a job well done!


The Soboleff Center is directly adjacent to the Sealaska Plaza parking lot – Juneau, Alaska

When SHI was only a year old, I applied for a job.  Looking back now, I realize that I was the 4th or 5th employee.  David Katzeek was president then, my cousin Lisa Sarabia was the receptionist, Mary McNeil was the scholarship coordinator and my Auntie Katherine Mills was one of the first to be hired temporarily to record and translate Tlingit history, Tlingit language, stories and song.  I was hired to take Mary McNeil’s position.  Now with more than 30 employees, SHI proves it has come a long way in 34 years!


The children of the late Walter & the late Geneveive Soboleff: Walter, Jr., Ross, Sasha and Janet

Like any non-profit organization, SHI started from ground zero.  The scholarship program provided Sealaska shareholders grants to attend vocational training, higher education or apprenticeships in Native arts and culture.  Aunt Katherine Mills started the grassroots of the archives of history, song, dance and language.  The scholarship program and the archives were basically the two projects of SHI.  Celebration did not begin until March 1982.  Since then, with the mastermind vision and work of Rosita Worl and her carefully-selected team of employees and the backing of the Sealaska Board of Directors and the formation of the SHI Board of Directors, Rosita has made SHI what it is today.


Dignitaries of Tlingit Raven and Eagle Clans

The Walter Soboleff Center is the largest fruit of Rosita’s vision and labor.  This building now houses SHI’s offices, archives, retail shop, exhibit space, carving “shed”, rooms to conduct classes and additional office spaces to rent.


Dinah Hobson carries two cedar saplings during her dance group’s performance

Many of us artists anticipate conducting classes in carving, metal smithing, language, writing/poetry, weaving, drawing, storytelling, etc.  We look forward to working/teaching in a space with good ventilation, best lighting, ample accommodations, and “being in our own neighborhood.”


Wayne Price (right front) stands before his crew of young carvers from Haines – they paddled for three days in the dugout canoe in time for this event

Local artists and visiting artists look forward to the encouragement and support Sealaska Heritage Institute has promised.  We look forward to SHI truly supporting their shareholder artists in a number of ways such as providing classes to established and up-and-coming artists in Northwest Coast design, marketing and sales, weaving, carving, metal smithing, storytelling, print-making, button-robe making, beadwork, etc.  We look forward to gathering and teaching, networking, and making a living doing our passion.  SHI could truly support our shareholder artists with additional public art commissions, artist residencies, and class space with no charge to the artist.


Crowd view from Front Street looking towards the Sealaska Plaza

Come to think of it, the “Seattle Tribe” (what many folks call the artists who live in Seattle area), received the monumental positions to create works for the new building.  Robert Davidson designed the red motifs and the new SHI logo on the building’s front, Steven Brown’s designs were sandblasted(?) in the glass awnings, David Boxley, Sr.’s large, painted screen in the entry foyer and Preston Singletary’s glass screen is inside the “clan house.”

(It seems that for any Tlingit artists who wants to be acknowledged and with future commissions by SHI, they would have to move to Seattle area?)

Although shareholder artists were not acknowledged by SHI during the grand opening of the Soboleff Center, artists who were present during the event included Reggie Peterson (Sitka), Dahkeen Mehner (Anchorage), Doug Chilton (Juneau), Israel Shotridge (Vashon), Lani Strong-Hotch (Klukwan), Shgen George (Juneau), and myself.  (I apologize to those who I may have forgotten or did not know were present at the grand opening.)


Ishmael Hope listens as Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott speaks on behalf of the State of Alaska.

One of the complaints I have heard already about SHI’s retail outlet is that SHI is not really doing their job of encouraging local artists to sell their wares because their work was not accepted for sale in SHI’s new retail shop.  Artists have also complained that nearly half of the retail shop includes too much manufactured stuff from Native Northwest (previously known as Garfinkles, Inc.) or other Canadian-based companies specializing in printed scarves, mugs, pins, wallets, jewelry, books, etc. and that every gallery up and down the coast of Southeast Alaska and British Columbia seems to be carrying the manufactured stuff, why would SHI’s retail shop be doing the same when by the time the tourists reach Juneau they would have already gotten their token souvenirs and would want to see the “real stuff” from locals? —  Golly, I had never thought about this until I heard this complaint over and over again.  So of course, the way my mind thinks is:  well…is there a solution?  are there many solutions…what are they?


SHI President Rosita Worl (in Chilkat robe) and elder Bessie Cooley, listen to Lieutenant Governor of Alaska Byron Mallott

Solution #1:  I imagine SHI could dwindle their stock of manufactured items to half of what they have now and truly seek out artists who:  a) have a unique line of work, b) up to par with SHI’s standards of design/fabrication/presentation, c)  are willing to sell their wares with 70/30 split  (artist receives 70% of sales price).

I have also heard that artists were turned down because SHI was not interested in the artists’ work or that SHI already had too many of that kind of work, etc.

Solution #2:  SHI needs to be truly honest about why they will not carry an artist’s work.  If SHI feels that any element of the design/fabrication/presentation of the artist’s work does not meet their standard, then SHI needs to tell the artist just so with positive critique; it is only in this way that the artist will know what to do in order to be accepted in any high-caliber gallery.  How are we to know if we are not told the truth?

Solution #3:  Shareholder artists who are turned down need to take a brave look at their own style and see if they need some improvement in design, quality, and/or presentation.  Have others critique your work.  Ask SHI what do they suggest you do to raise the quality of your product, and then go do it!

SHI has a responsibility to our shareholder artists to encourage and support our artists.  Isn’t that what one of the main goals of why the Soboleff Center was created?  Or was the act and manifestation of this building possibly a political stance to put feathers in the caps of both Sealaska and SHI  Board of Directors to build more credibility?


Members of the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) and Alaska Native Brotherhood (ANB) – the first civil rights group in America formed in 1923

Even before the grand opening, I have heard concerns and complaints about “how come there were no female artists commissioned to create a major piece of work for this magnificent building…?  Why only male artists?  And why only male artists who all live down South…?”  Again, I hadn’t thought about this issue until it was brought to my attention.

My response is a personal one that I have answered directly to those who have complained but will not respond here in this public forum because on one hand I respect those who are in charge of making those kinds of decisions though I on the other hand, have been disappointed about being slighted and although I am used to being slighted, I tell myself that some day “my time will come…” (as some other artists have told themselves the same…), and I also remind myself that “my time is always right now”, so therefore, why be concerned?


The elite group of Northwest Coast Artists (L to R): David Boxley, Sr., David Boxley, Jr. Preston Singletary, Robert Davidson, Delores Churchill, Nathan Jackson

Our values are slightly different now.  We have grown into the western way of thinking in many more ways than one mainly because most of us live entirely in the western way of doing and being; we cannot help but eventually change the ways in which we were taught, or the ways in which we genetically received the patterning which were in high contrast with western values.

I remember being at the very first Celebration in 1982.  The feel of Celebration was extremely different than what it has become 34 years later.  Many things were different but because my time is limited, I will bring to mind one:  At Celebration 1982, elders from just about every clan spoke to us in our languages, and even though many of us young people did not understand what was said, we could FEEL the importance of what was said.  In the old way, people were acknowledged and introduced.  All elders were placed before all and were acknowledged; they were all positioned with equal footing.  Stories of the songs were told before they were danced.  Good feelings of respect, honor and grace filled the room.  It was one of the most powerful things.

At Celebration 1982, there were no political entities standing before us on stage whatsoever, telling us about how great things were to come and patting themselves on the back.  Politicians forget that they were elected to their position by the people…and they forget to pat their commoners on the back too.  They forget to acknowledge everyone who is proud of them and who put them there.  They forgot to position our elders on equal footing not just emotionally/spiritually but physically too where they are placed on the same platform as they!  Politicians, who generally have more money than any commoner, forget to “feed” the people in many more ways than one.  In my mind, it’s a 2-way street when it comes to “nourishment.”  Which comes to mind, how come there was no food or drink offered to the general public at this grand opening!?


Preston Singletary and Lani Strong-Hotch (Chilkat robe woven by Clarissa Rizal & Ravenstail robe woven by Lani)


The invitational children’s dance groups led by school teachers Shgen George and Hans Chester


Wayne Price and his 7-member team of paddlers of the dugout canoe come ashore at high tide


Loading the dugout canoe ashore


Dancers in Chilkat: Preston Singletary wears a Clarissa Rizal Chilkat robe, Paul Marks wears a Jennie Thlunaut Chilkat tunic and Nathan Jackson wears a Dorica Jackson Chilkat robe


Young students await the signal to begin their song and dances – Marigold Lindoff, great-great granddaughter to the late Jennie Thlunaut, wears the 5-piece woven ensemble “Chilkat Child” woven by Clarissa Rizal


Writer and Alaskan poet laureate, Nora Dauenhauer


In front of his dugout canoe, Wayne Price accepts the honor from the young dancers


Another view of the welcoming ceremony of the dugout canoe


One of my mother’s best friends, elder Cecilia Kenyon, member of the Wooshkeetaan Shark Clan

I made it a point to attend this grand opening.  Even though I would rather be in my studio doing my work in the comfort of my space, lighting and bed, I had several reasons why I had pack up and come back home sooner this Spring, than later.

I felt it was important to be a part of the event because I wanted SHI and all those attending to know that my presence was there to be supportive of what SHI has been doing for many years and that even though I may not agree sometimes with the way they do things, I commend the institute on all that they have done and their resilience no matter what the confusion, conflicts and complaints they may receive.


Elder Edwina Smith, member of the Kaagwaantaan Wolf Clan

I attended this grand opening also because I knew I would see elders I hadn’t seen in a long time; there are a few of my mother’s friends (above) who for many years I have always had a fondness.

I also wanted to see a couple of my button robes and some of my Chilkat weavings danced:  my “Chilkat Child” danced by my weaving teacher Jennie Thlunaut’s great-great-great granddaughter, Marigold Lindoff; the Chilkat blanket I wove for Anne Gould-Hauberg 15 years ago now owned and danced for the first time by Preston Singletary; the Chilkat cuffs worn by one of Wayne Price’s young carvers/paddlers; the recently-completed “Egyptian Thunderbird” button blanket robe worn by glassblower Reese, and the button blanket robe “Eagle and Raven” owned and danced by Crystal (Rogers) Nelson.


Wayne’s pride

I also attended because I knew several of my fellow artist buddies of mine would be attending, including Wayne Price and his motley crew, Preston Singletary and Sue/Israel Shotridge.


Check out those Chilkat arm bands by Clarissa Rizal

And to top off the event, Ishmael Hope gave the closing speech; he spoke in the Tlingit language with the passion of any elder who lived long time ago.  I was brought to tears as he called out with such reverence and yearning, love and respect, joy and sorrow, it made the entire day worth while of being present and in the moment.

All in all, it was good to gather our people under the same “roof.”


Ishmael Hope gives a compelling closing speech spoken entirely in the Tlingit language


Wayne Price rests against his pride of the dugout in the “carvers’ cave” just outside of the center


Clan crests adorn the heads of young dancers during the outgoing procession


Crystal Rogers dances her Eagle Raven button robe (design by Preston Singletary; sewn by Clarissa Rizal)


Ravenstail octopus bag


Chilkat octopus bag, woven and worn by Shgen George


Ishmael Hope and his newly-adopted daughter (his great great grand niece) Mary Goodwin


Veterans lead the closing ceremonial dance