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Navy SEAL Solomon 'Sol' Atkinson A Life Driven by Service, Native Heritage

by Andre’ Billeaudeaux, NSWC Public Affairs & Courtesy Assets
27 November 2023 Solomon ‘Sol’ Atkinson was born in Metlakatla, Alaska in 1930 and, as a Ts’msyen (Tsimshian) Native American he lived a purposeful life defined by both his Native American heritage and his service as a U.S. Navy SEAL.

His early years were shaped by the region’s rugged lifestyle, which taught him to be resourceful and appreciate the support of his community. These values guided him through his career in the U.S. Navy and public service. He also inherited a rich cultural legacy from his ancestors, a society that follows the matriarchal line, and who belonged to the Gitlaan clan of the Xpi’hanaḵ house in the Tsimshian nation.

“Dad was such a humble guy who had so little growing up here, but he never ever complained,” said Atkinson’s daughter Maria Hayward. “As a matter of fact, he only owned one pair of shoes and when those got a hole in them, he placed cardboard inside so he could still wear them.”

The National Museum of the American Indian explains that many clans in tribal communities are based on animals that have history and meaning. As a Tsimshian, he was part of the raven and frog clans, two animal-spirits that matched his naval career with their stories and traits.

As the Creator’s helper, the raven is a heroic figure. According to Tsimshian artist Bill Helin, the raven stole the Sun in an operation that required courage, cunning, and creativity and delivered it to humans who had never seen the light. Likewise, “Sol” Atkinson shone in service with brave deeds during conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, often putting his life on the line for the sake of his comrades and country.

The Sun that the raven brought is so vital to the ‘long-winter’ Metlakatla community, that it is featured in the middle of the town’s logo. And, as a SEAL, Atkinson prepared astronauts for space exploration, an act that launched humans into the sky and closer to the raven’s Sun than ever before. The raven also symbolizes Atkinson’s legacy as a protector, safeguarding others through his courageous actions during wars in Korea and Vietnam, frequently risking his life for his teammates and nation.

Meanwhile the frog represents the voice of the people and strives to build unity. The selfless frog teaches by example and is more focused on the us and we of the community and less on I – key notions also reflected in Atkinson’s SEAL ethos: “…I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans …placing the welfare and security of others before my own.” And while many know Atkinson was the first Alaskan Native to join the Navy’s Underwater Demolition Teams (later becoming a SEAL) he may have also been the first “Frogman” descended from a frog clan.

“He was just a gigantic person and I’m not talking about him being six foot something,” says Verdie Bowen, director of the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs, who knew Atkinson since he was a kid. “He was a great storyteller.”

After retiring from his successful navy career, Sol was called to service again. As Metlakatla’s mayor, Atkinson used his charisma and “great storytelling” skills to motivate the town to pursue projects like an Olympic-sized pool for the high school which resulted in a certified dive program at the small school where about a fifth of the students participate in the lessons.

This career preparedness program exposes young Alaskans to U.S. Navy Diver and SEAL career paths. Four of Atkinson’s grandsons and two of his great grandsons have achieved SCUBA certifications through the program.

Brad Billings, the state’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) Program Administrator praised the program as unique and impressive, noting that Metlakatla offers the state’s only high school CTE dive certification course. “What was impressive is their discipline, they really stuck to the goal of certification and that’s quite an accomplishment considering the requirements and how small of a community they are.”

Atkinson wanted to give back to his community by championing the high school dive program and pool. He believed that anyone could excel by attacking every challenge and turning it into a chance to succeed.

“There wasn’t much here as far as opportunity when he was growing up,” noted Hayward. “He was shipped off to boarding school at one point, yet he overcame everything he had to deal with. Dad’s success in the SEALs allows young people here today to have hope that they too can really make something of themselves just like he did.”

Sol was proud of his Tsimshian heritage and served his community in many ways. Besides helping high school divers, he also led a team that created the first of what would eventually be three totem poles for Disney’s Canadian Pavilion at Epcot Center in Florida. There, about 30,000 visitors a day can admire the amazing Tsimshian art that includes Atkinson’s own raven at the bottom of the first pole, carrying the entire weight of the vertical community on his feathery shoulders.

“Sol was really involved in the community, proud of having grown up in it. He was a leader, always carried himself so well… intelligent, thoughtful, kind and friendly, said Metlakatla board member and tribal historian David Boxley who was also responsible for carving two of the totem poles. “You never would have known that he had been a very capable Navy SEAL and did the incredible things he did while he was in service,” added Boxley.

Like the totem raven’s unflinching community support, Atkinson founded and launched the Metlakatla Veterans Association, working diligently to ensure his fellow veterans received the benefits and recognition they earned.

“As a mayor and a veterans' advocate, he was a pillar in his community,” said Verdie Bowen, the director of the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs. “He was always putting others before himself.”

In the spring of 2019 – the same year as his passing – Atkinson’s contributions were displayed as part of the Avenue of Heroes Program by the City of Coronado, California, a tribute that underscores his enduring impact. And just this year, the Navy he heroically served paid tribute to Atkinson by naming a future Navajo-class Towing, Salvage and Rescue ship after him, serving as a lasting tribute to a man who gave so much to his country and his community.

“I am pleased to ensure that his name will extend globally to all who view this great ship,” said Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro when announcing the name of the future USNS Solomon Atkinson (T-ATS 12).

This honor is not just a recognition of Atkinson's service but also a milestone in acknowledging the contributions of Native Americans in the armed forces. The National Indian Council on Aging reminds us that Native Americans serve in the military at five times the national average; the highest per-capita volunteerism of any other ethnic population.

Solomon 'Sol' Atkinson's life was not just an account of military valor but also a narrative of Native American heritage and community leadership.

“His pioneering role as one of the first U.S. Navy SEALs, and his unwavering commitment to service both in and out of uniform, serves as an inspiration for the entire Naval Special Warfare community,” said Rear Adm. Keith Davids, commander, Naval Special Warfare Command.