cover image

Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son

Mary F. Ehrlander

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Imprint: Bison Books
Published: 10/2017
Pages: 240
Subject: Social Science
eBook ISBN: 9781496204042


2018 Alaskana Award from the Alaska Library Association 2018 Alaska Historical Society James H. Drucker Alaska Historian of the Year AwardWalter Harper, Alaska Native Son illuminates the life of the remarkable Irish-Athabascan man who was the first person to summit Mount Denali, North America's tallest mountain. Born in 1893, Walter Harper was the youngest child of Jenny Albert and the legendary gold prospector Arthur Harper. His parents separated shortly after his birth, and his mother raised Walter in the Athabascan tradition, speaking her Koyukon-Athabascan language. When Walter was seventeen years old, Episcopal archdeacon Hudson Stuck hired the skilled and charismatic youth as his riverboat pilot and winter trail guide. During the following years, as the two traveled among Interior Alaska's Episcopal missions, they developed a father-son-like bond and summited Denali together in 1913. Walter's strong Athabascan identity allowed him to remain grounded in his birth culture as his Western education expanded, and he became a leader and a bridge between Alaska Native peoples and Westerners in the Alaska territory. He planned to become a medical missionary in Interior Alaska, but his life was cut short at the age of twenty-five, in the Princess Sophia disaster of 1918 near Skagway, Alaska. Harper exemplified resilience during an era when rapid socioeconomic and cultural change was wreaking havoc in Alaska Native villages. Today he stands equally as an exemplar of Athabascan manhood and healthy acculturation to Western lifeways whose life will resonate with today's readers.  


Mary F. Ehrlander is the director of Arctic and Northern Studies and a professor of history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is the author of Equal Educational Opportunity: Brown's Elusive Mandate and coauthor of Education Reform in the American States.  


"A fascinating glimpse into a pivotal moment in Alaskan history through the story of the short life of Walter Harper, a protégé of the redoubtable missionary Hudson Stuck. The men and women of Alaska were tough and hearty souls."—Steve Thomas, author and host of This Old House and Renovation Nation and grandson of the Reverend William A. Thomas, a contemporary of Walter Harper  

"Not only a fine work of history but a rousing adventure tale and a love story. This is a great book."—Terrence M. Cole, professor of history at the University of Alaska Fairbanks  

"A concise picture of Walter Harper's character and personality. This is a historical account of a courageous Athabascan leader whom we all should learn about."—Walter Carlo, chairman of the board of Doyon Limited, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act corporation for the Athabascans of Alaska's interior