From the Desk of Mary F. Ehrlander: Reflections on the Appeal and Value of Biography

Throughout the month of November we will feature books and authors from our list to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

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 Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son (Bison Books, 2017).

Events following the publication of Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son illustrate how history matters and why biographies resonate so deeply with readers.

Mary F Ehrlander portrait

My interest in Walter Harper began when I opened Hudson Stuck’s A Winter Circuit of our Arctic Coast. Stuck dedicated the book to Harper, his longtime assistant and trail companion in his travels as Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon (River). The work chronicled the duo’s final six-month winter journey of 1917-1918 as they covered 2,500 miles by dogsled in a circuit of Alaska’s Arctic region. Tragically, the twenty-five-year-old Athabascan-Irish Harper and his bride of seven weeks drowned in the October 1918 sinking of the Princess Sophia in Alaska’s Inside Passage. Stuck’s poignant dedication piqued my interest in this historical figure whose name I recognized only vaguely. As I read the engrossing narrative, I grew convinced that Alaskans (that anyone!) would want to know about this capable and charismatic Alaska Native man. His claim to fame was his role in the 1913 pioneer ascent of Denali. He was the first to summit North America’s tallest mountain. But summiting Denali was the least of it for me. Harper’s complement of subsistence skills and character traits that allowed him to play such a pivotal role in that historic expedition had inspired my interest. My initial notion of writing an article on Harper evolved into a conviction that only a biography would do him justice. I knew that readers would relish the story of this heroic figure and recognize him as a terrific role model for Alaska’s youth. Recent developments have confirmed that intuition on a scale I could not have imagined.

The University of Nebraska Press published the book in Fall 2017. An October book launch in Fairbanks, Alaska drew a standing-only crowd. Reviews in several Alaska newspapers praised the book itself, while marveling at Harper’s heroic feats and qualities. Many readers have emailed me, praising the book and thanking me for bringing to light this fascinating history. Increasingly I’m hearing, usually from individuals who identify strongly as Alaskans: “I can’t believe I never knew of Walter Harper!” and “Why hasn’t this been taught in Alaska history?!” Notably, the bi-racial Harper retained his strong Athabascan identity and sense of direction, even as he learned to navigate smoothly in mainstream Alaskan/American society. Today, when virtually all Alaska Natives have mixed heritage, youth can identify with Harper and draw guidance and wisdom from his experience.

Walter Harper Alaska Native Son cover

In summer 2019, Alaskans’ enthusiasm for this newly discovered historical figure began to build momentum. I learned of an initiative to build a bronze statue of Harper, whose pivotal role in the first ascent of Denali had long gone unrecognized. Naturally, I offered my enthusiastic support. In spring 2020, state senator Click Bishop of Fairbanks introduced a bill to make June 7 (summit day) Walter Harper Day, in recognition not only of Harper’s feat on Denali, but owing to his “superb subsistence skills, his integrity, his strong sense of identity and purpose, and his ability to navigate comfortably in both the Athabascan culture and other cultures of the United States,” as Senator Bishop put it. A former student of mine, who is now a legislative aide, wrote me that the book was “all the buzz” in the legislature for weeks. Both the Senate and House passed the bill unanimously, and Governor Dunleavy signed it into law on April 29. On June 7, Alaskans celebrated the first Walter Harper Day.

Meanwhile, the Walter Harper Project has forged ahead with the aim of installing a bronze statue of Harper, along with interpretive panels to educate the public about him and about the roles of all six members of the 1913 Denali expedition. Doyon Limited, the Alaska Native Corporation for Interior Alaska, will host the installation on its beautiful grounds on the Chena River in Fairbanks. Harper would have been a Doyon shareholder, had he lived into the 1970s, when Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) that established the twelve regional Native corporations. Sizeable donations are streaming in.

In September, Aurora Magazine, the University of Alaska’s alumni journal, published an artfully conceived piece on the book, Harper, and me, focusing on my journey as an historian. The author, Sam Bishop, opened the story by relating how my research on Harper’s life had rekindled a childhood friendship between Johanna Harper, Walter’s great niece, and me. Using quotations from the book and many historical photographs, Bishop made the case that Harper’s life story warranted a prominent place in Alaska history. Multiple Facebook postings and shares of the article have confirmed the resonance of Harper’s story, people’s need for heroes, and Alaskans’ eagerness to see Harper recognized as such.

I recall thinking, as I came to know Harper, “How wonderful it would be if all Alaskan children knew his story. What lessons Walter could teach them!” Three years after the biography’s publication, I’m gratified to witness the growing consensus that Harper’s life story offers a valuable example of a life well lived. His untimely death denied Harper his chosen career as a medical missionary and prevented his becoming a bridge between generations of Alaska Natives and non-Natives. Now, a century after his death, the public response to Harper’s biography encourages me to believe that this inspiring historical figure may yet have the legacy he deserves, and that far into the future his story will edify the lives of Alaskans of all ages.

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