From the Desk of Mary Ehrlander: The Success of the Walter Harper Project

Mary F. Ehrlander is a Professor Emeritus of History and Arctic & Northern Studies at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is the author of Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son (Bison Books, 2017), Equal Educational Opportunity: Brown’s Elusive Mandate and coauthor of Education Reform in the American States.

When my biography of the largely unknown Walter Harper appeared in 2017, I never could have imagined that five years later I would attend the unveiling in my hometown, Fairbanks, Alaska, of a bronze statue to recognize the first person to summit Denali, North America’s tallest mountain. The exuberance of the crowd that gathered to celebrate the unveiling in July 2022 expressed the sentiment “It’s about time!” It’s about time that we recognize this outstanding Alaskan and terrific role model for all Alaskans. And it’s about time that we strike a better balance in Alaska history—that we acknowledge the deep history of Alaska Native peoples and that we integrate better the more recent stories of Alaska’s Native and non-Native population.

The three-year Walter Harper Project led by a group of Alaskans connected to Walter’s story in various ways garnered the enthusiastic support of a broad cross-section of Alaskans. The 2017 publication of Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son had generated great interest and sparked the idea of raising a statue to Harper. The installation, including interpretive panels, would educate the public about this exceptional Alaskan whose courage, skills, and positive attitude had contributed critically to the success of the 1913 Pioneer Ascent of Denali. Panels include a biographical sketch of Harper, a panel depicting the contributions of all six members of the 1913 Expedition, a third conveying the unique challenges to climbing Denali, a fourth on the role of dogs in the expedition and in early 20th century Alaska, as well as panels featuring the artist and recognizing donors.

Amid a national movement to tear down controversial statues that have divided communities, and a medical and financial crisis caused by the pandemic, the Walter Harper Project united Alaskans in supporting this positive effort. People seemed thrilled to contribute! Doyon, Limited, the Alaska Native regional corporation that represents the vast majority of the Dena’ / Athabascans of Interior Alaska, hosts the installation on its beautiful property on the banks of the Chena River in downtown Fairbanks. The installation’s central, highly visible, and accessible location will enhance public awareness.  

Photo of A HAND UP. By Mary Ehrlander.

Titled A Hand Up, the statue depicts Walter on Denali reaching down as if to assist fellow climbers. It symbolizes Walter’s critical role in the 1913 Denali Expedition’s success, more broadly his life in service to others, and the Dena’ value of helping one another. Walter’s expressive face and outstretched hand invite visitors to reach up, take his hand, look into his eyes, and feel his energy and spirit. A statue of Snowball, Walter’s favorite malamute dog, stands a short distance away, gazing up at him. Snowball promises to capture the interest of many young visitors to the installation.

Photo of SNOWBALL. Photo by Mary Ehrlander

The artist, Gary Lee Price, whom the Walter Harper Project committee selected through a rigorous and public process, expresses his vision for his art in this way: “I hope I can assist the world in visualizing a place where fences and boundaries, both real and imagined, are nonexistent.” In a similar vein, speakers at the unveiling expressed the hope that Walter’s excellence, resilience, and generous spirit would uplift us all and bring Alaskans of all backgrounds together.

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