Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Athabascan in the Spotlight

Walter Harper Day

Photo of Walter Harper courtesy of the Walter Harper Project

It’s official – June 7 is Walter Harper Day! Senator Click Bishop sponsored Senate Bill 144 to establish June 7 in recognition of Walter Harper (Koyukon Athabascan) who became the first person to stand on top of Denali on June 7, 1913.

I checked in with Walter Harper’s grandnephew, Mike Harper (Koyukon Athabascan), to learn about the significance of the Day. Mike’s family comes from Tanana and Rampart and his family moved to Fairbanks area after the 1918 pandemic. Mike was raised in Fairbanks by his grandmother, Louise Harper, widow of Sam Harper who passed in 1931. Sam was the brother of Walter’s brother.

According to Mike, Walter was son of the Irish gold miner Arthur Harper and Sentenna Jenny Albert (Koyukon Athabascan). Walter was the youngest of eight  children and the only one raised in the Indian culture by his mother. The other kids were sent stateside for schooling. “Already a skilled hunter and dog musher and a strapping lad of six feet, Episcopal Archbishop Hudson Stuck hired on Walter as his guide, Interpreter, riverboat pilot, and dog musher,” says Mike Harper.

Walter was 16 at the time and only in the second year of  his schooling. Rather like a father/son relationship, the two traversed interior Alaska up the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers as well as mushing over a thousand miles once from Ft. Yukon to Pt. Hope to Barrow and back to Ft. Yukon.

Stuck and always wanted to climb Mount McKinley and show it was that in 1913 he and Harry Karstens lead a team of four including Harper and fellow Episcopalian Robert Tatum as well as two Athabascan youth Johnny Fred (Fredson) and Esaias George to summit the Great One. Various accounts acknowledge that the nearly three-month journey starting mid-March from Fairbanks by dog team to the base of the mountain and then the climb had taken its toll on the team.

“It came to Walter to break trail and cut steps the as they approached the summit and so it was that Walter was first to summit and gaining immortality at that achievement.” – Mike Harper (Koyukon Athabascan)

Learn more about the Walter Harper in Mary Ehrlander’s book, “Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son,” published in 2017. Mary was born and raised in Fairbanks and was a professor at the University in Fairbanks. Mike says, “That is probably your best resource but other books by Hudson Stuck tell of the life of Walter.”

Mary writes of the men’s harrowing journey which included flared tempers, a fire that burned food rations, an earthquake that caused avalanches, sunburn, heavy backpacks, trouble breathing, headaches and concentrating in the high altitudes, cold temperatures and wind, nearly frozen feet, and various other health maladies, like gut issues, depression and anxiety. Mary also writes of the some perfectly time weather conditions where skies opened up for them to safely descend.

“…I was ahead all day and was the first ever to set foot on Mt. Denali.” – Walter Harper in Mary Ehrlander’s book, “Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son”

Last year, a group of Alaskans came together with a goal to build a statue in honor of first to ascend Denali, Walter Harper. Jed Cox, Bill Gordon and Mary Ehrlander were the first to discuss this project. Mike Harper says, “The sense was because relatively few Alaskans have heard of Walter Harper much less know the significance of what he did they would start.” From that first effort to organize around the statue, the notion came up of, “Why not get a day devoted to Walter Harper?” They and others formed the Walter Harper Project. That is basically how the Walter Harper day began, according to Mike.

“This young man, Walter Harper, was the first to reach the top of the summit and I think I can safely say that his stamina, his fortitude, his knowledge and his survival skills living in the interior of Alaska, that were passed down from his Koyukon ancestors, greatly contributed to the success of this climb.” – Senator Click Bishop in a statement about the Walter Harper Day

Walter Harper was credited with helping to keep the peace between Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens during the mission. Those two never spoke after the journey again.

“As this Alaskan Native who led this group of individuals to this extraordinary achievement, we as Alaskan Natives can take pride in that. Indeed, people everywhere can be proud that this small group of people can attain goals that seem difficult but together they can succeed.” – Mike Harper (Koyukon Athabascan)

Much is known and written about Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens, but not as much is written about Walter Harper. Unfortunately, Harper and his wife, Frances Wells Harper, died at a young age in the 1918 sinking of the Princess Sophia, a boat they were on.

I was happy to learn of Walter Harper Day and to learn more about Walter’s life from Mike. I also enjoyed reading Mary’s book about Walter. Happy Walter Harper Day!

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