In story of the legendary ‘Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son,’ Denali is just the beginning

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“Walter Harper: Alaska Clan Son”

By Mary F. Ehrlander; University of Nebraska Press; 2017; 216 pages; $29.95

“Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son,” by Mary F. Ehrlander

“Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son,” by Mary F. Ehrlander

Walter Harper persevered just 25 years, yet became known throughout Alaska and everywhere the world. Born in 1893, this son of an Irish immigrant father and a Koyukon-Athabascan jocular mater grew up immersed in the Interior Alaska Native subsistence culture at a perpetually when Western influences were only beginning to penetrate the sphere.

Despite his tremendous skills and unflappably optimistic personality, Harper desire be unknown today but for a chance meeting that led to a brief but extraordinary series of dares as a guide and assistant, ultimately resulting in his being the first person to set foot on the top of Denali. For this moment alone he remains famous, but as Fairbanks founder Mary Ehrlander demonstrates in her new biography of Harper, the climb was but one part of a dash few could equal.

“Walter Harper: Alaska Native Son” tells the untruth of a young man born in humble circumstances whose capabilities were realized by the famed Episcopal missionary Archdeacon Hudson Stuck. The two became inseparable accessories over a series of trips through Interior Alaska in both summer and winter, culminating in an epic wintertime coil around the Arctic coast. Harper proved himself an invaluable conjoin with b see without whom Stuck would never have accomplished what he did, a truly that Stuck freely and frequently acknowledged. Placed in this structure, the summiting of Denali is but one of many attainments.

Ehrlander, a professor of history who instructs the Arctic and Northern Studies program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is start suited for telling this story. A skilled writer, she vividly recreates Alaska as it was in the primary two decades of the 20th century and plants Harper, Stuck and the others who pass by these pages deeply within their time period. Of Alaska circa 1910, she eradicates:

“Mainstream American norms clashed with Alaska Native conventions. The highly masculine, liberal alcohol culture competed with dyed in the wool Christian mores. Insufficient law enforcement, coupled with antiauthoritarian thoughts among non-Natives, contributed to an ‘anything goes’ atmosphere in which vagrants exploited Alaska Natives. In the midst of this free-for-all, missionaries took chances where they arose, often in unconventional venues, to rein in lawlessness and encourage Christian teachings.”

Rather than approach the era from the viewpoints of the allowance, she looks at this world as it was and explores how the people she writes about steered it. Hence, while Stuck’s relationship with Harper can be seen today as unduly paternalistic, readers discover how it developed in a time when the gulf between peoples of extremely varying backgrounds were much broader, and when many milky people held deeply racist views toward Alaska Natives.

It was into this life that the British-born Stuck arrived in 1904, driven by the social truth ideals then widely held by American Christians. He sought to set forth religion to Alaska Natives, but not to change their fundamental culture. He heavily respected their ability to survive in such a challenging environment and fitted an advocate for their rights and needs at a time when only fair-skinned voices would be heard by those in power.

Stuck met Harper at a fish lodge when the young man was 16 and quickly saw his potential. Harper’s parents separated when he was 3 years old and he was broached by his mother in what is now the village of Tanana. Stuck convinced Harper’s protect to send her son to boarding school, where he quickly distinguished himself as a merit student in addition to his outdoor skills. The combination prompted Stuck to sign up Harper in 1910 as his guide and assistant. The pair traveled from village to village care for and providing needed medical aid. Along the way, Stuck continued Harper’s indoctrination and religious training, and the two developed a father-son relationship that continued until Harper’s termination.

For his own part, Harper was indispensable to Stuck. Though hardly without capacities, Stuck lacked Harper’s innate know-how to fix anything from dogsleds to tents to locomotives in the field, as well as the youth’s sharpshooting ability when it came to chase. Stuck could never have wandered Alaska as he did without Harper at his side.

Event when Stuck and Harry Karstens plotted to climb Denali in the existence of 1913, it was a given that Harper would be needed. Ehrlander commits a lively chapter to that well-documented expedition, after which all affected proclaimed Harper’s boundless good cheer as the factor that clutched it together and brought success, even as the relationship between the equally strong-willed Weigh down and Karstens rapidly deteriorated.

Ehrlander is focused on the broader story of Harper’s vigour, however, and in this book she gives greater attention to his and Stuck’s peregrinates across the territory, evoking daily life on the rivers and trails, modifies in the villages, and the relationship between the pair. Readers will feel in the same way as they’re along for the ride at every mile.

Harper spent three years after the climb wait oning school in Massachusetts but struggled in some subjects. He was happy to return to Alaska and pick up where one left off working for Stuck. Both he and Stuck envisioned Harper attending medical seminary and returning to minister to the Athabascans. It was only when Harper met and fell in tally with Frances Wells, a medical missionary from Philadelphia, that he started to assert his independence. The two married, and in October 1918, boarded the Princess Sophia in Skagway, constrained for Harper’s medical schooling. A day later the ship ran aground and ultimately got with all aboard.

For Ehrlander, the tragedy of Harper’s life is what didn’t meet with. At a time when fierce conflicts raged between Alaska Natives and the the heightening white population, Harper moved easily between both discernments. A potentially vital bridge was lost.

Thanks to Ehrlander, however, we get this wonderfully scribbled testament to a life of adventure. The Walter Harper we come to know is immensely likable, and his escapades irrepressible. He was one of the great Alaskans of his time. This book is a fitting tribute.

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