Walter Harper

Walter Harper, a Koyukon Athabaskan mountain climber, was the first person to summit Denali. A statue dedicated to Harper will be created by artist Gary Lee Price and placed in Doyon Plaza. 

Fairbanks is one step closer to housing a statue of Walter Harper, a Koyukon Athabaskan mountain climber who was the first person to summit Denali.

In 2019, The Walter Harper Project formed to commemorate the mountaineer. The project's art committee announced today it had selected Gary Lee Price to create a life-size bronze statue of Harper. The announcement comes on Walter Harper Day, which Gov. Mike Dunleavy authorized in April 2020.

To be placed outside of Doyon Plaza in downtown Fairbanks, the statue will include informative panels about Harper and the three other members of his expedition. Angela Linn, senior collections manager at the University of Alaska Museum of the North and a Walter Harper Project committee member, explained that Price was one of three finalists selected from an original pool of nine applicants.

Artists were given abstract rather than concrete goals, such as personality traits, but were also expected to create a realistic piece, Linn said. Price was chosen because he had “what we felt was the greatest quality of work,” Linn said. He was able to accurately portray Harper based on historical photos — Linn explained it was important he was recognizable as an Athabaskan man — while also conveying intangible qualities such as kindness and generosity.

Price is an experienced sculptor with pieces across the country and world. Locally, he created the Circle of Peace statue outside of Denali Elementary school.

“I was ecstatic,” Price said of his reaction to having been selected. “To be able to honor a true man of character, a true lifter of others, what a great honor.”

Price was initially drawn to the project because Harper was a climber, and Price’s work focuses on people lifting one another up. As he learned more about Harper, Price was further inspired by similarities between himself and the climber; for example, a dislike of conflict.

“I felt like he was a kindred spirit,” Price said.

Price was inspired by Harper, and the artist said he wants share the inspiration with others through his sculpture. He said he hopes to create another, more interactive, proposal to further encourage kids to learn about Harper.

The Walter Harper Project’s mission is to educate the public about a somewhat forgotten hero. Committee member Darlene Bishop explained that because Athabaskan people lacked a written language, stories of people such as Harper were lost. Harper, however, has the potential to serve as a role model, particularly for Alaska youth.

“Human beings need heroes,” University of Alaska Fairbanks history professor Mary Ehrlander said. In a time of intense polarization, “It’s just a great way Alaskans can come together,” she added.

Mike Harper, a descendent of Walter Harper, explained they decided upon a statue because it is a visible and enduring symbol. Fairbanks was selected as the location because it was the starting point for their expedition as well as the center of Athabaskan territory.

Harper is admirable for not just his accomplishments, but also for his character, Bishop said. His strong sense of purpose, attitude and subsistence skills were instrumental in the group’s success.

“Personally, I think they would not have been able to reach that summit if it had not been for him and his knowledge and his personality ... and those subsistence skills and knowledge of living and surviving in Alaska,” Bishop said. The statue seeks to highlight Harper’s bravery, strength and humility.

For Alaska Native youth, Harper is a role model in his acceptance of both Athabaskan and Western worlds. As descendant Johanna Harper put it, her ancestor “had a foot in both worlds.” Harper embraced his traditional upbringing and subsistence skills, but also studied on the East Coast and planned to become a medical missionary. Harper therefore demonstrated that it is possible to be entirely oneself.

Harper, who was born and raised in Interior Alaska, reached the summit of Denali on June 7, 1913. He was followed by other members of his expedition. Harper’s life was cut tragically short; he died in the sinking of the Princess Sophia in 1918 at the age of 25.

The Walter Harper Project has so far raised about $45,500, roughly 30% of its $150,000 goal. Last month, Doyon announced a $25,000 contribution. The goal is for the sculpture to be unveiled by next Walter Harper day.

More information about the project, including how to donate, can be found at www.walterharper.org.

Contact reporter Maisie Thomas at 459-7544.