Harper

Flora Jane Harper

Flora Jane Harper was the first Alaska Native student to graduate from the University of Alaska. She taught at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools across Alaska, then settled in Anchorage, where she worked for decades at the Anchorage municipal library.

Harper was born at Rampart, a village on the Yukon River, in 1910. Her family moved to Nenana seeking protection from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that ravaged Athabascan villages. Harper’s father worked for the railroad, but the transition from a traditional subsistence lifestyle to a more cash-dependent existence was not easy. When she was 10, her father sent her and three siblings to Chemawa, a boarding school for Native Americans in Oregon.

She wasn’t able to return to Alaska for nine years. After graduating from high school in Portland, she contracted tuberculosis and spent almost a year in a hospital. 

Once back in Alaska, Harper enrolled at the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. She graduated with a home economics degree in 1935, the year the school became the University of Alaska.

Harper taught at the BIA’s Chilocco boarding school in Oklahoma and its Alaska schools in Wrangell, Sitka and Eklutna. She married Walter “Pete” Petri in Wrangell in 1941. They had a daughter, Jan, who graduated from UA in 1965. The family moved to Anchorage in 1949, and Harper worked for the library until retiring in 1972. 

Athabascan elder Poldine Carlo, of Fairbanks, in 2015 recalled being taught by Harper when she was in high school. 

“[She] was the first Native person to graduate from the university, and she was my home ec teacher in Eklutna,” Carlo said at a 2015 event at Troth Yeddha’ Park on the Fairbanks campus. “I was so proud of her.” 

Flora Jane Harper died in 1992. In 1994, the University of Alaska Fairbanks named the Harper Building after her.

More online about Flora Jane Harper

  • A profile of Flora Jane Harper at the UA Journeys website
  • A brief review of Jan Petri Harper-Haines’ 2013 book about her mother and other family members
  • A more complete review of the book
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