Bernice Joseph

Bernice Joseph, who served as executive dean of the College of Rural Development at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has died.

FAIRBANKS — Bernice Joseph, 49, a champion of Native education in rural Alaska, died of cancer Tuesday.

Born in Tanana and raised in Nulato, Bernice Joseph was passionate about education and once said her greatest rewards were not monetary but traveling to rural communities to celebrate graduations.

She served as vice chancellor for rural, community and Native education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“She was, I would even say, the architect of that program,” said Albert Kookesh, a former state legislator and outgoing chairman of the Sealaska Native Corporation. “There are many who would not have a college degree if not for that program. And she had a lot to do with it.”

Her theme was always education, he said. She continually sought ways to help educate Natives in rural Alaska and to move Natives forward.

The two of them agreed, he said, that a better future for Alaska Natives depended on education and changing long-held stereotypes.

“She was very, very amazing,” he said.

“I think of myself as an Alaska Native leader in the state,” said Kookesh, who was once head of the Alaska Federation of Natives. “But I look at someone like Bernice, as so important in the Native cause. To lose her is such a devastating impact on Alaska as a whole.”

“Her loss will impact us as Native people in the state, as much as her family,” he said. “We don’t have that many people who can stand above the crowd. She was one of them.”

She never abandoned the Alaska Native lifestyle she grew up with. Every year, she went to fish camp. Every year, she went moose hunting. She snowmachined regularly and was comfortable traveling hundreds of miles. She once snowmachined from Fairbanks to Unalakleet.

Marshall Lind, former UAF chancellor, remembers years ago filling his car with gas at a station close to campus.

Two snowmachines drove up to fill their tanks. It was Joseph and her husband, out for a Sunday excursion.

“She was very smart, very sharp” with a firm grasp of statewide economic and job issues, Lind said. “She knew what was going on.”

When he looked for someone to head the university’s rural campuses, her name kept rising to the surface. At the time, she was deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development. She was the department’s tribal liaison, oversaw rural development programs and served as a key adviser to the governor.

Before that, she was an assistant professor at UAF in the Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development.

“Who grew up in rural Alaska? Who understands rural Alaska? Who taught at UAF? Who has held a state level position?” Lind said. “Bernice Joseph. What more could you ask for?

“Plus, she was a really nice person, and she was committed to rural education.”

She also was an athlete, who took fitness seriously and jogged regularly.

Joseph was close to earning her doctorate, an interdisciplinary degree from a university in Australia. She was working on her dissertation, friend Kathy Mayo said.

It was the education of others that inspired her hard work and the list of college graduations in rural Alaska continued to grow under her stewardship.

“So many graduations I attended,” she said last year. “In Bethel, Dillingham, Kotzebue, Tok, Fort Yukon and even in my hometown of Nulato, where we had our first college graduation a few years ago.”

In 2012, she was named Citizen of the Year by the Alaska Federation of Natives.

“To say that I’m honored to receive this award is a huge understatement,” she said at the time. “I will hold this to the highest regard because it came from all of you.”

Inspired by her mother, who raised a family of seven by herself while working on university degrees to become a teacher, Joseph earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer early last year and told convention delegates at the 2012 AFN convention that she was “fighting the good fight.”

She lost that fight Tuesday.

“I remember her laugh,” Mayo said. “It filled me with joy. It was a loud laugh, a very real laugh. I loved hearing it from across the room.”

Her death will affect so many people, Kookesh said.

“But at the same time,” he added, “you say to yourself, ‘How much would life be different if she hadn’t even been here?’”

“Her contributions to the university, the Interior and Alaska will serve as a legacy for generations,” UAF chancellor Brian Rogers said. “She truly made a difference in the lives of thousands of people.”




Family and friends will hold the following events in memory of Bernice Joseph.

• Today, a one-mile memorial walk will begin at 6 p.m. at the Carlson Center.

• On Thursday, a celebration of life will begin at 11 a.m. at Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions be made to the Doyon Foundation, in Bernice Joseph’s name.

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