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'She Loved Students': Alaska Native Mentor and Educator Bernice Joseph Dies of Cancer

Tanana Chiefs Conference

Alaska Native leader and educator Bernice Joseph has died. The 49-year-old Joseph succumbed to cancer Tuesday. She was a former professor and administrator at UAF. And as KUAC’s Tim Ellis reports, she maintained strong ties with rural Alaska.

Bernice Joseph’s longtime friend Kathy Mayo says Joseph’s passion for education was reflected in her devotion to young people, and her joy in seeing them succeed.

“She loved students – loved developing students, loved sharing their ideas, advancing ideas. And she really put that to work in the state,” Mayo said.

Joseph followed the example of her mother, who earned a college teaching degree while raising   a family of seven children by herself in the western Alaska village of Nulato. Joseph earned a bachelor’s degree at UAF, and then an MBA. She was working on doctoral studies before being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012.

Joseph was a Koyukon Athabascan who born and raised in Nulato. Mayo says Joseph worked tirelessly to strengthen Bush communities and their next generation of leaders.

“Developing our villages was very important to her, (and) developing leadership in the leadership to advance their goals,” she said.

Joseph was an assistant professor in UAF’s department of Alaska Native and Rural Development. She was later promoted to vice chancellor for rural, community and Native education at UAF’s College of Rural and Community Development. She also served as deputy commissioner of the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Credit Kathy Mayo
Joseph shows off a lunker pulled in during a fishing trip to the Yukon River a few years ago.

She earned many awards, including the Alaska Federation of Natives’ 2012 Citizen of the Year.

But Mayo says Joseph was much more than an academic or leader. She loved to laugh out loud. She loved to get outdoors to run or ski. She loved her family and her people.

And, Mayo says, she believed strongly that those who want to know about life in the Bush must get out into it, and experience it firsthand.

“I remember when there was a new faculty or new leader who came to  the university,” she said. “Well she immediately took him out to the village and they took a snowmachine ride from Kaltag to Unalakleet. Because that was her way of showing what village Alaska is like and what it’s like to celebrate winter here in Alaska, and that is what we do.”

Several events are scheduled over the next couple of days in memory of Joseph, including morning and evening gatherings today at the Chief David Salmon Tribal Hall downtown. Services will be held at Thursday morning at the tribal hall before Joseph is returned to Nulato, where she’ll be laid to rest.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.