Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Remembering Bernice Joseph – An Alaska Native Leader

Bernice Joseph lost her battle with pancreatic cancer Tuesday. This is heartbreaking news from interior Alaska. Bernice was Koyukon Athabascan from Nulato, and had a big family and had may friends all over Alaska. She was a great mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, mentor, leader, speaker, advocate and nice person. Bernice had a great smile and a great laugh.

Bernice Joseph at WEIO
Bernice Joseph was a winner of the Race of the Torch-Women in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

One of my earliest memories of Bernice was when she raced for the torch in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO) footrace in Fairbanks over the years. She was a fierce competitor and challenged others. I first got to know her when she served on the queen pageant committee for Miss WEIO in the early 1990s. Bernice was not afraid to speak up with her thoughts and ideas. You just knew she would follow through with actions to put those ideas into reality. She had a great level of professionalism that people took notice of and she often raised through the ranks at many organizations and boards as a result.

Bernice was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. Her smile brightened a room and you felt like you were home. Bernice acknowledged everyone she came into contact with no matter to their station in life. She had a great ability to empower people and encourage them to reach for their goals.

Bernice Joseph spoke at the Rural Providers' Conference held in Fairbanks in June 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Bernice Joseph spoke at the Rural Providers’ Conference held in Fairbanks in June 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I always enjoyed listening to her speak and inspire people. As the former vice chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), she inspired many students. In recent years, I got to see her in Anchorage when she attended board meetings for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc. (RurAL CAP). As usual, she spoke up in meetings and advocated for rural Alaskans. Bernice was the whole package. She was a great ambassador for Alaska Native people. She was a great speaker and storyteller. Bernice had a strong passion for education, and she was at the decision-making table to enact initiatives to support Alaska Natives pursuing their education.

Many people shared Facebook posts and emails and said what a wonderful person Bernice was. Some friends shared these kind words about Bernice:

“Bernice Joseph was the greatest boss and teacher I ever was blessed to have worked and learned from. She was strong, kind, hardworking, intelligent, wise,…I could write books about all she was. I loved and deeply respected all she did as did everyone she touched. I pray for her and her family. Rest in Peace Bernice. I promise I will teach every kid I can the things you taught me. For you might have left us for heaven, but the beauty left behind still grows.” – Travis Cole

“Bernice was one of my first bosses/mentors/role models. Her keen sense of humor and laughter always lifted up my spirit and I watched her with great admiration as she brought together community, inspired, taught, provided an amazing example of healthy living. We loved to tease each other and it was always a joy to be around her. She made me feel like I was capable of so much more and believed in me at a pivotal time of my teenage years. My heart goes out to all those that are feeling this loss. May you rest well dear friend. Each time I put on my running shoes, I will think of your strength.” -Princess Daazhraii Johnson

“Thinking of my friend Bernice Joseph and sending love and light to her family. Like the loads of others, she was a role model to me, a person who led by example with a bright, beautiful smile. Really going to miss seeing her, but her legacy of empowering Native people to achieve their educational goals will remain with us forever!” – Jessica Black

“I first met Bernice at WEIO over 20 years ago. She was a runner and so was I. I wanted to be as fast as she was. Because of her I did eventually win the race of the torch. Later our lives would cross again as I went after my degree in education at UAF through their rural and correspondence classes. When I saw she was in charge of Distance Education I thought what an awesome leader! I am so happy I was able to hug Bernice at WEIO this summer. The games brought us together and they were the last place I saw her. Today when I run she will be in my thoughts and these tears I shed are for our loss of such an incredibly inspiring woman!” – Noel Strick

“Over the past year, Bernice Joseph held space in many of our hearts, thoughts, and prayers. She influenced many peoples lives in many meaningful ways. She was a true leader, a friend, and an inspiration among our people. Bernice was my boss as a teenager and later served on my graduate committee, she was committed to truth and seeing through real change in the lives of our people. May she rest in eternal peace. Prayers and love to her family.” -Evon Peter

Here is a message from UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers:

“Today, our community and state lost an inspiring leader, mentor and educator: Former vice chancellor Bernice Joseph passed away this morning after a long and courageous battle with cancer. Bernice served as vice chancellor for rural, community and native education, and executive dean of the College of Rural and Community Development. Her career was marked by her dedication to education and to Alaska’s students, whether they hailed from her home village of Nulato or from our state’s urban centers. She was a great university leader and a role model for Alaska Native people in higher education. Her contributions to the university, the Interior and Alaska will serve as a legacy for generations. She truly made a difference in the lives of thousands of people. Our sincere condolences go out to Bernice’s family. Her passing is a tremendous loss to the university and Alaska. Her family and friends will hold several events in her memory in the coming days. On Wednesday, Jan. 8, a one-mile memorial walk will begin at 6 p.m. at the Carlson Center. And, on Thursday, Jan. 9, a celebration of life will begin at 10 a.m. at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested that memorial contributions be made to the Doyon Foundation in Bernice’s name. Those who wish to send condolences can do so to the following address: Stewart Joseph P.O. Box 83651 Fairbanks, AK 99708”

Stewart and Bernice Joseph were in Anchorage in December 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Stewart and Bernice Joseph were in Anchorage in December 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

At her keynote speech at the 2005 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, Bernice acknowledged the strides made with education, but reminded people that there was more to be done. Bernice said:  “Our people have come a long way from only a few decades of Western education, to developing our own curriculum, to be recognized for traditional knowledge through honorary degrees and be recognized on Commissions, Boards, and now the Effie Kokrine School to further help us to maintain our sense and knowledge of self, while living in a western world, but empowered through cultural identity and cultural presence to stand tall and be counted for all of our contributions to education, health, politics, economics and science. We have done a lot, but we have only just begun.” – Bernice Joseph on an excerpt from her speech (courtesy of the Alaska Native Knowledge Network).

As a result of her hard work in her personal and professional life, Bernice was the recipient of many awards and acknowledgements. She always made people feel special, and she will be missed by many, near and far. She was a living example of what Alaska Native people could accomplish. Ana basee’ Bernice for a life well-lived and shared with us.

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