Hundreds celebrate memory of Native leader Bernice Joseph

FAIRBANKS--Albert Kookesh said he tried to think of something clever to say the first time he met Bernice Joseph.

What he came up with was: "You look just like my second wife."

"How many times have you been married?" Joseph shot back.

"Just once," said Kookesh. They were friends from that moment on.

The exchange was clever enough that Kookesh, who has been married to Sally for more than 43 years, got hundreds of people to laugh as he told the story during the celebration of life for Bernice Joseph Thursday morning in Fairbanks. Joseph, an influential teacher and educational leader, died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer at 49.

The David Salmon Tribal Hall, filled from end to end with relatives, friends of the family and colleagues, heard stories of her dedication to students and her sense of humor.

Valerie Davidson said that to the Alaska Native community, Joseph was the president of the University of Alaska. She would always scoff at this, Davidson said, and give the credit for educational improvements to other people.


"That's what made her such a great president," Davidson said.

Kookesh said that in the Tlingit tradition, when a important person dies, people say "In the forest a great tree has fallen."

"That's how those of us who are from Southeast Alaska feel today," said Kookesh.

He said leaders don't choose themselves, they are selected by those who follow them. "My friend Bernice was a leader," he said.

Joseph was born in Tanana, grew up in Nulato and came to Fairbanks to attend Monroe Catholic High School. She had earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She was working on a doctorate from the University of South Australia Adelaide before the cancer diagnosis in 2012.

In a 2005 speech to the Alaska Federation of Natives convention, she said education is the key to overcoming many of the barriers Alaska Natives face. "Yet, it must be an education that is sensitive to Native Ways of Knowing. Children must be grounded in their cultures and beliefs in order to be successful," she said.

She was an accomplished athlete from an early age. She liked running up the hill at Nulato and enjoyed fishing and hunting and the outdoors. In Fairbanks, she took part in the Equinox Marathon, the Midnight Sun Run, the Race of the Torch and other events.

Almost everyone who spoke at her celebration, which began with a sing-along to Canned Heat's "Going up the Country," mentioned that her laugh was powerful enough to fill any room and to be heard down the hall.

Former UAF Chancellor Marshall Lind, who hired Joseph as executive dean of the College of Rural and Community Development in 2001, said she brought "enthusiasm, energy, new ideas and a real commitment to rural education."

She treated people with integrity, honesty and compassion. "You couldn't help but like her," he said.

"We are fortunate that she chose to spend so much time in her life serving the people in the state that she loved so much," he said.

He said that shortly before Thanksgiving, Joseph called and left a message on his voicemail that he has not erased. She said she was having good days and bad days because of the cancer, but most of them were good. She ended that message by saying she loved Marshall and his wife, Lois.

"Lots of people around this state loved Bernice," he said. "Yes, we may forget some of the programmatic accomplishments, but we will never forget how she treated us."

Paul Reichardt, the retired provost and chemistry professor from UAF, said that Lind didn't exactly hire Joseph. He "stole" her from the Knowles administration, where she had been a deputy commissioner.

Reichardt said Joseph was soft spoken, determined and had an uncanny way of ending any serious deliberation with a "thousand-watt smile that gave us confidence the sun would come up the next morning."

Odin Peter-Raboff said that Joseph loved seeing students succeed. "Bernice sacrificed everything for our people. She gave it her all," he said.

Mary Pete, a friend from Bethel, said that Joseph attended every special event and every graduation ceremony at rural campuses.


"Her job wasn't just a job. it was a passion," she said.

After the Fairbanks service, the family planned to fly home to Nulato, where a funeral is set for 11 a.m. Saturday.

Contact Dermot Cole at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcole

Dermot Cole

Former ADN columnist Dermot Cole is a longtime reporter, editor and author.