Bernice Joseph

Bernice Joseph

Bernice Joseph conveyed her passion for culturally relevant education during her keynote address to the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in 2005.

“I can almost guarantee that if you speak with any elder today, you will hear them speak of their support of Western education,” said Joseph, who had been hired at UAF in 2001 as executive dean of the College of Rural and Community Development. “Most elders I've spoken to say that it’s important to have a Western education to be able to compete in the world we live in today.”

However, she said, children also need to be “grounded in their cultures and beliefs in order to be successful.”

“Recent studies from Indigenous peoples from places such as New Zealand, Canada and Hawaii show that students perform at higher levels when they are provided with contextual or points of reference that they can relate to in a meaningful way,” she explained.

Joseph, later named UAF’s vice chancellor for rural, community and Native education, worked passionately to promote this approach until her death of pancreatic cancer in January 2014.

Joseph was born in Tanana and grew up in Nulato, both Yukon River villages. She came to Fairbanks to attend Monroe Catholic High School, then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at UAF. She later joined the faculty in the Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development. In the 1990s, she was named deputy commissioner of the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development. In 2017, the University of South Australia granted Joseph a doctorate, a degree for which she had completed the work and applied before her death.

Joseph was known for her boisterous laugh and upbeat personality. Throughout her life, she continued the subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering activities she learned as a child in the villages. She also was a dedicated athlete. She and her husband, Stewart Joseph Jr., had two children.

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