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Tomah Joseph, the Indian Elder Who Taught FDR

More than how to paddle a canoe

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The friendship between an Indian elder named Tomah Joseph and a 10-year-old rich kid would change the way the U.S. government treated Native Americans — for the better.

The rich kid summered with his family on an island just over the border dividing Canada from Lubec, Maine. He was born in 1882, around the time Tomah Joseph won election as governor of the Passamaquoddy tribe. The boy’s father hired Tomah to teach his son how to paddle a canoe.

Back then, indigenous people had a hard time maintaining their native traditions. But Tomah Joseph tried to keep them alive. He taught the boy about his tribe’s history and culture. Years later, the boy – Franklin Delano Roosevelt — became president of the United States.

Young Franklin Roosevelt in the canoe made by Tomah Joseph

Young Franklin Roosevelt in the canoe made by Tomah Joseph

Tomah Joseph

Born in 1837, Tomah Joseph spent the winter in the Passamaquoddy Indian Township Reservation in eastern Maine. His people had occupied the land for 3,000 years.

The U.S. government at the time tried to force indigenous people off reservations and to assimilate with white culture.

Tomah Joseph married Hanna Lewey, and they had one son, Sabattis.

Each summer, Tomah Joseph and his family travelled by canoe down the St. Croix River to Passamaquoddy Bay and across to Campobello Island. There they camped in the woods near Welshpool, gathering medicinal plants, blueberries and sweetgrass for baskets.

Tomah Joseph, also an artist, etched onto birch bark delicate illustrations of the natural landscape and his tribe’s origin stories. Often he included an image of an owl, the animal he’d chosen as his spirit helper.

Tomah Joseph also worked as a fishing and canoe guide. He was well respected by the wealthy summer residents of Campobello. Franklin Calder, captain of the Roosevelt yacht, called Tomah a man of integrity.

“Each visitor is eager to gain his companionship and guidance in his canoe as he paddles into nooks where one less experienced might hesitate to penetrate,” he said.

Tomah Joseph

Tomah Joseph

When James Roosevelt hired him to teach young Franklin to paddle a canoe, they grew friendly. He taught Roosevelt Native American traditions and told him he would be a leader someday.

Tomah then made a canoe inscribed with an owl for young Franklin, inscribed with the words, Mikwid hamin, “Remember me.” The canoe now belongs to the collection of the Roosevelt Campobello International Park. Joseph also gave the Roosevelt family some of his artwork, which still hangs in the Roosevelt home in Campobello.

The Indian New Deal

The two pieces of artwork on the wall next to the window at FDR's summer home were created by Tomah Joseph.

Tomah Joseph created the two pieces of artwork on the wall next to the window at FDR’s summer home.

Tomah died in 1914, but Franklin Roosevelt remembered him and the lessons he taught.

In 1933, he appointed Indian advocate John Collier to the Office of Indian Affairs (later the Bureau of Indian Affairs). Collier was outraged by the forced assimilation of Native Americans and the poverty they endured.

Collier set up an Indian division of the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide jobs for Indian men.

With Roosevelt’s strong support, Collier crafted the Indian New Deal. Congress passed the bill, known as the Indian Reorganization Act, in 1934. The law restored Indian self-determination and a return of communal Indian land

In the first two decades after enactment of the law, the federal government returned more than 2 million acres of land to various tribes.

Today

The Passamaquoddy still speak their native language. They also own the Northeastern Blueberry Corp., the third largest blueberry farm in the world.

The Heffenreffer Museum of Anthropology exhibited Tomah’s work in 1993 at Brown University in Rhode Island.

In 2011, the former Passamaquoddy chief was celebrated during Ceremonial Days at the Passamaquoddy reservation at Indian Township.

Remember Me is a children’s book about the relationship between young Roosevelt and Tomah Joseph. This story updated in 2023.

 

4 comments

Lazybum October 16, 2016 - 9:25 am

Not a big fdr fan, but credit where due. First fair shake they got in years. I love they fact they own the blueberry Corp, as Maine blueberries are the best!

lisa kingsland October 20, 2016 - 9:27 pm

I grew up hearing this story many times from my mother Joanne Tomahawk ya see Tomah Joseph is my Great Grandfather and I say that proudly !!

lisa kingsland October 20, 2016 - 9:29 pm

I grew up hearing this story many times from my mother Joanne Tomah ya see Tomah Joseph is my Great Grandfather and I say that proudly !!

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