The friendship between an Indian elder named Tomah Joseph and a 10-year-old rich kid would change the way Native Americans were treated by the U.S. government — 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 was elected governor of the Passamaquoddy tribe. The boy’s father hired Tomah to teach his son how to paddle a canoe.
It was a time when native traditions were hard to maintain, but Joseph Tomah 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.
Born in 1837, Tomah Joseph lived the winter in the Passamaquoddy Indian Township Reservation in eastern Maine, land his people occupied for 3,000 years.
The U.S. government was then trying to force Indians 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 Passmaquoddy Bay and across to Campobello Island. There they camped in the woods near Welshpool, gathering medicinal plants, blueberries and sweetgrass for baskets.
Tomah Joseph was also an artist who 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, said Tomah was 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.
When James Roosevelt hired him to teach young Franklin to paddle a canoe, they became friendly. He taught Roosevelt Native American traditions and told him he would be a leader someday.
Tomah made a canoe inscribed with an owl for young Franklin, inscribed with the words, Mikwid hamin, “Remember me.” The canoe is now in the collection of the Roosevelt Campobello International Park. He also gave the Roosevelt family some of his artwork, which still hangs in the Roosevelt home in Campobello.
The Indian New Deal
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.
Under Collier, an Indian division of the Civilian Conservation Corps was set up to provide jobs for Indian men.
With Roosevelt’s strong support, Collier crafted the Indian New Deal. It was a bill known as the Indian Reorganization Act, passed by Congress in 1934. The law restored Indian self-determination and a return of communal Indian land
In the first two decades after the Act became law, more than 2 million acres of land were returned to various tribes.
The Passamaquoddy still speak their native language and own the Northeast Blueberry Corp., the third largest blueberry farm in the world.
In 1993, Tomah’s work was exhibited at the Heffenreffer Museum of Anthropology 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, an award-winning children’s book about the relationship between young Roosevelt and Tomah Joseph, was published in 2015.