Tomah Joseph

The following 
from the Culture and Sport Secretariat
New Brunswick, Canada

Feb.15, 2006

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the third in a series of six feature articles prepared for Heritage Week, Feb. 13-20, 2006. Entitled Spotlight on Natural Heritage, the series is a reflection of the people, landscape and museum collections of New Brunswick’s past.

Tomah Joseph: A Man of Nature (1837-1914)

Passamaquoddy artist Tomah Joseph created delicate images on birchbark of the natural world. He lived each summer on Campobello Island, where he became close friends with the Roosevelt family. Through his artwork, Joseph remembered, retold and recorded the traditions of his ancestors.

Born in 1837, Joseph lived the winter seasons at Peter Dana Point in Maine, and served as governor there circa 1882. He was married to Hanna Lewey and had one son, Sabattis Tomah. He and his family did not live in Peter Dana Point all year round, however; each summer, they travelled by canoe down the river routes of the St. Croix to Passmaquoddy Bay, and across to Campobello Island, where they set up camp in the woods near Welshpool. There they passed the summer, gathering medicinal plants in season as well as blueberries and sweetgrass.

Tomah Joseph worked as a fishing and canoe guide for the “summer colony” residents and also sold Passamaquoddy artwork. Through his guiding, he became well known to another family on the island: the Roosevelts, of Hyde Park, N.Y.

From 1883 until 1921, the Roosevelt family spent most of their summers on Campobello Island. Their son, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (born 1882 and later president of the United States), was first brought to the island when he was one year old. After that, he passed almost all his summers there until he was stricken by polio in 1921.

The ever energetic Franklin thoroughly enjoyed the outdoors and Tomah Joseph became his close friend. Tomah made a canoe for him that is now in the collection of the Roosevelt Campobello International Park on Campobello Island, and he is said to have taught the young Roosevelt how to canoe. Joseph was much sought after as a guide – as Franklin Calder (captain of the Roosevelt yacht) wrote of their Passamaquoddy friend:¬†“He is a man of integrity, skill and gentleness. 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.”

Joseph always maintained strong connections to his Passamaquoddy heritage. His artwork evolved out of the combined traditions of wikhegan (picture writing or map-making on birchbark), and creating containers out of birchbark. Building upon these traditions, Joseph’s work became an art form that introduced new content and new elements to the craft. His artwork spoke of the natural landscape, as if to say: “I am a man of nature,” and he often presented origin stories as the theme for his illustrations. In this way he remembered, retold and recorded moments from time immemorial.

Origin stories, passed down from generation to generation, preserve the collective memory of a community. Joseph chose to preserve this memory on birchbark, by illustrating the origin stories that he had learned from his elders. The illustrations carried deep significance for him, and as his grandson, Fred Tomah, remembered, he told the stories with great enthusiasm and skill:

“When he narrated the stories, he used the phrase “of the old time” to indicate that he was referring to the time of the first ancestors.”

According to Passamaquoddy tradition, animals and humans were closely interlinked in the “old time” and shared in the environment. The physical forms of all creatures, including humans, were interchangeable. Each individual person carried with them the spirit of an animal being. Families who were descended from a particular animal could continue their association with their ancestors by choosing that animal image as their personal or family symbol. For Joseph, his personal symbol was the wise owl, Ko-ko-gus. The owl appeared often in his artwork and was his spirit helper.

Joseph was skilled in communicating the essential elements of living with nature. Full of energy for life and attentive to detail, he often organized his work into individual sections, using straight lines to indicate the passing of time, with a decorative border to hold his story together. In this way, his drawings recorded a way of life deeply rooted in nature. In his work, he often included the phrase mikwid hamin, which means “recall me in your mind” or “remember me.” Through his artwork, we do remember Joseph, and all those who lived before him.

Many examples of Joseph’s work can now be seen on public display in the Campobello Library and Museum, as well as the Roosevelt Campobello International Park in Welshpool. In 1993, he was honoured with an exhibition and published catalogue curated by Joan A. Lester at the Heffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, Brown University, in Rhode Island.