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The Tomah Joseph Exhibition

Written by Joan Lester

Immediately following the Columbus exhibit, I took a leave of absence to guest curate an NEA-funded exhibit at the Haffenreffer Museum at Brown University that would celebrate the art and the life of Passamaquoddy artist Tomah Joseph. My involvement with Tomah Joseph had begun at The Children's Museum. Over the years, as curator, I had been drawn to several birch bark containers filled with elegant line drawings of animals and humans and the signature "Tomah Joseph." But I didn't know who he was or where he was from. In 1978, as Carol Means, a museum trustee, was touring Collections Storage, she remarked "Oh, are those by Tomah Joseph? He taught my mother to canoe while she was vacationing on Campobello!" That chance comment led me to Tomah Joseph's Passamaquoddy descendants, to descendants of the Victorian families who knew him, to library texts that mentioned him, and to multiple examples of his work in other museums and private collections. I learned that in the stressful era of the late nineteenth century, Tomah Joseph resisted assimilation and instead survived and maintained his Passamaquoddy identity by creating birch bark art for sale, entertaining the tourists with exhibition dances, telling oral histories for anthropologists, and serving as a canoe guide for wealthy Victorians, including the young Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His life and his work again exemplified the cultural and economic survival embedded in late nineteenth century tourist art.

The opening of the Tomah Joseph exhibit at Brown was another special moment in my personal and professional life. In spite of a raging snowstorm, forty-seven Passamaquoddies drove nine hours from the easternmost points in Maine to be present at the opening. And, with deep emotion, Tomah Joseph's grandson, Joe Murphy, came to the podium and opened the exhibit with the words, "Welcome home, Tomah."

I returned to The Children's Museum six months later with additional new insights from my work with a Passamaquoddy Advisory Board and the Passamaquoddy community, including the importance of asking community permission before undertaking a project that represents the community; the non-Native scholar's need to fully honor rejections of particular aspects of his/her research that are seen as offensive to the community (even if the scholar had wanted to include that information in the overall storyline); and the value of including the stories of non-Native people who interacted with the Native protagonist, in order to create a fuller, more honest intercultural history.

The Tomah Joseph story continues. Descendants of three of the Victorian families who we worked with have donated examples of his art to the museum's collection, making it the largest repository of Tomah Joseph's work.

Next: New Sustenance for the Native American Program