Rabbi Tuvia Ben-Shmuel-Yosef, who was an attorney when he represented the Passamaquoddy tribe as it undertook its groundbreaking land-claims settlement against the state of Maine in the 1960s, has died. He was 78.

Ben-Shmuel-Yosef – better known to Mainers by his birth name, Don Gellers – died Wednesday at his home in the New York City borough of Queens from an undisclosed illness that was rapidly progressing, according to his brother, Paul Gellers.

Ben-Shmuel-Yosef was a central figure in “Unsettled,” the recent 29-part Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram series that chronicled the story of the Passamaquoddy people over the past 50 years. Ben-Shmuel-Yosef – then known as Gellers – was ultimately driven out of Maine in a conspiracy orchestrated by the Attorney General’s Office.

“I am sorry that he was not able to enjoy the fruits of this story having been told,” said Paul Gellers, adding that his brother had recently engaged an attorney to seek a gubernatorial pardon for the conviction he received in apparent retribution for representing the Indians against Maine State Police and other authorities.

“My brother most certainly – and his family – would appreciate if (our attorney) could pursue that posthumously, and he will do just that,” Paul Gellers said Friday.

Arriving in Eastport from Queens, 28-year-old Don Gellers began representing the Passamaquoddy in 1964, winning a string of cases against local and state authorities, and calling state and national media attention to authorities’ mishandling of a case involving the beating death of Peter Francis, a Native American, during an altercation with five white hunters in 1965. In the process, Gellers earned the ire of local police, elected officials and then-Attorney General James Erwin.


He filed the first Indian land-claims suit against the state of Maine – technically filed against former colonial power Massachussetts – and was arrested within hours of returning to his Eastport home in 1968. The lawsuit sought the return of thousands of acres and a $150 million trust fund that had been looted by the state, despite the terms of a 1794 treaty.

Accused of the “constructive possession” of six marijuana cigarettes, he was tried under a felony statute and sentenced to two to four years in prison. When he exhausted his appeals, he fled to Israel, where he fought and was wounded in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

His former intern, Tom Tureen, had represented him in one phase of his appeal, but according to Gellers and his attorney at the time, Hy Mayerson, Tureen abandoned his client on the eve of a critical hearing. Tureen subsequently took over the land-claims effort and, under a different legal tactic, won a historic, $81.5 million settlement for the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Houlton Band of Maliseet tribes, which used the money to buy land and businesses.

In Israel, Gellers was able to continue practicing law. Presented with full disclosure of the circumstances of his conviction, Israeli authorities deemed Maine to have engaged in a gross miscarriage of justice. The federal court in New York found that Maine – apparently satisfied at having run the lawyer out of the state – had not completed the procedures that would have disbarred him.

While in Israel in the 1970s, Gellers adopted his Hebrew birth name and became a rabbi. He returned to the United States in the early 1980s, settling in the Forest Hills section of Queens. His apartment was walled with books, most of them in Hebrew, and filing cabinets contained meticulous records of his legal odysseys in Maine.

“He was a rabbi through all his work and devotion and teaching,” Paul Gellers said of his brother’s later life. “He didn’t practice law anymore, but he never left his love for the law.”

Ben-Shmuel-Yosef told the Press Herald earlier this year that the past 50 years had been “very, very painful,” noting that his controversial conviction and possible fugitive status had always hung over his head.

“It’s not simply a one-shot outrage, and when something like this is done it carries repercussions for life,” he said.

A funeral will be held Sunday in New York.

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