By Dottie Indyke
At only 28 years old, Terrol Dew Johnson already has a long list of accomplishments. The award-winning basket maker, teacher, and activist who also co-founded and directs a cultural revitalization program for his people was recently honored as one of America’s top 10 young community leaders by the New York-based Do Something organization.
Johnson’s success is proof that having a mentor and family support can allay a young boy’s struggles with his identity. As a youngster growing up on the Tohono O’odham (Desert People) reservation in southern Arizona, Johnson was called stupid because he had trouble in school. He didn’t want to be Indian because that meant being someone poor and unclean.
All that began to change in Margaret Acosta’s basket-making class, where working with his hands and learning by doing lit a fire in the 10-year-old. “To actually have a finished product was amazing,” Johnson says of making his earliest baskets. “Margaret saw I was good and invited me to her house during the summer to study.”
When he was 12, Johnson told Acosta he wanted to earn a living as a basket maker. He started spending time in the library, poring over old books and photographs with a magnifying class to study how traditional Tohono O’odham (formerly known as Papago) baskets were made. To learn more, he visited Acosta’s teacher, Loretta Manuel.
“She was in her 70s and I was maybe 13 or 14,” Johnson recalls. “She had a reputation for being difficult. She was surprised that I went up to her doorstep but didn’t kick me out. I’d sit in her house and ask questions about designs and techniques.” As Johnson mastered the basics of the coiled basket-making techniques of his people, he ventured beyond the ages-old man-in-the-maze and turtle designs to create his own patterns. When elders questioned him, he would explain that even the traditional designs were once experimental.
Like his ancestors, Johnson makes his baskets with native desert plants. Each piece represents a yearlong effort of harvesting yucca in the summer and devil’s claw in the monsoon season, of days of cleaning and then drying and bleaching the plants in the sun. With encroaching development, these materials have become increasingly difficult to find.
“One time my family organized a picking trip,” Johnson says. “We had to go 100 miles from the reservation. There were five families out there picking in the desert for me. They really helped me understand that this is what I am supposed to do.”
In his junior year of high school, with the help of his family, Johnson raised enough money to spend a year in Australia. Showing off his basketry to people who were awed by Native American culture imbued the teenager with a sense of pride in his craft and his heritage.When he returned to Arizona, Johnson quit high school and got a job in a native art store, where he gained a wealth of business knowledge. He later went on to open his own shop. Often he’d sit at home and weave baskets by candlelight to earn enough money to pay for electricity. He became a popular fixture at church bazaars, where his baskets stood out among the homemade doilies and candles.
In 1994, Johnson attended his first Indian Market. His visit was an unmitigated disaster: He was abandoned by his friends and wandered penniless around Santa Fe. Still, he felt awed by the artwork he’d previously seen only in magazines. The next year he had his own booth and won two prize ribbons.
All the while Johnson was teaching basketry to the people of his tribe. His classes got so big that they moved from his living room to a nearby church. Then, with a $2,000 grant, Johnson and friends established TOCA—Tohono O’odham Com-munity Action- which offered classes in basket weaving, gourds, photography, and gardening. Today, TOCA has a staff of seven and oversees programs in the arts, cultural outreach, and community gardening and is making huge strides in preserving the traditions of the Tohono O’odham.
These days Johnson barely has time to make baskets, but his dreams are as numerous as his list of accomplishments. Some day he hopes to own a restaurant, make a movie, establish a scholarship fund, design clothing, take pictures, educate his people about diabetes, and on and on.
“Growing up I relied heavily on my daydreams,” Johnson muses. “Now I’m doing what I daydreamed about. There are so many possibilities. I think the sky’s the limit.”
Terrol Dew Johnson’s baskets can be seen at GOCAIA Gallery, Tucson, AZ, and TOCA in Sells, AZ.
Featured in “Native Arts” February 2001