Terrol Dew Johnson: A Legacy of Artistry and Culture Keeping

Terrol Dew Johnson (1973-2024) Photo courtesy of Steven Meckler

The Native Arts & Cultures Foundation (NACF) mourns the loss of Terrol Dew Johnson, an innovative Tohono O’odham basketweaver, traditional foods advocate, and cultural practitioner, who passed away in May at his home in Sells after a long illness.

“What a terrible loss to hear about the passing of my visionary friend and colleague Terrol Dew Johnson, a Tohono O’odham master artist, basket weaver, farmer, and foodways activist,” said NACF Vice President of Programming, Andrea R. Hanley, (Navajo).

“Working and watching Terrol for the past 20 years has revealed the definition of a true creative powerhouse. A leader in cultural knowledge, community engagement, and resilience; his art practice was equally beautiful, legendary, and innovative. I am hopeful that his work and practice will continue to inspire and support his vision for Tribal empowerment through culture and art. He will be missed in so many ways.”

A Passionate Artist and Advocate

Terrol Dew Johnson was renowned not only for his exquisite basket weaving but also for his unwavering dedication to preserving and promoting traditional O’odham ways. He was known for his willingness to share knowledge, willow, or snacks with equal enthusiasm. His contributions to the arts and his community have left an indelible mark, and he will be remembered for his tenacity, and generosity.

Johnson’s journey into the world of basket weaving began in his late teens. Under the mentorship of O’odham weavers such as Clara Havier, who spoke only O’odham, Johnson learned the intricacies of basket making. His grandparents served as translators, bridging the language gap and enabling him to master the craft. Encouraged to develop his own style, Johnson began experimenting with gourds, a traditional O’odham material. He innovatively sliced shapes from large gourds and filled the empty spaces with woven bear grass or sinew, often adorning the edges with these materials or other plant elements.

Terrol Dew Johnson (Tohono O’odham, 1973-2024).
Untitled, 2001. Gourd, bear grass, 13 ¾ x 15 ¼ inches. Heard Museum purchase, 4116-1. Heard Museum

Championing Fair Compensation and Knowledge Sharing

In addition to his artistic achievements, Johnson was a staunch advocate for fair compensation for O’odham weavers. Through the Tohono O’odham Basketweavers Organization, he ensured that weavers received fair payment for their labor. The organization often purchased baskets directly from weavers and resold them at a small profit to fund its activities, helping sustain the tradition and support the artists.

Johnson’s impact extended beyond basket weaving. He was deeply committed to revitalizing traditional, healthier foods through community farms and marketing efforts. He championed the cause of O’odham farmers, promoting the cultivation and consumption of native foods, which are integral to the community’s health and cultural heritage.

A Visionary Leader and Cultural Icon

In the late 1990s, Johnson played a pivotal role in bringing basket weavers together at the Heard Museum for weavers’ gatherings. These events attracted basketmakers and weavers from across turtle island, providing a platform for them to weave, sell their creations, and discuss critical issues such as material access and passing on the craft to new generations. The gatherings later moved to Tucson in the mid-2000s and expanded to include the preparation and sharing of Native foods.

Johnson’s reputation as an artist and activist grew over the years, earning him numerous accolades, awards, and grants. His work has been celebrated for its creativity, cultural significance, and impact on the community. Through his artistry, he not only practiced traditional O’odham techniques but also pushed the boundaries of the craft, incorporating both traditional materials like willow and devil’s claw and nontraditional materials like wire.

A Lasting Legacy

Johnson’s legacy is one of artistry, culture keeping, and community empowerment. His contributions to the Tohono O’odham community and the broader world of Native art and basketry will continue to inspire future generations. As we remember and honor his life and work, we are reminded of the profound impact one individual can have on their community.

Some of Johnson’s works are currently on display at the University of Arizona Poetry Center in Tucson through August 31, 2024 in the Amai Mo ‘Am Ṣo:ṣon G Cewagĭ / El lugar donde se forman las nubes / The Place Where Clouds Are Formed exhibition.

The Native Arts & Cultures Foundation extends its deepest condolences to Johnson’s family, friends, and the Tohono O’odham community. His spirit and legacy will live on through the beautiful baskets he created and the cultural traditions he so passionately advocated for.

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