A Tohono O’odham contemporary basket weaver on facing the climate crisis
by Terrol Dew Johnson, as told to Kimi Eisele
We’ve noticed a lot of changes. We’ve been talking about that for 25 to 30 years, the fact that the weather has been changing. Water wasn’t coming in, it was harder and harder to find materials, which meant that we had to get further and further away from our traditional gathering sites, sometimes traveling to other states to look for yucca or bear grass. One of the big major losses as far as climate change and how humans have contributed to that has been water. Water was being depleted from our aquifers from farming around the tribal lands. There used to be willow trees here on the reservation. But because of the depletion of the aquifers willow trees died. So Tohono O’odham basket weavers stopped using willow and moved to yucca. That happened 100 years ago or more. My last teacher said that in different villages there were groves of willow trees along the charcos or little ponds. She told me of one willow tree left and so I went and picked willow there. A few years later it died because there wasn’t any more water. Willow trees need lots of water. But no rain. No water. No groundwater because of the farmlands.
In the 1980s, huge floods happened in Tucson along the Santa Cruz River. Houses were falling because they were built so close to the river. It flooded for what seemed like weeks and weeks. There had been an abundance of willow trees along the Santa Cruz, and I used to pick there. But the flood tumbled and uprooted all the willow trees, and they died. It was horrible.
So there’s climate change and other man-made issues. All the desert areas around Tucson were being bought up for real estate. They would clear cut areas where they were going to build box houses, and that meant that the willow trees and the yucca plants and bear grass plants would also be bulldozed. These are things we’ve had to deal with as weavers.
My dear friend Sadie Marks passed away recently and I used to take her to a friend’s house who lived out in Vail when that area was just starting to be developed with houses and homesteads. A friend of mine bought four acres out there and so they clear cut a place for her trailer. She said, “Hey, do you guys use yucca? We just uprooted a bunch of yucca roots. Come on over and have your pick before we have them taken away.” Me and Sadie spent two days just sitting on these yuccas that were uprooted, clipping away at the banana root. That was one of the fond memories I have of Sadie.
I got the taste of basket weaving in camp. I went to a Native American youth camp, a national organization that went to different reservations around the country and hosted Native American kids for two weeks or a month of camping. There were Tohono O’odham people making food for us and a weaver who taught basket weaving. I had a taste of the basket weaving there. Then in school, it was required that we take O’odham language and also try basket weaving. Margaret Acosta became my teacher. I was diagnosed as severely dyslexic, so I never really was good at school as far as reading and writing. But I was really good with my hands. If you showed me how to do something, I could do it just by memory. I just couldn’t read instructional books. Basket weaving was just perfect for me, because there was Margaret, the teacher in front of the classroom showing us with her hands how to tie a knot, how to start weaving. I picked it up because I saw physically how she did it. Margaret often told a story about me: During one of the classes, I stood up and made an announcement that I was going to be a basket weaver and have that become my job for the rest of my life. I’d always say, “Margaret, I don’t ever remember saying that.” Margaret’s gone now as well; she passed away years ago.
After that, I learned that Margaret’s teacher was still alive. Lolita Manuel. She was in her 80s. She was a well-known basket weaver and very instrumental in starting the Tohono O’odham Basket Weavers Co-op in Sells. They had a store where they sold baskets. She was the one who told me about where to find the willow. I met another basket weaver, Clara Havier, who was related to Margaret. I spent several summers with her. She only spoke O’odham and I only spoke English, so my grandparents would come with me and translate for us the whole time I was with her. She was my last teacher. She taught me about legends and designs and old-style weaving. All of my teachers always encouraged me to find my own style. At first, I was mimicking their styles, but they were like, No, you’ve got to start your own. Do something that’s you. I think that was the catalyst of me doing contemporary basket weaving.
Some O’odham say male-bodied people can’t weave. But there have always been Two Spirit people and we’ve been regarded as sacred in many Native American tribes. Two Spirit people would do what men did, but also what women did, including basket weaving and cooking. In our tribe, this was documented way, way, way back. The anthropologist Ruth Underhill wrote about a Two Spirit person who was a great weaver. In her book, she shares a story she was told about him. Two parents wondered why their son was doing things women usually did. They put a bow and arrow and a bundle of basket materials in a grass hut with the boy then set the house on fire. The boy grabbed the basket material and escaped. That’s how they knew he was a basket weaver. I am also Two Spirit. But all that aside, my teacher Margaret said it didn’t really matter who was weaving as long as the weaving was being kept alive.
I’m sad about our traditional harvesting areas that are gone but I try to adapt and look for other places to pick. I don’t necessarily mourn the shift. A lot of us are getting savvy and starting to work with organizations like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to obtain permits to harvest on public lands that are protected or reserved for hunting. We understand this process though it sucks that we have to do it on our traditional land. If you get stopped by police or rangers, you show them this paper—it’s your ticket to continue to harvest. We’re learning how to adapt. But we also have to go further and further away from the traditional picking areas to harvest.
One thing I always loved about Sadie was that she always experimented with material. When I was traveling the country and working with other basket weavers and talking to other groups, I would bring home material that I would trade or was gifted. Once I had a pile of pine needles, and Sadie was all excited because she wanted to work with them. I gave her some and the baskets she made were just amazing. So that’s how we’re adapting—we’re experimenting.
I started weaving contemporary baskets partly out of necessity. When I was 18, I didn’t have a car. When I would run out of material, I would look for other things to either weave with or incorporate—other plant material or sometimes metal and stones and bones and hair. All these things would go into my baskets. Other weavers were like, “Ew, that looks ugly,” or “Why did you do that?” or “What’s wrong with you?” I just say I had this idea or this dream to work with this material. So that’s how I’ve adapted.
But it’s a Tohono O’odham basket regardless. I’m the weaver. I’m Tohono O’odham. Still, I always try to incorporate a traditional element or material in every piece of non-traditional work I do—yucca, bear grass—just for my sake, to know that this is a basket. This is a Tohono O’odham basket; this is my basket.
At one basket gathering, a Tohono O’odham potter, Rueben Naranjo, said artists from 100 years ago were always adapting. He brought this to the floor asking, what if we could not find any yucca or bear grass or any other material that we normally would use, what would we do then? For myself, I would look for other things to weave with. Reuben said this has always been true. In the past, if they couldn’t find their regular materials or if the climate was changing, they would seek out other means and materials to use.
This reminds me of my work in food sovereignty, as an activist. What we always say about farming is if my uncle or my great great great great grandfather had access to water pipes and pumps, they would have used them and that wouldn’t have made them any less of a farmer. It doesn’t make you less of a weaver if you’re using material you’ve been gifted or you’ve discovered. At international basket weaver gatherings, I would see a Haida basket weaver who uses bark exchange with a basket weaver from Maine who uses brown ash wood. I’ve seen the amazing baskets they made, and they continue to exchange materials. It’s just incredible.
I do the same thing. I love discovering different materials from other tribes around the world. I had a piece in the Smithsonian that incorporated different materials from different parts of the country. I did a two-week residency in New Zealand and learned how to use materials from there then incorporated them into a piece. It’s really nice to see older weavers who may have only worked with traditional materials start to try new things. I’m just sitting in the corner of the room saying, “Mmm-hmm, I see you.”
For me a basket is a container or a vessel that holds everything. It can hold food, it can hold physical objects, but it also can hold memories. I remember the baskets Sadie would make. She’d be so happy and excited to show them to me. But she’d also say, “Ugh. It took me forever. It was hard to do.” I recently heard from a friend of mine at the Smithsonian who was closing out Sadie’s artist file at the museum after her death. He sent me a photo of one of her baskets and I remembered it because I commissioned it from her 25 years ago. A basket to me is multi-faceted and multipurpose. It can hold a physical object, but it can hold memories and spirits as well.
Basket weaving has lessons for us in this moment, facing the climate crisis. I’m not just a weaver, I’m also an activist. I’ve seen a lot of changes happen on the reservation. Basket weaving reminds us to be aware of our environment, our surroundings, to take care of what we have.
I did a show four years ago in collaboration with the design studio Aranda/Lasch at Tucson’s Museum of Contemporary Art called “Meeting the Clouds Halfway,” which is still traveling around the country now. One piece was a weaving made with creosote branches, cedar bark, and grapevines. The smell of creosote filled the large warehouse building of MOCA. It smelled like the desert. Of course, creosote dries out and becomes very brittle. With any slight touch it will deteriorate, and the leaves will fall off. The piece said, Listen, we have to take care of our medicine. Creosote is a medicine to us. As the piece would fall apart, leaves falling from the branches, it was a reminder for people to be aware of their surroundings. All that development happening in the desert—they’re clear cutting our medicine. If we don’t take care of the land, and keep some of that medicine, it’ll be gone forever.
Terrol Dew Johnson is Tohono O’odham contemporary basket weaver, sculptor, and health advocate. His work has appeared and won awards at Santa Fe Indian Market, the O’odham Tash, the Heard Museum Guild Fair, and the Southwest Museum‘s Indian Art Fair. In 1996, with Tristan Reader, Johnson co-founded Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), a nonprofit community development organization dedicated to promoting O’odham arts and reviving native foods through a farm cooperative and restaurant program. In 2013, he launched Native Foodways Magazine, a publication on the culinary innovation and cultural significance of Native American foods. He is a 2017 recipient of a Master-Apprentice Artist Award from the Southwest Folklife Alliance for his work passing on traditional knowledge of Tohono O’odham basket weaving.
ClimateLore is a series of investigations and stories about the impacts of climate crisis on culture and heritage and climate resilience in folk and indigenous communities of the Greater Southwest and Northwest Mexico. It is funded, in part, by Arizona Humanities.