Tohono O’odham Basketry: One of Sells’ richest preserved traditions

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Johnson holding up a finished product. (Photos by Yuji Miyaji/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

It can take Terrol Dew Johnson a year to make a basket.

There are many reasons for that. He must harvest and prepare the fibers, and then plan the intricate designs that adhere to the rich history of basket weaving in the Tohono O’odham nation.

The time that goes into making each basket varies by size and intricacy of the design. Johnson says that a smaller split stitch basket takes him about four hours to make whereas a larger close stitch basket can take up to weeks or even months.

The Nation’s culture is revitalized through Johnson’s Tohono O’odham Community Action co-op with the numerous events and workshops it offers. Basket weaving is a large component in Tohono O’odham culture and Johnson, the CEO and president of Tohono O’odham Community Action or TOCA, is a contemporary basket weaver himself.

When Johnson founded TOCA in the summer of 1996, he wanted to preserve the Tohono O’odham basket weaving tradition, so he decided that the organization should offer classes. Every Wednesday TOCA holds a basket weaving circle where artisans come together from around the reservation. The baskets were used by the Tohono O’odham tribe for everyday use to hold or prepare foods but now are being sold as gifts and displayed in art museums.

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The Tohono O’odham Nation’s culture is reflected through the variety of designs in Johnson’s work. (Photos by Yuji Miyaji/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

While Tohono O’odham art encompasses pottery and jewelry as well, basket weaving seems to be a predominant form of art to represent the culture.

“I think that one of the whole reasons why we started this basket weavers organization co-op was to really preserve the art of basketry along with other arts that Tohono O’odham is well known for,” Johnson said. When he first learned to weave baskets he would often hear his elders talking about how young people weren’t interest in the art. This inspired him to carry on the tradition through the circles he formed and the gallery displaying baskets at the TOCA community center located in Sells.

“Typically back in the day they were used for everyday use in the kitchen. They were used to hold food, they were use to prepare food,” said Johnson.

He shares how Tohono O’odham basketry was used for rain ceremonies that went on for four days and four nights.

“At the end of the four days we serve the wine in wine baskets that are woven together. So those are really sacred,” Johnson said. “A lot of the baskets that are made now are mainly for tourism and for collectors.”

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This piece made by Johnson is priced at 5000 dollars. (Photo by Yuji Miyaji/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

According to Johnson, archaeologists have dug up old pieces of Tohono O’odham baskets in Ventana cave, which is on the reservation, suggesting that this form of basketry dates back to the origin of the tribe.

Johnson has been weaving baskets since he was 10 after discovering his love for the art form at a Native American summer camp. He says that with any Native America tribe around the country, language is the most important thing to keep their culture thriving.

“For myself though, since I don’t speak the language, I feel that because I’m a weaver and I weave traditional basket weaving, that’s how I’m keeping my culture alive,” said Johnson.

Every basket is hand woven using a variety of grasses native to the reservation, an awl, and a knife. The Yucca grass, devil’s claw plant, and beargrass used to be hand picked by the weavers but nowadays it’s more common for weavers to buy their materials from TOCA by bundles.

The naturally colored Yucca grass is then woven into intricate designs that are specific to the Tohono O’odham reservation. The baskets represent animals, stars, flowers and people through their designs.

As a co-op, TOCA does not employ any basket weavers. Instead, the organization buys baskets from the 200 weavers on the reservation and collects a percentage of the sales at the community center. The profits from the basket sales go to TOCA to help fund basket weaving classes, hire basket weavers to teach weaving in different communities, and pay for trips to harvest material.

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TOCA’s gallery displays baskets with a variety of shapes, sizes, and designs. (Photo by Yuji Miyaji/ Arizona Sonora News Service)

As a contemporary basket weaver, Johnson’s work can range from anywhere between thousands and tens of thousands in price. However Johnson works solely for commission because he caters more to museums. “My last sale was done with the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and so they bought like three of my pieces.” Johnson said.

Samantha Felix, an employee at the TOCA community center, is a weaver as well. Felix has been basket weaving since she started working at TOCA in 2012. She learned through her culture teacher in high school but her interest for the art sparked after she started attending the circles at TOCA.

“Just being with all the different weavers encouraged me to do it more,” Felix says. “What makes it [the baskets] unique is, it’s only made her in Arizona.”

Johnson says that the Tohono O’odham culture is alive and thriving.

“Now we’re in this surge of revitalization and that’s why this organization is thriving because we are trying to preserve the language, the culture, the food, and the society of the Tohono O’odham people,” Johnson said.

Felix says that the art of Tohono O’odham basketry can be preserved, “As long as our generation still picks it up and continues to do what their grandparents were doing.”

Yuji Miyaji is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at ymiyaji@email.arizona.edu

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