The Tohono O'odham tribe has the highest rate of adult-onset diabetes of any ethnic group in the world. And while taking a trip of 3000 miles on foot may help those suffering today, the adventure has planted the seeds of change. For 15 years Terrol Dew Johnson talked the talk, until, grasping the opportunity to recharge his batteries, he decided to walk the walk.
I want to help people, to show people that this is possible for someone who never really exercised or walked 50 yards," says Johnson. "I wanted to show people it’s possible. Even I could do it."
A diabetic tipping the scales at 300 pounds Johnson set off on a cross country adventure, starting in Maine and traversing the plains and the mountains. In all he covered 3000 miles on foot, a journey that took two years. A basket weaver since the age of ten, Johnson helped found tohono o'odham community action in 1996. Intitially a collaborative to support native basket weavers, TOCA has evolved to advocate for native health and a return to a traditional diet. That is what Johnson shared with both native and non native communities on his trek.
"We shared our story about here on Tohono O"odham Nation kids as young as 4 yrs old are getting type two diabetes. They are not there, but the fact that we shared our story they know that if they don’t do anything about it they could get there," says Johnson.
Johnson invited family members, nephew Shane Johnson and niece Maray Johnson, to accompany him along the route. While Maray vows jokingly that she'll never walk again, she appreciated the unique landscape that differs so distinctly from the Sonoran desert where she has lived all her life.
"The highlights were being over there, seeing a lot of green," Maray says. "It’s different from seeing the desert. And then the water. We spent hours looking, listening to the water go down, rushing. It was pretty cool and I liked it."
Shane remembers the sights and sounds of nature, and the open road.
He says, "hearing water falls, the wind in the trees, birds, animals, being out there. Thinking how nice it was out there."
Terrol Dew Johnson says the group also found less than pleasant experiences.
"We'eve experienced racism. I’ve had police escort us out of a town immediately because the people didn’t like us walking through their town," says Johnson
Johnson says the experience accomplished his goal, both to prove to himself that he could improve his own health, and to set in motion a path to create the future leaders of his reservation and people.
"We need to mentor young people so that when I’m ready to leave TOCA and move on to something else, someone will be there to take over," explains Johnson. It’s not just me trying to change the world. It’s other people as well and I can accept that ."
In Johnson's absence TOCA experienced big changes...a move to new quarters at the renovated TO plaza and the opening of the Desert Rain cafe, where traditional foods are incorporated into every dish served. And as icing on the cake, Johnson recently chaperoned the TO cooking club to Detroit Michigan where the team took first place in the Cooking for Change competition. Their winning lunch menu featured native tepary beans and homemade wheat flour tortillas to meet the nutritional guidelines that will lead to incorporating the items into school lunches nationwide. Ross Miguel says the cooking team spent months refining the menu.
"You get a great feeling to know we brought home the title for our nation, and that felt real good, not only for us but for Indian country," says Miguel.
Johnson considers the adventure a success, making him a wiser, more understanding and patient person. And the seeds he has sown continue to grow and flourish.