O’odham tribal member walks path to better health

By Carmen Duarte
Tucson, Arizona (AP) March 2010

For more than a decade, Terrol Dew Johnson has advocated healthy eating.

But the co-founder of Tohono O’odham Community Action – a nonprofit grass-roots organization that supports traditional farming, healthy foods and tribal culture – did not heed his own advice.

In 1996, he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes - an epidemic among tribal members.

Half of all O’odham adults are diagnosed with the disease. Four years ago, Johnson developed neuropathy in his feet because of poor circulation.

“I neglected my own health. I never practiced what I preached,” said Johnson, a 36-year-old basket weaver and artist.

Doctors gave him sobering facts about diabetes, a progressive disease that can lead to amputation, blindness and kidney failure – facts that he witnessed living in Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation, about 60 miles southwest of Tucson.

In June 2008, Johnson began an emotional, physical and spiritual journey from Bar Harbor, Maine, back to Sells, a 3,000-mile walk for health. He, along with others, including his niece, Maray Johnson, 16, and nephew, Shane Johnson, 18, arrived in Window Rock, on the Navajo Nation in January.

They passed through Tucson, leaving Mission San Xavier del Bac on Monday, and are headed home to Sells where they are expected to arrive on Saturday. The public is invited to join the walkers as they journey home to Sells, and can call Tohono O’odham Community Action for more information.

On the final six miles of their trek, they will be welcomed by the community and receive blessings from elders, witness traditional singing and dancing, and enjoy a feast of O’odham food once at home.

As he crossed the United States, Johnson shared his story with more than 20 Native American tribes, Boys and Girls Clubs, medical students and doctors at Yale School of Medicine, National Public Radio listeners and the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution.

“When I began the journey, I walked about nine miles a day and worked up to about 20 miles a day,” said Johnson, who received support from hired drivers who hauled equipment in a travel trailer attached to Johnson’s pickup. The drivers set up camp and cooked for the group. They also spent nights with host families or in hotels when necessary.

“I hurt with blisters on my feet and I fractured my right foot five months into the walk,” recalled Johnson. The group stayed in New Haven, Conn., for eight months while Johnson healed. There, the teenagers on the trip were enrolled in school and Johnson gave presentations to Native American diabetes groups.

In Chicago, the group’s travel trailer was stolen, along with several thousand dollars’ worth of cameras, lenses and other equipment. Police recovered the abandoned travel trailer and much of the camping equipment, Johnson said. Members of Chicago’s Native American community took in Johnson and the walkers, fed them and gave them donations so they could continue.

Johnson said the group marveled at the beauty of nature.

“We walked under a canopy of trees in forests in Massachusetts. We walked through the seasons and felt rain, snow and the cold. We saw the leaves turning colors,” he said. “We saw the beauty of flat land and clear skies in Kansas, and felt the heat of the sun and were cooled by slight breezes.

“It is beautiful to be walking through Arizona as we near spring. The desert is so beautiful and green. Our journey gave us more of an appreciation of Mother Earth, and an appreciation for what we do have.”

On the trip, Johnson lost more than 60 pounds, started eating healthily and needed less insulin daily.

He said he is energized and ready to share and start projects in Sells that he learned from other tribes.

 

 


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