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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 8, 2001 - Issue 44


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Remembering a Basket Weaver's Magic


 by Ed Vogel-Las Vegas Review Journal

CARSON CITY -- The roof of the small wooden house a stone's throw from the state Capitol has begun to sag. Trash is strewn on the floors of its two rooms.

Even when it was constructed by Carson City merchant Abe Cohn in 1895, the building wasn't much more than a shack.

But during the 30 years she lived here, Dat-so-la-lee was transformed from Cohn's lowly Indian maid into a celebrated artist and the most famous Washoe in America.

Famed photographer Edward S. Curtis took her pictures. Yale University and the Smithsonian Institution purchased some of the baskets she wove.

Dat-so-la-lee took 1-millimeter-wide strips of willow gathered along the Carson River and wove them into flawless, hot-air balloon-shaped baskets. She created about 300 pieces of basket art in her lifetime, of which about 80 are considered extremely valuable.

"They are perfection in basketry," said Amy Dansie, a retired Nevada State Museum employee.

"Everything is perfectly symmetrical and completely integrated. She never used a sketch. It was all in her hands."

Carson City resident Winona James, at 98 the oldest Washoe, remembers Dat-so-la-lee as Louisa Keyser, her step-grandmother.

"I watched her work, but I didn't pay close attention," James said.

"When you are young, you don't recognize things as special. I remember her hands were very nimble."

Fame came during her lifetime, but not wealth. Cohn provided Dat-so-la-lee and her husband, Charley Keyser, with the small home, clothing, food and spending money. In return, she spent the last 30 years of her life making baskets that he could sell. Cohn and his wife, Amy, lived next door in a substantial stone home that remains stylish today.

Some of Dat-so-la-lee's baskets fetched as much as $1,400 during her lifetime, but most remained unsold at the time of her death in 1925. Finally in 1945, Cohn's second wife, Margaret, sold 20 of the baskets to the state Legislature for $1,500. Ten were given to the Nevada Historical Society in Reno and 10 to the Nevada State Museum in Carson City.

Dat-so-la-lee's baskets sell today for a minimum of $250,000, and finding them on the open market is rare.

A thief in 1978 stole four baskets from the Historical Society. One was recovered two years later after the state paid a $1,500 "finder's fee." The others were returned in 1998 after Paul Shepard, a Tucson art dealer, sent them to an art dealer in Palm Springs, Calif., for appraisal. The dealer sent photos of the baskets to University of British Columbia art professor Marvin Cohodas, an expert on Dat-so-la-lee and Native American basketry. He quickly identified them as the stolen baskets.

This time the state paid $55,000 for the return of the baskets. Despite an extensive investigation by the FBI, no one was prosecuted. The money covered what Shepard had paid for them.

"We recovered them from an innocent party," said Peter Bandurraga, director of the Historical Society on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.

"There was nothing to connect the art dealer in Tucson with the theft."

To bring the baskets back from Arizona, Bandurraga bought three seats on an airliner. He wasn't about to stow them with the luggage.

"I knew they were the stolen baskets," Cohodas said in a telephone interview from Vancouver.

"No two baskets are alike. Often collectors send me pictures to ask me who wove them."

Cohodas personally had photographed the baskets during a trip to Reno in 1976 when he was teaching at Arizona State University.

Like James, Cohodas refers to Dat-so-la-lee as Louisa Keyser, the name she preferred during her life. Her given Washoe name was Dabuda, or Young Willow.

Dat-so-la-lee wove her baskets at 25 stitches to an inch, sometimes taking a year to complete one of her better works. She perfected a style used by the Pomo weavers in California.

"She was an innovator," Cohodas said.

"She developed her skills during the time she was doing laundry for Cohn. That was an onerous task. Like many Washoe women, in her spare time she made baskets to sell. Cohn could see he could make more money selling her baskets than having her do laundry."

James said she thinks Cohn took advantage of Dat-so-la-lee, but Cohodas said he believes it was a mutually beneficial relationship. Along with providing for a place to live, Cohn took her to a major art exhibition in St. Louis in 1919.

While he did not grow rich selling the baskets, she became his star attraction. He placed her in the window of his store where she sat and stitched in front of crowds who gathered to watch. Customers could not afford her baskets, but Cohodas said Cohn prospered because customers bought less expensive items from his store.

"She is the best example in Nevada of a Native American woman adapting her culture to a cash economy," Bandurraga said.

"She took a craft and turned it into a piece of art to sell."

Finding all the truth about Dat-sa-lo-lee's life is next to impossible. Cohodas said Amy Cohn fabricated numerous stories about the woman in an effort to make her appear larger than life.

Amy Cohn concocted the year of Dat-so-la-lee's birth as 1829 or 1830, according to Cohodas. In truth, it was closer to 1850.

She then made up a story of the young Dat-so-la-lee meeting explorer John C. Fremont and his troops when they scouted Nevada in 1844. One story had the young Indian woman receiving buttons off the uniforms of Fremont's men, items that she cherished the remainder of her life.

Local newspaper writers bought the legends. When Dat-so-la-lee died on Dec. 6, 1925, the papers reported her age at 96.

The origin of her Dat-so-la-lee nickname remains a mystery. Abe Cohn said the name was Washoe for "wide hips." But Dr. S.L. Lee, for whom Dat-so-la-lee had worked as a maid, claimed she honored him by taking his name.

"I have no faith in any of the stories," Cohodas said.

He predicts the value of Dat-so-la-lee's baskets will continue to increase. Bob Nylen, curator at the Nevada State Museum, said they already might be the most valuable objects in the museum in Carson City.

"The rise in prices came in the 1970s," Cohodas added.

"It had to do with the counterculture revival of interest in all things Native American."


  Maps by Travel

Washoe Tribe
We have always been a unique tribe. When the Maker scattered the seeds of humanity a few were left over. With all other areas taken he gave the Washoe a place he had saved for himself, Lake Tahoe. He knew we would protect this special place, as we have for over 9,000 years.

Dot So La Lee
On the curve of land which comprises the northern bank of Tahoe's Truckee River outlet, on a wooden floor with materials of her labor spread at the perimeters of her voluminous skirts, and Indian woman often used to sit with her front door open to catch the light necessary for the fineness of her work.

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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