I have written extensively about Nevada’s Native Americans in books such as “Legends of Spirit Cave” and “Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians.” These books about the Native Americans were about artifacts and things that happened many years ago.
In more recent times, there is one Native American Indian woman deserving of recognition for her skill and craftsmanship as a basket maker, whose accomplishments are truly unique. This is the Washoe Indian Basket maker known as Dat-So-La-Lee.
She was born near the mining town Sheridan in Carson Valley about 1829. About 1899, she then changed her name from Dabuda to Dat-So-La-Lee, since she liked the musical tone of the name she selected for herself.
In her earlier years, Dabuda washed clothes and cooked for the miners and their wives. In 1871, she went to the mining town of Monitor in Alpine County, California, and worked as a servant for the Harris Cohn family. In 1888 Dat-So-La-Le married Charlie Keyser, who was part Washoe and took his name from the family which owned the Keyser and Elrod Ranch in Carson Valley. At this time she took the name of Louisa Keyser. Charlie was 24 years younger and an expert arrow craftsman. Louisa came to Abe Cohn’s attention in 1895 when he bought four willow-covered bottles she had made. He later became her sponsor, business manager, and press agent. In 1899, her baskets were being carefully recorded in a ledger separate from the family’s business ledger, by Amy and Abe Cohn who recognized how skillfully they were made.
Dat-So-La-Lee and Charlie had a comfortable life with Abe and Amy Cohn. From 1895 until Charlie’s death in 1928, all of their expenses were taken care of by the Cohns. They traveled to Lake Tahoe every summer where Cohns had provided another home for them at Tahoe Tavern and Louisa (Dat-So-La-Lee) traveled extensively with the Cohns to arts and crafts exhibits.
In return for their providing room and board, the Cohns received Dat-So-Lee’s baskets. For pleasure she liked the games the Indians played with wood or bone dice hidden in the hands or under baskets and the new games of chance the white men brought to Nevada. Sometimes she played late into the night.
Dat-So-La-Lee is probably best known for her degikup or “day-gee-coop” baskets. This type begins with a small, circular base, extends up and out to a maximum circumference, then becomes smaller until the opening at the top is roughly the same diameter as the base.
She wove baskets for Cohn’s Emporium for approximately 30 years until her death in 1925. When she died, she was buried at the Stewart Indian cemetery along with the last basket she was making.
It is now generally accepted that some of Louisa’s designs were inspired by other weavers, probably Pomo and Miwok Indians. Most of her designs were her own. She used symbols like words to tell a story. Dat-So-La-Lee lived during a time that saw an enormous amount of change for her people. She used her hand print, which was copyrighted, to certify bills of sale. The receipts included the hand print, a description of the basket, number of stitches to the inch, design, and time involved in its construction – a lovely gesture devised by Abe and Amy Cohn.
Dat-So-La-Lee was a member of the southern Washo group associated with Carson Valley and Alpine County. Her native people of the Great Basin, the traditional Washoe homeland, have been making baskets for several thousand years.
The “Hokan” speaking Washo people apparently entered the Great Basin of the American West via a California route perhaps as many as 4,000 years ago. Washo inhabited areas of eastern California but the tribe is more commonly associated with western Nevada.
According to Jane Green Hickson, “Before the white men came, the Washoe camped by the shores of Lake Tahoe and Washoe Lake, on the banks of the Truckee, Carson, and Walker Rivers, and near springs in the Pine Nut Hills. For food, they hunted rabbits, antelope, and mud hen, fished the lakes and streams, brought back fly larvae from Mono Lake, hiked to the western slope of the Sierras for acorns, collected seeds from the grasses, and gathered pine nuts. The men did the hunting and fishing and made arrows, tools, and blankets; while the women gathered and prepared the plant and insect foods, tended the children, and made baskets.”
Today most Dat-So-la-La-Lee baskets are in museums and are considered priceless.
Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli’s books can be ordered at a discount on his blog at denniscassinelli.com.