One of the most famous weavers in the world, Datsolalee (1835-1925) was a major influence on the evolution of Washo fancy basketry and is recognized as the greatest basket weaver and designer among the Washo people.
Born in Nevada's Carson Valley of unknown parentage in 1835, Datsolalee learned the skills of traditional Washo basketry, perfecting the intricate design that used up to 36 stitches to the inch. Datsolalee was married twice, first to a Washo man named Assu, by whom she had two children, and second to Charley Keyser in 1888. With her marriage to Keyser, Datsolalee took the name Louisa. However, it was her friendship with and patronage from a man named Dr. S. L. Lee of Carson City in the 1860s that earned her the nickname Datsolalee—a name she was known by for the remainder of her life.
In 1851, disaster struck the Washo tribe when it was attacked by the Northern Paiute, a tribe that had come to Carson Valley when white settlers forced it from its own homeland during the California Gold Rush. In a dispute over the use of certain lands, the Paiute defeated the Washo, imposing two penalties: the Washo could own no horses, and, more importantly for Datsolalee and her tribe, they could weave no baskets. The Paiute wanted to eliminate the competition in order to sell their own basketry. This restriction was disastrous for the Washo people, who had very little to offer for trade or sale without their basketry.
Defied Basket Prohibition
By 1895, the Washo people were living in utter poverty and their financial condition was desperate. In a defiant move, Datsolalee took some glass bottles she had covered with weaving to a clothing store in Carson City, which eventually became the major outlet for her weavings and those of the Washo people. The Emporium Company was owned by Abram Cohn and his wife Amy (and later his second wife, Margaret), who regretted the loss of Washo basketry through the years of Paiute rule and were surprised to find that the Washo women had continued to weave despite the nearly half-century ban. Both recognized the high quality of Datsolalee's work and bought all of her baskets, requesting that she produce more and promising to purchase all of them.
After that, the Cohns handled all of Datsolalee's work, as well as baskets from other Washo weavers. Although Abram took credit for discovering Datsolalee, apparently Amy was the first to become interested in Washo basketry and in Datsolalee herself. Amy kept very detailed records of Datsolalee's work, compiling a written catalog of her basketry. Particularly with Datsolalee's major pieces, Amy's records show the dates each weaving was started and finished; Datsolalee's minor works were usually given only a finishing date or a date when she brought a group of works to the Emporium. With each sale, Amy issued certificates of authentication. In addition, she published pamphlets about Datsolalee's work and took promotional photographs, all in an effort to raise the value of her baskets.
Datsolalee's baskets combined creative and unusual design work with a rare technical skill. She wove her baskets with tiny, detailed stitches, pulled tightly into a coil. In addition, the geometrical designs in Datsolalee's baskets delineated her perception of Washo life and history. It is believed that Datsolalee interwove designs that were part of her dreams and visions. All of her baskets are distinguished by small, repetitive designs—often lines or triangles— woven with exact spacing. Her designs can be found on three major types of baskets: the singam, shaped like a truncated cone; the mokeewit, a conical burden basket; and the degikup, a spherical ceremonial basket and Datsolalee's preferred style. For tools, she used her teeth, her fingers, a piece of sharp stone or glass, and a bone or iron awl.
Found a Second Patron
Most of the Washo weavers first sold their work through the Emporium, but eventually found their own patrons or sold directly to tourists at Lake Tahoe. So, too, Datsolalee found another patron for her work. Every summer, the Cohns took their inventory of baskets to their branch shop in Tahoe City, and Datsolalee attracted attention by weaving her baskets outside this store. Here Datsolalee met William F. Breitholle, who worked as a wine steward at a resort hotel at Lake Tahoe from 1907 to 1916. Because the Cohns gave her Sundays off from weaving, Datsolalee would visit the Breitholle's for breakfast and, ultimately, developed a close relationship with them. William's son, Buddy, who currently owns 17 pieces of a private collection of Datsolalee's work, has said that the baskets were given to his parents without the Cohns' knowledge and are not recorded in the Cohn ledger. Art historians have speculated that either Amy was unaware that Datsolalee was weaving on Sundays for Breitholle, or she felt she had no right to the baskets Datsolalee was making in her spare time.
The Cohn ledger lists approximately 120 of Datsolalee's pieces; however, it is estimated that she wove nearly 300 in her lifetime, including approximately 40 exceptionally large pieces. During 1904 and 1919, Datsolalee worked primarily on these large pieces, some of which took an entire year to complete. One of her most famous, called "Myriads of Stars Shine Over the Graves of Our Ancestors," contains 56,590 stitches.
Though nearly blind in the latter years of her life, Datsolalee worked until her death in 1925 in Carson City at the age of 90. She experimented considerably with design, technique, and color, and, as Marvin Cohadas pointed out in "The Breitholle Collection of Washoe Basketry" in American Indian Art magazine, was a pioneer in "introducing most of the innovations that characterize the Washo fancy or curio style, including the incurving spheroid degikup basket form, fine stitching, two-color design and expanded pattern area." Five years after her death, one of Datsolalee's baskets sold for $10,000. In the 1990s, her baskets were considered collectors' items and sold for close to $250,000.
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Newsweek, December 13, 1993.