One of the most famous weavers in the world, Dasolalee 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, she learned the skills of traditional Washo basketry, perfecting the intricate designs 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, then—after Assu’s death—to Charley Keyser in 1888. When she married Keyser, Datsolalee took the name Louisa. However, it was the friendship and patronage of Dr. S. L. Lee of Carson City in the 1860s that earned her the nickname Datsolalee, which stuck for the remainder of her life.
In 1851 the Washo tribe got into a dispute with the Northern Paiutes, a tribe that had relocated to Carson Valley when white settlers forced them from their own homeland during the California Gold Rush. The Paiutes attacked and defeated the Washo. After achieving victory, they imposed two penalties: the Washo could own no horses, and, more importantly for Datsolalee and her tribe, they could weave no baskets. The Paiutes wanted to eliminate their competition in order to sell their own basketry. This was disastrous for the Washo people, who had very little to offer for trade or sale without their basketry.
By 1895 the Washo people were living in utter poverty. In a defiant move, Datsolalee took some glass bottles she had covered with weaving to a clothing store in Carson City. This shop, the Emporium Company, eventually became the major outlet for Datsolalee’s weaving and those of the Washo people. It was owned by Abram Cohn and his wife, Amy (and later his second wife, Margaret), who had regretted the loss of Washo basketry through the years of Paiute rule. They were surprised to find that the Washo women had continued to weave despite the ban, which by now had gone on for more than half a century. Both recognized the high quality of Datsolalee’s work and bought all of her baskets, asking her to create more and promising to buy all of them.
After that, the Cohns handled all of Datsolalee’s work, as well as baskets from other Washo weavers. Although Abram Cohn took credit for discovering Datsolalee, apparently Amy Cohn was the first to become interested in Washo basketry and in Datsolalee herself. Amy kept very detailed records of Datsolalee’s work, created a catalogue of her basketry, issued certificates to assure buyers each one was authentic, published pamphlets about the baskets, and took promotional photographs of them.
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 contained illustrations 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, repeated designs—often lines or triangles—woven with exact spacing. Her designs can be found on three major types of baskets: a cone-shaped singam; the mokeewit, a burden basket; and the degikup, a spherical ceremonial basket and Datsolalee’s preferred style. Her tools were her teeth, her fingers, a piece of sharp stone or glass, and a pointed instrument such as a bone or iron awl.
After Datsolalee broke the ban, most Washo weavers first sold their work through the Emporium, but eventually they found their own buyers or sold directly to tourists at Lake Tahoe. Datsolalee, too, 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 she 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 Breitholles for breakfast and eventually 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. Amy Cohn may not have known that Datsolalee was weaving on Sundays for Breitholle, or she may have felt that she had no right to the baskets Datsolalee was making in her spare time.
The Cohn ledger lists approximately 120 of Datsolalee’s pieces, but it is estimated that she wove nearly 300 in her lifetime, including 40 exceptionally large ones. Between 1904 and 1919, Datsolalee worked primarily on these large pieces, some of which took a year to complete. One of her most famous baskets, called “Myriads of Stars Shine over the Graves of Our Ancestors,” contains 56,590 stitches.
Though nearly blind in the last years of her life, Datsolalee worked until her death in Carson City at the age of 90. She experimented with design, technique, and color and introduced a number of new approaches into Washo basketry. 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.
Source: Native North American Biography edited by Sharon Malinowski and Simon Glickman