On Monday morning Dec. 7, 1925, the Carson City Daily Appeal ran a front page story, two columns wide and the length of the paper. The headline proclaimed: "Dat-So-La-Lee, Buried With Treasured Basket." The story went on to say, "she died from dropsy the previous day, Sunday at about 11:30 a.m. and had spent the 90 odd years of her life in this section of Nevada."
Dat-So-La-Lee, like many of Nevada's historical figures, took on legendary status after her death. And over the years, stories about her life became clouded between fact and fiction.
She was born "Dabuda" of the Washo Tribe in Carson Valley in 1829, but that birth year has come under question by some historians and scholars, saying 1850 might be closer to her actual birth year, 1825 and 1835 have also been published, but in truth, American Indians didn't write down such information. Dabuda's birth, like many of her ancestors', was simply written on the wind.
It's said that as a young woman she married a man named Assu and had two children by him, but both children died before reaching their teens. Assu died in the 1870s.
It's not until the late 1880s that we finally get a handle on some solid history about her. In 1888, she married Charley Keyser and took the English name Louisa Keyser. In 1899, she became known by her more famous nickname, Dat-So-La-Lee.
It's believed the name came from Dr. S.L. Lee, in whose home she worked as a domestic. She was illiterate, and when she tried pronouncing the doctor's name it came out "Dat-So-La-Lee." Whatever the truth is concerning her name, that name has became synonymous with some of the most beautiful and intricate basket weaving in the history of American Indian artifacts.
As Dabuda, she learned her craft from the elder women of her tribe. But as Dat-So-La-Lee, she took that craft into another dimension. Around 1895, Carson City merchant Abe Cohn purchased a few of her pieces and sold them for a nice profit. Wanting more of her work, he offered her and her husband a small house next to his, in exchange for her baskets.
Her 30-year stay there with Charley until her death in 1925 is well documented, as Cohn kept a meticulous ledger of her work. Every sale was recorded, and a receipt was given to the purchaser that included the name of the basket, its dimensions and the amount of time it took to construct it. The receipt also contained her handprint in lieu of a signature.
Her smaller pieces at the time sold for only a few dollars, but the larger, more-intricate baskets sold for as much as several thousand dollars. These are the baskets that are highly sought after by collectors today, and are valued upwards of $600,000 each.
Upon her death, she was given a Christian service and buried with one of her prized baskets at Stewart Indian School Cemetery.
Nevada State Historical Marker No. 77 with her name blazoned at its top, stands just a few feet from her final resting place. Her gravesite is unmarked, and the sandstone markers within have eroded badly during the many years of harsh Nevada weather since her death.
The day I visited the site, the wind kicked up a small dust devil, and the weeds bent to the ground as it swept across the area, perhaps as it did so many years ago when it heralded the birth of Dabuda.
Dat-So-La-Lee created about 125 baskets for Abe Cohn, in addition to the 62 miniatures she made for Cohn's wife, Amy. The miniatures, smaller than a penny, were on exhibit this summer at the Gatekeeper's Museum in Tahoe City and will again be on display there in 2006 from May through October.
The Nevada Historical Society in Reno purchased 20 baskets in 1945 from Cohn's second wife, Margaret. Ten of those baskets are on display there.
Another dozen baskets are currently housed at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. These baskets are not on public display and can only be viewed during the Behind-the-Scenes Tour at the museum on the last Friday of the month. Reservations are required for the tour. Call 687-4810.
"DAT-SO-LA-LEE, Washo Indian Basketmaker," by Dixie Westergard, 1999.