Carrying on an age-old tradition |

Carrying on an age-old tradition

Karen Woodmansee
Appeal Staff Writer

Kevin Clifford/Nevada Appeal Sue Coleman splits a willow while giving a basket weaving demonstration at the Nevada State Museum on Saturday afternoon.

Washo basket maker Sue Coleman said she is lucky she grew up living her culture.

She comes from a long line of Washo basket makers and is passing the tradition on to her daughter and grandchildren, she said.

Coleman gave a demonstration Saturday at the Nevada State Museum and weaved stories of her family in with information on how baskets are made.

“I’m just carrying on what my mother started,” she said. “I was fortunate that I was able to live a lot of our culture.”

That culture includes a heritage of gathering food, not an easy task for her ancestors, she said.

“It took a long process to complete,” she said, explaining that willows had to be found, selected, stripped, coiled and dried before they could begin to make a basket. The women then cooked the pine nuts in a winnowing basket, where they held the basket over hot coals shaking it continuously for about a half hour. Then they shelled the nuts and cooked them again, using the same process.

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To get the pine nuts, she said, men climbed to the tops of the piñon trees to get the biggest pine cones, which held the biggest and best nuts, then would carry what they found in a large basket on their backs.

“We had to compete with the squirrels and birds for the pine nuts, so we put the heavy cones in the basket,” Coleman said. “That’s why our ancestors were not fat, they had to work hard for their food,”

Coleman, 57, was raised in Dresslerville, south of Gardnerville. According to Deborah Stevenson, curator of education for the Nevada State Museum, she is the best-known Washo basket maker since Dat So Lat Lee.

She has won 44 blue ribbons, and her work is sought by collectors all over the world, Stevenson said. The Smithsonian has purchased a Coleman basket for inclusion in their traveling exhibit, which will tour the globe.

Coleman said it takes time and patience to make a basket correctly.

First they gather the willows, and she is particular about the quality of willows. Washo basket makers only use willows, brackenfern and red bud in their baskets, with the black brackenfern and the maroon red bud used for color and designs.

Then the willows are split. Coleman demonstrated by cutting a thin willow with a knife, then taking an end in her teeth and working her hands down the willow until it was in two pieces. She does the same thing taking the bark off the willow, then peels the inner core out. She then coils them until she is ready to make a basket.

“It really takes a long time to work on these threads,” she said.

Baskets are used for cooking, sifting, storage, gifts; almost every purpose one can think of, but the most controversial use is the baby baskets.

Baskets are attached to a cradleboard and babies are tied in it snugly, to be carried around by their mothers.

“A lot of people think we’re really mean because we tie them down, but they love their baskets,” she said. “They can’t kick their covers off, they can’t fall out of it, they go right to sleep.”

She said that when her ancestors would gather willows or food, they carried the baby basket on their backs, and while they worked, they hung the cradleboard in a tree so the babies could watch their mothers work.

Now Coleman gives demonstrations several times a year and goes to conferences, which she said she enjoys because she learns other cultures’ ways of making baskets.

• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at or 882-2111 ext. 351.