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Museum looks at life as Washo

Karel Ancona-Henry
For the Nevada Appeal

Sue Coleman shares stories of her family, her passion for basket weaving and growing up in Dresslerville during “Washo Basket Weaving and Culture: A Family Tradition,” a continuation of the Frances Humphrey Lecture Series, at 8 p.m Thursday at Nevada State Museum, 600 N. Carson St.

A master Native American weaver and artist, Coleman has become one of the foremost basket makers of this generation, a tradition that was passed on to her by her mother Theresa Smokey Jackson.

“My mother’s generation is almost gone,” said Coleman, who began learning basketry in her 30s. “The last of the great basket weavers are almost gone.”

In an effort to keep the tradition alive, Coleman not only creates beautiful baskets, but has been in demand as a speaker, appearing at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, the Indian Basket Weavers Association conference in Ione, Calif., and at the cowboy poetry gathering in Genoa. She belongs to basket weaving organizations, open to people of all backgrounds and cultures.

“People want to learn about the (Washo) culture, even beyond basketry,” Coleman, 60, said. “They have seen me talk about basketry and I do go into that a bit, but I have found they also want to know what it was like to live on the reservation.

“We lived completely separate from the white people and there are things that people don’t know about our area’s history they find interesting, but also don’t realize were still happening when I was a child.”

What people may not know, for instance, is that in Gardnerville there was a separate jail where native people were detained for simply being in town after curfew.

“My grandfather had to spend the night in jail once, not because he did anything wrong, but he hadn’t come back to the reservation in time,” she said, adding that as a child, she enjoyed going to the movies, tickets cost 25 cents and they could afford to, but they were not allowed to sit with the whites.

“It never occurred to us there was something wrong with that, because it’s just how it was,” she said. “But it’s funny to think that this wasn’t long ago … it was in my lifetime.”

Coleman bears no bitterness for the discrimination, she said, primarily because she grew up with such strong family ties and there was an abundance of love and giving with no thought of receiving anything in return.

A full-blooded Washo, Coleman’s ancestry extends back some 10,000 years. She finds the interest in Native Indian traditions interesting, simply because as a child the outside world didn’t really seem to care.

“Today people really do want to learn about and have an understanding of our ways,” she said, adding this includes basket weaving. “My mother used to teach and she would always start with a big class and at the end, there would be just a couple students.

“It is something you have to be passionate about and love doing, because it is an intensive process,” she said.

Coleman also will share stories of summers spent at Sierra House School in Pioneer Trail at Lake Tahoe, where her father worked.

“It was all trees and meadows then and we would ride horses and play all summer long,” she said. “I love that lake … it just smells different up there.”