Dat So La Lee
Imagine a small house built over a marsh near Lake Tahoe, Nevada in the early 1800s. Sitting on a bench in front of the house, staring out over the lake, is a huge, unattractive Native American woman. Her nimble fingers work magic weaving an intricate design on a reed basket.
The woman’s name was Dat So La Lee of Nevada’s Washoe tribe. And experts have declared that her baskets are simply the most magnificent ever made.
As a child, Dat So La Lee spent many hours alone. The other children in the tribe were unkind; they said she was very fat and not pretty. Because she had few friends, she spent her time watching her mother and grandmother weave baskets. In the summer and fall, she learned how to gather reeds and willow stems, and how to make colorful dyes out of tree bark and roots near the “Lake of the Sky”, the meaning of the mountain lake named “Tahoe.”
In the winter, the tribe would travel back down the mountain to the valley for a more temperate climate. Dat So La Lee would work all winter, weaving baskets. In the spring, she and her tribe would travel back to Tahoe to sell the baskets. At night, she would dream of new patterns to weave into future baskets. Eventually, her beautiful basketry caught the eye of a local merchant who bought every basket that Dat So La Lee made. The merchant told her that he would resell her baskets only to those who could appreciate their beauty. Some of the baskets were so complex, it took two years to complete them. Each basket was unique. And each one was perfect in symmetry and
Dat So La Lee was not her real name. She was born Luisa Keyser. But she had worked for a Doctor Lowry in her early years, and when asked to name her employer, the best she could manage in broken English was “Dat So La Lee”. And the name stuck. Her husband, Charlie, did menial labor for the locals. The marriage did not produce children, a fact that saddened Dat So La Lee deeply. Her weight and appearance were also troubling to her as she was often shunned and ridiculed by the public. But the beauty that was lacking in her physical appearance was apparently abundant in her soul. No known basketweaver has ever matched the awe-inspiring beauty of baskets made by Nevada Basketmaker – Dat So La Lee.
Dat So La Lee was 96 when she died in 1925. Her vision had long since gone dark because of the eyestrain of basketweaving. But in her later years, she had become so expert at weaving the intricate designs that she no longer needed her eyes to weave baskets. Her lifetime of work produced 35 masterpieces and 75 minor works, valued from $1,500 to $10,000. Some of the reed baskets are in private collections, and some are in the museum collection of the Nevada Historical Society.
Karal Ayn Barnett is a long-time freelance writer, based in Las Vegas, Nevada where there are always stories to be told. She can be reached at email@example.com