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
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
Photos of Dat So La Lee and her baskets are available at the website.
Karal Ayn Barnett is a long-time freelance writer, based in Las
Nevada where there are always stories to be told. She can be reached