Dat So La Lee (c. 1835–1925)

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Dat So La Lee (c. 1835–1925)

Native American Washo basket maker whose work was not introduced to the world until she reached age 60. Name variations: Dat-So-La-Lee; Datsolalee; Dabuda; Louisa Kayser (or Kaiser); Big Hips, Wide Hips. Born Dabuda around 1835 in a Washo village near present-day Sheridan, Nevada, near Lake Tahoe (since there is no written record of her birth, contemporary estimates placed her age at death between 75 and 90); died on December 6, 1925, in Carson City, Nevada; Washo parents unknown; married Assu of Washo tribe who died of consumption early into their marriage; married Charley Kayser (Kaiser), in 1888, a man of mixed Washo-Miwok blood; children: (first marriage) two who died in infancy.

Known as the finest of the Washo basket makers, for whom basketry is an art as well as a craft, the woman nicknamed Dat So La Lee was said to have sewn legends into her baskets. Born in the Carson Valley of Nevada and called from her girlhood days "magic fingers," Dat So La Lee created some of her best designs from dreams or visions.

Not much is known about her childhood and early adult life, although when she was older she liked to tell the story of seeing white soldiers for the first time. After the death of her first husband and two children, Dat So La Lee, a 300-pound, hard-living woman, worked for miners and their wives as a cook and washerwoman. In her spare time, she loved to gamble. In 1871, she moved to Monitor, California, another mining community, to work for the Harris Cohn family. Her relationship with the family was a productive one that would last the rest of her life.

Until the mid-1890s, it was assumed that traditional Washo basketry had died out. Though Dat So La Lee seems to have neglected her basketmaking for many years as well, it is believed she returned to it out of financial necessity. In 1895, she showed her wares to Abe Cohn, son of her former employer. As the owner of the Emporium in Carson City, Nevada, Cohn, along with his wife, was a modest collector of Indian art. He recognized Dat So La Lee's ability and quickly agreed to market her baskets; some were featured in the St. Louis Exposition of 1919.

Washo baskets are unusual because the coiled baskets are sewn not woven. Made entirely from willow, mountain fern, and water birch, these baskets derive their colors only from these natural fibers. In a painstaking process, Dat So La Lee handpicked the materials, and, once they were cured, she split the fibers by hand. Because of the meticulous labor involved, many of the baskets took up to a year to make and often had as many as 34 stitches per inch.

As Europeans have heraldic shields, Washo basket makers used traditional symbols to signify family crests. One of Dat So La Lee's most famous baskets, called "Our Ancestors Were Hunters," is stitched with arrow points and generation marks that signify her people had been hunters for many years. Made in 1902, the basket is one of approximately 40 unusually large and well-made pieces that are dubbed her "great treasures." Many of Dat So La Lee's finest works were purchased by private collectors for as much as $10,000. Twenty of the baskets were bought by the state of Nevada and are now housed in the Nevada State Museum.


Cohodas, Marvin. "Dat-So-La-Lee and the 'Degikup,'" in Halycon: A Journal of the Humanities. Vol. 4, 1982, pp. 119–140.

Hickson, Jane Green. Dat-So-La-Lee, Queen of the Washo Basket Makers. Carson City, NV: Nevada State Museum, 1967.

Deborah Jones , Studio City, California