Dot So La Lee

On the curve of land which comprises the northern bank of Tahoe's Truckee River outlet, on a wooden floor with materials of her labor spread at the perimeters of her voluminous skirts, and Indian woman often used to sit with her front door open to catch the light necessary for the fineness of her work. Here, beside the lapping waters, she went about her task of weaving baskets at a steady, untiring pace, enlisting fingernails, awl, lips, and teeth to subdue the nature of the willow, birch and fern.

Debuda was the Indian woman's given name, meaning "the quiet one," but her chose weaving name - Dot So La Lee - is the one by which she is best known. Though it has been written that this name is translated "Big Hips," the claim - in view of her great vanity - is merely etymological coincidence. The name was actually derived from that of Dr. S.L. Lee, the first admiring white man to take an interest in her work.

It was common practice among the Indians to take the names of friends or employers - not wishing to reveal their given names to the white man - and her appropriation of his name speaks of an admiration and friendship which was lifelong. Her last piece of work was the repair of a Paiute basket belonging to the doctor, who greatly admired her works, not only collecting, but cataloging each treasure as he acquired it.

Another admirer of her work was Abe Cohn, whose parents Dot So La Lee worked for in Monitor (Alpine County) in 1871. Cohn operated the Emporium in Carson City, and began selling her baskets there about 1895. He recognized the artistry of her work, and soon provided her with a house and keep in exchange for her baskets. Coh maintained a register of her woven pieces. His notes include information on stitches, colors, size, legend, time in weaving, and each of the 120 baskets he catalogued are prefixed with the initials L.K., denoting Luisa Keyser, the name Dot So La Lee took when she married Charley Keyser.

At the beginning of each summer, Dot So La Lee, Charley, and her little dog would make the trip over th pass from Carson. They would cross the lake by steamer to Tahoe City, where Jeremiah "Johnny" Hurley's boathouse at the mouth of the Truckee River had been rented by Cohn for their use. Cohn had two summer curio shops at the Lake - one at the Tahoe Tavern and one around the curve of land northeast of the boathouse (near the south boundry of Commons Beach), from which he built a boardwalk connecting it with the boathouse.

Those who traversed the wooden causeway across the intervening marshlands were not always respectful of the artist at work, oblivious or unconcerned with her ability to comprehend their rude observations about her ample proportions, poor grammar, or lack of cleanliness. Dot So La Lee's sensitivity was affronted many times, as recalled by Lillian Vernon Far, whose mother once paid a visit to the boathouse to find the woman in tears. It seemed the previous visitors - two white women who had left their manners at home - had called her dirty. Mrs. Vernon was at length able to console the mystified Dot So La Lee, who continued to protest, "Me not dirty. Me put on clean dress this morning."

Cohn's entrepreneurial abilities soon spread the fame of Dot So La Lee's skill, and, in 1918, he and his fearful charge travelled by train to the St; Louis Exposition, where she and her baskets were displayed for the first time before an adliring art world.

An appreciation for Indian art - notwithstanding a continued contempt for the artist - was growing during the early 1920's, and the superior skill evident in Dot So La Lee's baskets soon began to command four-digit pricetags. Yet, she continued to live out her inglorious days in the employ of Abe Cohn, weaving the legends of the Washoe people into beautiful, mathematically-intricate creations to adorn the home of white people who had no true appreciation of the dying culture the baskets represented, nor of the patient and gifted weaver who believed that her hands were spiritually guided in their machinations with the reed and fibre.

In her later years, Dot So La Lee suffered from dropsy, and in late October of 1925, refusing the help of a white doctor, she sought out instead a Woodford's medicine man, Tom Walker, to oversee a four-day pre-death ritual (the Washoe version of the "last rites") which she believed would renew her spirit for its final days of earthly work. Refreshed by this vigil, she returned to complete those small tasks still at hand, and on December 6, 1925, she died.

Oldest of a proud sorority of Washoe basketmakers (some of whose skills may have equalled her own), she remains the best-known of a group which included her sister-in-law Ceese, Lizzie Peters, Jennie Bryant Shaw, Tillie Snooks, Lena Dick, Lillie James, Maggie Mayo James and Sarah Jim Mayo. Her legacy is rich both for its artistry, and for the light it sheds on the story of the Washoe people not so very difficult to believe, when viewing one of her many masterpieces, that a spirit of wondrous strength did indeed guide her dainty hand to its great work.

Story: Carol Van Etten

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