John Ruskin wrote, "All machine work is bad – it is dishonest." He idealised handmade craft. However, the story of one of the greatest Native American basket weavers, Dat So La Lee (aka Louisa Keyser), is a case of supreme skill – dishonestly marketed.
Ruskin's ideas experienced their heyday in America during the early 20th century. The Arts and Crafts movement combined with the closure of the frontier to produce a curious alchemy: Native American baskets, pottery and textiles – which had been symbols of their owners' backwardness – were transformed into relics of some imagined heroic pre-industrial past.
The wealthy often housed an Indian corner, or room to display their collections of Native American crafts and artefacts. On the former frontier, entrepreneurs such as Abe and Amy Cohn tapped into this fashion.
The Cohns, avid collectors of Indian curios, ran the Emporium in Carson City, Nevada, and they enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the work of the local Washo tribe's weavers. One of whom, Louisa Keyser, who adopted the name Dat So La Lee, became the most famous basket maker of all. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the Cohns to promote her, her works sold for thousands of dollars each, colossal sums for the time.
In 1900, when the Cohns first started promoting Keyser, the pamphlets they issued with the baskets were fairly matter-of-fact. But, over the years, they came to favour a 'print the legend' approach to marketing. Amy Cohn fabricated complex literal readings of Keyser's basket designs, redolent of the 'Red Indians' of the dime-store pulp fiction; the world of campfires, buffalo, tepees and chieftains. In 1913, Cohn toured Nevada's towns to promote the work of her star artist. Her star turn was a reading of Longfellow's Hiawatha. Audiences were thrilled. It caused enough of a stir to make the Carson City News, which reported: "She appeared in the gorgeous costume of an Indian princess wearing many valuable pieces of beadwork into which the history, romance, sorrows and joys of their tribe had been woven."
When queried as to why Keyser produced such unique shapes and designs, Cohn said it was her exclusive right as an 'Indian princess'. However, Dat So La Lee was not a princess. She lived a marginal existence – she and her husband were housed by the Cohns in exchange for her basketwork – yet she was marketed as the repository of a dying tradition, "the last of the great weavers". But Keyser was, in fact, something far more interesting. She was an innovator, living in the city, apart from the other Washoe, creating original works of art while struggling with alcoholism, societal indifference and hostility. The local press, for example, were scathing about her: "She has nothing to recommend her until the cunning work of her shapely hands is in evidence. One can hardly realise that such delicacy of touch and artistic creative genius could dwell in such a tenement."
Dat So La Lee died in 1925. The words on her memorial stand as a poignant reminder. "Last of the famed Washo basket-weavers... Her memories and her visions are beautifully woven into her baskets and will live on to remind us of the history and unique tribal artistry of her people, the Washo Indians."
Jim Haas is Director of Ethnographic Department, Bonhams San Francisco.