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Keyser, Louisalocked

(1850–06 December 1925)
  • Marvin Cohodas

Louisa Keyser.

With her baskets entitled "Light Reflected" (left) and "Hunting Game in a Proscribed District."

Courtesy of the State of Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs (Eth-88).

Keyser, Louisa (1850–06 December 1925), Washoe basket weaver, also known as Dat So La Lee, was likely born in Carson Valley (Nevada) or Antelope Valley (California and Nevada), the daughter of Da da uongala and a woman whose name she did not remember, who perhaps died in childbirth. Conflicting reports suggest that Keyser married three times, but only her marriage to Charlie Keyser is well documented. Louisa Keyser had no surviving children, so she is considered an ancestor to the descendants of Charlie Keyser's two previous wives, Delia Aleck and Maggie Miles Merrill. By the late 1890s Keyser was working in Carson City, Nevada, as a laundress and housekeeper for Abram “Abe” and Amy Cohn. Abe Cohn owned the Emporium Company clothing store, and Amy Cohn was transforming a portion of that store into a curio shop for Native American basket weaving. Recognizing Keyser's unusual talent for basket weaving, the Cohns soon relieved her of household chores, hiring other Washoe women in her place, and patronized Keyser as a full-time artist specialist. In return for her products, they provided Keyser and her husband with food, lodging, and medical attention until their deaths.

By 1898 Keyser had innovated a new curio style of coiled Washoe basket weaving that has endured for over a century. Inspired by California Native basketry on display in the Emporium, Keyser added redbud as a design material to the bracken fern root (black) already in use, doubled the fineness of the stitching technique, and placed scattered patterns of flamelike motifs on an incurving basket shape, which she called degikup. Spared from the necessity of obtaining food, Keyser had the time to elaborate the degikup, increasing its size and fineness to the point that a single basket took a year or more to weave. She laid aside such major works to complete other baskets that required less time, including various twined utensils, and miniature versions of both the coiling and twining types. These sold well, but many of the latter were gathered into the private Amy Cohn Miniature Collection. The major baskets, in contrast, became too expensive to sell, and by the time of Abe Cohn's death in 1934, three-fourths of these major works remained unsold. Abe Cohn never equaled the price of $1,400 paid by the Pittsburgh collector Gottlieb A. Steiner in 1914. In 1915–1916 Cohn tried to convince Steiner to buy more baskets in the hope of building a museum for the remainder on the property he purchased next to his house on Proctor Street. When Steiner declined because of ill health, Cohn used the property to build a small house for Keyser and her husband.

Although she lived in Carson City with the Cohns, Keyser frequently visited her brother Jim Bryant (d. 1908), a resident of Carson Valley to the south. Bryant's wife Scees became Keyser's close friend and her major imitator in basket weaving. After Scees's death in 1918, Keyser adopted Scees and Jim Bryant's son Hugh.

Keyser's life before the patronage relationship with the Cohns was obscured primarily through Amy Cohn's active program of falsification. Cohn contended that Keyser's baskets were part of an unchanging Washoe tradition. Her biographical sketch of Keyser, republished canonically by several authors, is filled with inaccuracies. Thus Keyser was not born in the 1830s as Cohn proposed but more likely around 1850. She was not a Washoe “princess,” as such inherited hierarchy was not known in Washoe society. She did not work in Monitor, California, for Abe Cohn's parents and help raise him. Rather, Abe Cohn grew up in Virginia City, and the housekeeper was Irish. Keyser's preferred degikup shape was not an ancient ceremonial form but her innovative adaptation of California basketry. The designs she wove were not family crests and were not symbolic. Because of Amy Cohn's promotion of her as a “traditionalist” weaver, Keyser became known primarily by the Washoe name Dat So La Lee, which may be translated as “wide hips.” The theory that this name was taken from the eminent Carson City physician S. L. Lee was proposed by him, but not until Keyser was on her deathbed.

Keyser was central to all of Amy Cohn's attempts to promote Washoe basketry to the curio market. Cohn took Keyser to the California and Nevada state fairs in 1900 to demonstrate basket weaving and likewise to the Industrial Arts Exposition in St. Louis in 1919. In winter Keyser was often expected to weave in the front window of the Emporium Company to attract customers, and in summer she stayed at the curio shop on Lake Tahoe, called the Bicose, that Cohn operated from 1903 until her death in 1919. This continual public display led many locals to focus on Keyser as an example of both positive (noble) and negative (savage) stereotypes of Washoe people and of Native Americans in general.

On the positive side, Amy Cohn promoted Keyser as an artist. Cohn published pamphlets that explained Keyser's work, sent information to two experts (George Wharton James and Otis Tufton Mason) who were compiling major works on Native basketry, and by 1900 kept accurate records on each basket in the form of certificates, copies of which were issued to purchasers. Less than two years before her death, Amy Cohn compiled these certificate records into ledgers, one for the Emporium Company in Carson City and the other for the Bicose in Tahoe City. Abe Cohn and his second wife Margaret maintained the Carson City ledger after Amy Cohn's death, completing a uniquely detailed documentation. Abe Cohn also commissioned a short documentary film of Keyser, made in 1922, and in 1925 entertained Edward Sheriff Curtis, who photographed Keyser and several of her baskets.

On the negative side, Keyser was frequently the butt of jokes related by Abe Cohn to tourists, friends, and the local press and designed to exemplify the presumed childishness, ignorance, and unevolved nature of Native Americans bewildered by technological progress. For example, Keyser supposedly discarded a specially ordered corset because it failed to transform her into the svelte model in the advertisement, and she supposedly became bored with the train ride to St. Louis and set off walking home to Carson City from Kansas City. In these popular tales the relationship between Abe Cohn as the rational, male non-Native and Keyser as the childish, ignorant female Native are rendered as the caricature of a Victorian marriage to reaffirm and legitimate an asymmetric political and economic relationship between these two peoples in early twentieth-century Nevada.

Keyser died in Carson City. Abe Cohn had a nearly finished major degikup buried with Keyser, claiming that this would continue Washoe tradition, even though the baskets left unfinished by Scees were not buried but were in fact finished by Keyser. Keyser was buried in the Washoe cemetery adjoining the Stewart Indian School south of Carson City. Newspaper reports claimed that the grave was left unmarked at the time to prevent theft of this valuable work.

After Keyser's death Abe Cohn increasingly focused on the curio trade, giving up the clothing business altogether in 1928. The storefront of his new shop, called the Kit Carson Curio Store, was covered with an enlarged version of Curtis's portrait of Keyser. Abe Cohn managed this curio store until his death, and Margaret Cohn sold off the remaining inventory in the mid-1940s. At that time the state of Nevada purchased twenty of Keyser's major works to display in the Nevada State Museum in Carson City and the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.

Bibliography

The complete Carson City version of the ledger of Keyser's baskets is in the Nevada State Museum, and the incomplete Tahoe City version is in the Nevada Historical Society. Pamphlets containing Amy Cohn's fabrications of Keyser's life and achievements are in the archives at the Nevada State Museum and the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. See also the publication of Cohn's 1909 lecture “Arts and Crafts of the Nevada Indians,” Nevada Historical Society Biannual Report 1 (1909): 75–79. Information supplied by Amy Cohn was included in the two major compilations of Native American basketry, George Wharton James, Indian Basketry (1901), and Otis Tufton Mason, Aboriginal American Basketry (1904). Other publications that drew on Cohn's material include Herbert Alden French, “Dat-so-la-lee, A Washoe Basket Maker,” Saturday Wave, 25 August 1900, pp. 13 ff.; Clara McNaughton, “Nevada Indian Baskets and Their Makers,” Out West 18 (1903): 433–39, 579–84, “Native Indian Basketry,” New West, Oct. 1912, pp. 17–20, and “Dat-so-la-lee,” General Federation of Women's Clubs Magazine 14, no. 2 (1915): 14–15; and Jane Green Gigli, “Dat So La Lee, Queen of the Washoe Basket Makers,” Nevada State Museum Popular Series 3 (1974): 1–27.

Articles refuting Cohn's mythic history for Keyser and speculating on its rationale include Marvin Cohodas, “Dat so la lee and the Degikup,” Halcyon 4 (1982): 119–40, “Washoe Innovators and their Patrons,” in The Arts of the North American Indian, ed. Edwin Wade and Carol Haralson (1986), “Washoe Basketweaving: A Historical Outline,” in The Art of Native American Basketry: A Living Legacy, ed. Frank W. Porter III (1990), and “Louisa Keyser and the Cohns: Mythmaking and Basket Making in the American West,” in The Early Years of Native American Art History, ed. Janet C. Berlo (1992). These articles draw on a manuscript history of the Cohn family prepared by Jerry and Carlene Cohn that is in the author's possession. Obituaries are in the Carson City Nevada Appeal, 7 Dec. 1925, and the Reno Nevada State Journal, 13 Dec. 1925.