Washoe Basket Weavers

The people of the Washoe tribe of Nevada and California have long practiced the art of weaving. Both men and women created the tools and products necessary to make a living in a land that required seasonal movements. Heavy pottery or bulky wooden items were not suited to this environment nor to the mobile lifestyle of the indigenous people. Harvesting willow, sagebrush, tules, reeds, ferns, and other fibrous plants, the people who occupied the western Great Basin and eastern Sierra Nevada mountains made clothes, mats, shoes, containers, nets, twine, tools, shelters, and such—items that were light, easily transported, and durable.

This necessity-based approach to weaving underwent a dramatic transformation during the years 1885 to 1935 when a national appreciation of traditional native arts surfaced in association with the Arts and Crafts movement. Beginning in England and moving to the United States, the Arts and Crafts artistic philosophy rejected the excesses of the Victorian era and chafed against the industrialization of the new century.

Native arts in particular were valued as reflecting a more natural and thus truer relationship of man to nature. Baskets especially were valued as they easily lent themselves to an artistic expression and appreciation. Tourist destinations such as Lake Tahoe presented opportunities for many weavers to sell their work, while women such as Louisa Keyser (Datsolalee) became recognized artists whose work was supported by patrons. Although the baskets were sometimes originally valued for their supposed link to the past rather than intrinsic artistic merit, the end result created a legacy of remarkable weavers and baskets.

Louisa Keyser is perhaps the best known of the Washoe weavers, but she was only one of many. Other notable artists include Sarah Jim Mayo, Scees Bryant Possock, Maggie Mayo James, Lena Frank Dick, and Lillie Frank James. Not only did these women create and execute their own designs, they also harvested and processed the materials necessary to produce baskets. The harvesting and processing of willow and other basketry materials is time intensive and is comparable to the work of other nineteenth and twentieth century artists who harvested and processed plants for canvases, paints, brushes, clays, and such to create their artistic products. This intimate involvement with materials gives native basket weaving an extra dimension of artistry—a weaver has to find good material, harvest and process it to create the basket, and she must excel at all those skills in order to create remarkable art.

The most common type of basket woven during this period of what has been called "fancy basketry" was the degikup, a spherical, non-utilitarian basket produced by the technique of coiling. The primary basketry material is willow (Salix spp.), which is used to create the rods (warp) and the threads (weft). Bracken fern (Pteris aquilinium) and red bud (Cercis occidentalis) are the two primary materials used for the red and black decorative elements; both are processed into thread, which is spliced into the willow threads to create patterns on the light willow background. The three-rod technique, the form used originally and predominantly by the weavers of this period for the degikup, uses three willow stems to form the coils, which are curved along the horizontal plane and then sewn together with thread to create vertical height. Later artists switched to a one-rod technique, which produces a basket of somewhat less sculptural depth. The one-rod technique is less difficult and time intensive to produce, although not easy or quick by any means. The switch in styles reflected a response to the demands of the market. Other responses to market demands included lidded baskets, beaded baskets, and occasional chemically-dyed willow.

There were many fine weavers during this period, but the two acknowledged to demonstrate superior artistry were Louisa Keyser and Lena Frank Dick. Keyser (1850–1925) was certainly the first to create a purely artistic basket, meaning one produced without any intention of utilitarian use. She and Lena Frank Dick both had patrons whose support allowed these artists to devote themselves exclusively to their work. Abe and Amy Cohn of the Cohn Emporium in Carson City supported Keyser's weaving from 1895 until her death. For the Cohns, Keyser produced some of the most dramatic and technically impressive baskets of the period. She is known for her very fine stitching, as many as thirty stitches per inch, and for her large baskets, some as high as fourteen inches. More striking, however, was her control of the medium. Her baskets are elegant and graceful, with narrow bases, broad shoulders, and slender openings. Decorative motifs are small in scale and dispersed or scattered on the basket, which emphasizes its elegance and delicacy. Keyser is also said to have introduced the use of red bud into Washoe weaving. Her designs employ the alternating use of red bud and black bracken fern patterns. She produced baskets over a thirty-year period, with three major artistic phases;at least one hundred baskets are attributed to Keyser.

Lena Frank Dick (1889–1965) lived and worked some thirty years later than Keyser. Dick had a much shorter artistic career than Keyser, and reached the zenith of her weaving in the 1920s. She had a patron, Dr. Roscoe Day of San Francisco, whose support allowed her to devote herself full-time to weaving. Her work is technically and artistically exceptional, and for many years some of her baskets were mistakenly attributed to Keyser. Dick's degikup uses very fine stitching, is small in size (four to seven inches in height), and lacks the narrow opening of Keyser's baskets. Dick preferred a wide opening at the top of the basket and large design motifs that integrated the red and black colors, rather than the alternating pattern favored by Keyser. Following the innovation of Sarah Mayo James, Dick used representational figures (butterflies and trees) as well as the more traditional ones, but as her work matured she returned to non-representational figures such as flames, V's, and triangles. Dick's career as an artist ended in the early 1930s when her eyesight began to fade and Dr. Day's health forced him to end his patronage. She continued to weave more utilitarian baskets for the next thirty years of her life.

Sarah Jim Mayo (1850–1925) is important in the history of Washoe weaving for political as well as artistic reasons. Her father and one of her husbands were "captains," or leaders, of the Carson Valley Washoe during the years when the Washoe required more formal leadership to represent their interests to the Euro-American world. Mayo's father was Captain Jim and her husband, Captain Pete Mayo. Like other good political wives, Sarah Mayo used her own political pedigree to help her husband consolidate his claim to leadership. Mayo encouraged her husband to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Woodrow Wilson. The purpose of the visit was to make known the plight of the Washoe and seek aid in land distribution. The trip was unsuccessful politically and also artistically. Sarah Mayo had crafted a special presentation basket for the president, into which she had woven an inscription that read "Nevada and California/Sarah, I am his daughter/Captain James, first chief of the Washoe tribe/This basket is a special curio, 1913." The basket was presented to the president, but the basket is now lost and has not been located despite concerted efforts.

Even with the loss of this historic basket, Mayo's influence remains significant. She introduced the use of representational elements into weaving around 1905, and figures such as trees, butterflies, eagles, horses, houses, arrows, and human figures can be found on the majority of her baskets. Mayo also added the use of brown (undyed bracken fern) to the Washoe color repertoire of red and black. Her use of two alternating large-scale designs also had a lasting influence on Washoe weaving style. Sarah Mayo and her stepdaughter Maggie Mayo James were also innovative in using a one-rod technique for the degikup rather than the traditional three-rod. Both did this as a response to market demand, as neither had a consistent patron to insulate them from market demands.

Scees Bryant Possock (1858–1918) worked in the tradition of her sister-in-law Louisa Keyser; in fact, one of Possock's last baskets was finished by Keyser after her death. Possock's degikups are smaller than Keyser's, approximately ten inches in height, and her stitching is quite fine, although not quite as fine as Keyser's. Possock's earlier work showed individual style with horizontal bands of designs, but later work is a faithful imitation of Keyser's style, which is not surprising considering Keyser's success. Abe Cohn, Keyser's patron, considered Possock to be the second-best weaver after Keyser and he sold most of Possock's baskets.

Lillie Frank James (1885–1948) was the older sister of Lena Frank Dick and, like her sister, she enjoyed the patronage of Dr. Day. Lillie James's work was similar to her sister's, but lacked the technical mastery. Like Keyser and Dick, Lillie James produced only three-rod degikups. Hers are small in scale, with less fine stitching. She imitated Dick's technique as well as that of Maggie Mayo James, especially in the use of butterfly, bird, tree, and swastika designs. Lillie James was unique, however, in her use of an insect-type design. Her style may be characterized as midway between that of Sarah Jim Mayo and Maggie Mayo James—not as heavy and naturalistic as Mayo's but less geometric than Maggie James's.

Maggie Mayo James (1870–1952), as mentioned above, was another of the significant Washoe weavers. Her degikups are medium-sized with less fine stitching on average, although she has at least one basket that has forty stitches per inch—the finest weaving known among baskets of this period. Maggie James also placed large-scale pictorial designs on her baskets, a trait she adopted from her stepmother, Sarah Mayo James. Maggie James is known for her unique use of mallard feathers during this period (a trait probably adopted from California weavers) and the use of a braided rim finish. She enjoyed the patronage of Mrs. George Pope of San Francisco and Margaretta Dressler of the Carson Valley and had a long and productive career. Although she imitated the use of representational design of her stepmother, Maggie James's work is much lighter in feel and uses the design elements in a more geometric and less naturalistic manner. One of Maggie James's significant legacies is found in the subsequent generations of artists she taught, including her daughter, Ehney Washoe Cornbread, and Cornbread's four daughters, Mabel Filmore, Dora Johnson, Margie George, and Dolores James, all of whom became notable weavers.

There are more Washoe weavers, and the reader is encouraged to pursue this topic in the works of Marvin Cohodas, who has produced the most comprehensive study of Washoe weavers. The years 1895–1935 were a time of great artistic innovation and cultural changes for the Washoe weavers. The changing economic and political environment of the Washoe weavers, the Arts and Crafts movement, and the growth of tourism all converged to produce this significant chapter of Washoe history.

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