Las Vegas Sun

January 23, 2018

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Historic Native American basket finds its way back to Las Vegas

Decorative basket on display at Nevada State Museum



This decorative basket was recently donated to the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas by Lawrence and Harriet Stay, descendants of Helen Stewart. The gift was facilitated by James Martin, Helen Stewart’s great-grandson, and museum volunteer Paul Carson.

Click to enlarge photo

Helen J. Stewart, a Las Vegas pioneer, is shown here with part of her collection of decorative baskets produced by the Moapa Paiutes in the early part of the 20th Century.

Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas

The museum, 700 Twin Lakes Drive in Lorenzi Park, is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors 55 and over and free to children.

After more than 80 years in a private collection, spirited away from its Las Vegas origin by the ancestors of a pioneering family, a historic Moapa Paiute basket has returned home.

The decorative basket, created by a skillful weaver in the early 20th century, is on display in the lobby of the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas.

The basket’s story has a happy ending, but there’s also an element of heartache to it, said Dennis McBride, museum curator of history and collections.

“It’s probably the last artifact from a very important period in Las Vegas history,” McBride said Thursday.

It was once part of a 550-piece collection held by Helen Stewart, referred to as the First Lady of Las Vegas. The basket, the size of a half-gallon container of ice cream, is just a taste of what the state could have had, McBride said.

“If the state had the Helen Stewart collection, it would be one of our greatest cultural treasures,” he said.

Stewart, who died March 6, 1926, lived on a ranch on the land where the city of Las Vegas eventually was founded.

She took over the Las Vegas Ranch after her husband, Archie, died in 1884. She continued running the ranch, on the site of the old Gass Ranch and Las Vegas Mormon Fort, until 1902. The land was then sold to the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad. The city of Las Vegas was founded on the same land in 1905, according to the department of cultural affairs.

In her years on the ranch, she collected local historic items and housewares from the Paiutes.

“In addition to the baskets, she had blankets and artifacts,” McBride said. “She even had the pen used to sign the bill that created Clark County.”

Stewart was working on a deal with the State of Nevada to transfer her collection to the Nevada Historical Society before she died.

“Nevada Gov. (James) Scrugham, he knew the importance of it and he wanted the state to buy it, so the collection would remain intact. But the state could not come up with the money,” McBride said.

Stewart’s heirs sold the collection for $12,500 to the Fred Harvey Co., a famous Southwest tourism company.

“That was a lot of money in those days, though Fred Harvey got a good deal,” said David Millman, director of the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas. “Those baskets would be worth untold amounts now. Native American basketry, as commodities, are pretty stable.”

Fred Harvey sold about 25 of the baskets some years later. Since then, the artifacts have been distributed across the country, or they’ve been forgotten or lost.

Baskets from Stewart’s collection have been traced to the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City and institutions in Denver and Texas.

The Basket on display in Las Vegas was donated to the state museum in December by Lawrence and Harriet Stay of Port Townsend, Wash. Lawrence Stay is a great-grandson of Stewart.

The basket apparently was the only one the family retained, McBride said. “All these decades have passed and this one lone little basket has made its way home,” he said.

McBride said the family understood that the basket’s historic value to the state was more important than its dollar value.

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