Ely, Nevada, is big on art with an Old West theme—cattle drives, Basque sheepherders, Italian railroad workers, the Pony Express and a Shoshone woman gathering pine nuts. What do pine nuts have to do with the Old West? The pinyon pine is the main tree species of Nevada’s mountainside forests, and its nuts helped sustain area Indians. The Shoshone woman in the sculpture Tsaam Pll Wai Hyunna Yewekante (“Living Well Because of Mother”) tends a baby in a traditional cradleboard while holding a basket and harvesting nuts with a beating pole. A living pinyon pine serves as a direct subject of the harvester figure, created in 2002 by New Mexico artist Joe Pachak and erected on the county courthouse lawn near the library.
‘The pine nuts are their main dependence—their staff of life, their bread’
“Indians have been living in this area for the past 12,000 years,” says Pachak. “Shoshonean groups came into [present-day] White Pine County about 800 years ago from the area that is now southern California. The Shoshone were hunting and gathering people. As the white people migrated into this area, there was no longer enough game to support them, and many of the forests that had provided pine nuts were cut. The once self-sufficient people were forced to work at the newly established mines, ranches and farms. The sculpture is a tribute to a way of life.” A local Shoshone woman modeled for the sculpture, and other local Indians assisted Pachak during the sculpting process.
A “Western Enterprise” article in the June 2010 Wild West described how colliers devastated the pinyon pine forests in central Nevada and the Great Basin to produce charcoal for the mining industry’s smelters. Pictured in that article is a mural by artist Chris Kreider that depicts construction of the six 135-year-old charcoal ovens that remain standing near Ely. It is one of nearly two dozen murals and sculptures that line Ely’s historic district. Commissioning these artworks was the Ely Renaissance Society, which formed in 1999 after Ely’s largest mining operation suddenly closed and the town desperately needed a tourism draw. The result is what the society calls “an outdoor cultural art gallery winding through the historic downtown.”
In celebrating the area’s ethnic heritage, the society wanted to include traditions that predate the white man. Many Southwest tribes trace their origins to the pinyon pine. Especially in harsher climates like the Great Basin, its nuts represented a life-or-death winter food source. Pine nut harvesting was a family and social event, and the region still hosts harvest festivals.
The Washoe tribe wintered in the valleys along the eastern Sierra Nevada slopes, and tah gum (pine nuts) were their primary food. An elder would venture to the region in the fall to bury a green cone in running water and pray over it. As harvest time approached, he summoned the tribe for the goom-sa’bye ceremony. Part sacred ritual and part joyous reunion, the ceremony required the Washoes to dance from dusk to dawn for four days. At dawn on the fourth day the people carried their baskets and beating poles with them as they danced. Then the dancing stopped, and the Washoes prayed for a good yield. After sharing a morning meal, the harvesters went to work.
Pine nuts are no longer essential for survival, but they remain an integral part of tribal culture. Access to traditional harvest grounds is guaranteed by treaty or prior agreement. Pine nut soup is a highlight of ceremonial dinners, and the process from cone to soup is elaborate. After gathering a basket of pine cones, a harvester pounds the cones with a heavy stick to extract the nuts. Next someone roasts the pine nuts in a basket with charcoal—a delicate step, as the charcoal must remain in the center or the basket will burn. The charcoal lends a smoky flavor to the nuts. After a second roasting, the person overseeing that step cracks the shells and uses a winnowing basket to sift out the meat of the nuts, then grinds the meat into flour. A cook then stirs the flour into water to make the soup.
When John Muir crossed central Nevada in 1878, he noted the importance of the pinyon pine to both regional wildlife and tribal culture, calling it “the bountiful orchard of the red man.” Continued Muir in his journal: “Long before the harvest time, which is in September and October, the Indians examine the tree with keen discernment….When the crop is ripe, the Indians make ready their long beating poles; baskets, bags, rags, mats are gotten together.…Flaming scarves and calico skirts stream loosely over the knotty ponies, usually two squaws astride of each, with the small baby midgets bandaged in baskets slung on their back or balanced upon the saddlebow, while the nut baskets and water jars project from either side, and the long beating poles, like old-fashioned lances, angle out in every direction.…The Indians also gather several species of berries and dry them to vary their stores, and a few deer and rouse are killed on the mountains, besides immense numbers of rabbits and hares; but the pine nuts are their main dependence—their staff of life, their bread.”
Of course, existing long before the Shoshones was the pinyon forest itself.
Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University. Bob Wynn is a ghost town expert from Las Vegas.