Everything depends on the water and the trees, said
spiritual leader Johnny Bob, from the Yomba Shoshone Tribe, as he
prayed for the start of a Western Shoshone pine-nut gathering. In
September, members of several bands came together in a steep-walled
mountain valley in central Nevada to collect the protein- and nutrient-rich
nuts that were once the mainstay of their diet.
Some people took hold of long sticks and began to knock the
sticky green cones off the tops of the pinyon trees. Others gathered
fallen branches to chop up for the fire in which they would later
roast the cones to release the sweet, creamy nuts. These can be
eaten out of hand, added to soups and stews or parched and ground
for gravy or mush.
As we collect, we are pruning the trees to ensure there
are even more cones next year. We are also cleaning the forest,
explained Joseph Holley, former chairman and now council member
of the Battle Mountain Band of Te-Moak Western Shoshone.
Shoshones gathering pine cones in a mountain valley in central
Nevada. (Photo by Joseph Zummo)
The piles of cones grew, with some bouncing off someones
head on their way down from the treetops. Children laughed, as mothers
tried to persuade them to tie up their hair tightly to minimize
the gooey mess. Its a man bun! one girl teased
Its a good time, said Holley, smiling. Just
what we need, and what the trees need.
Bob, a spiritual leader from Yomba Shoshone Tribe, gathering
pine cones in a mountain valley in central Nevada. (Photo
by Joseph Zummo)
This critical food source, along with game living in the forest,
began to disappear during the late 19th century, as newly arrived
settlers chopped down trees for fuel over many square miles around
towns and mining operations. Starting in the 20th century, these
losses were amplified by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S.
Forest Service, which together have uprooted more than 3 million
acres of pinyon-plus-juniper woodlands.
To destroy the forests, the federal agencies use tractors to
drag gargantuan chains through them, ripping up everything in their
path. The ruined landscapes look like the aftermath of a nuclear
holocaust. Sometimes, the agencies eliminate woodlands in order
to increase rangeland for grazing, an activity that further damages
the fragile arid lands where pinyons flourish. Scientists estimate
that soil in an erosion-prone chained landscape may
take 10,000 years to recover.
and baskets of cones fill up quickly. (Photo by Joseph Zummo)
At other times, the agencies claim that chaining
curbs fire risk. However, research shows that deforestation increases
the fire danger rather than diminishing it. Scientists also note
that pinyon-juniper wildfires are extremely infrequent, on the order
of several centuries apart. The Foundation for Economic Education
compares this federal policy, which continues to the present day,
to Brazils reckless despoiling of the Amazon in favor of ranching,
logging and other interests.
the fire pit of roasting pine cones, from left, Julius Holley,
Emerson Winap and Bruno Hicks. (Photo by Joseph Zummo)
Now that so many trees have been destroyed, some have suggested
reviving them as nut groves, as has long been traditional in Europe.
In Italy during World War II, many survived on chestnuts and other
foods they could glean in the forests and fields. Nowadays though,
pine nuts are a luxury food, fetching as much as $60 per pound.
To bring the cost down, some supermarkets sell a cheap Chinese mix
of edible and non-edible nuts that can cause nausea, intestinal
distress and a metallic taste in the mouth that lasts weeks or months.
How an American pine nut revival would fit into this spectrum of
quality and price is unclear.
for a new round of roasted pine cones, clockwise from left,
Joseph Holley, Emerson Winap, Johnny Bob, Julius Holley Jr.,
Gilbert Temoke and Wanbli Holley. (Photo by Joseph Zummo)
Restoring Diet and Health
For indigenous people, substituting modern foods for traditional
ones has typically meant increases in degenerative diseases such
as cancer, cirrhosis and diabetes. The change in diet is the
reason we have these diseases, said Battle Mountain Band tribal
council member Emerson Winap. He called the destruction of the forests
part of a failed attempt to break his peoples spirit.
We never knew those diseases, said Reggie Sope,
a spiritual leader from the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe, in a separate
interview. Today, we have to create new words for them, which
can be translated along the lines of something that eats you
from the inside out. They happen because we were cut off from
hunting, gathering and the freedom that accompanies them.
fresh cones are roasted in a fire pit. The bottom layer of
hot coals is topped by dirt, which is topped by cones (shown)
and finished off with another layer of dirt and then a fire.
(Photo by Joseph Zummo)
The federal agencies need to use common sense, instead of allowing
industry to contaminate vast amounts of land and water, Sope said.
Ive looked at mines in several states. Ive seen
the devastation. The rivers around here test positive for mercury
and other pollutants. Making this worse for us, we have minimal
access to both health care and healthy foods. At Owyhee, Nevada,
where we are, diabetics have to travel 200 miles round trip to stock
up on the vegetables doctors say they must include in their diet.
The solution, said Sope, was a return to traditional foods.
That means large and small wild game, fish, pine nuts, additional
seeds, and roots, including camas and wild potatoes, carrots and
onions. About the landscapes where these foods are found, Sope said,
When we are there, we are at peace.
Sope added: These are things we hold sacred and have done
so since the beginning of time. They told us we had to learn modern
ways, and now we have attorneys, judges, health-care workers and
more. But we are left with the question: What part of sacred
do they not understand?
apart roasted cones and extracting the pine nuts, from left,
Carlene Burton, Marlene Leach, Angela Van Dorn, Gilbert Temoke.
(Photo by Joseph Zummo)