Annotated Bibliography: Basque Dendroglyphs


by Jacob Stevens

Last Revision: 2002.12.04

Many thanks to Roger Clark of the Museum of Northern Arizona, Dr. Phil Weigand, Kenny Acord, and Bonnie Holmes-Stevens for helping locate many of these resources.

Douglass, William A. and Bilbao, Jon

1975    Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. University of Nevada Press

Considered by many to be the “bible” of Basque-American study, this was one of the first major historical/anthropological works published on the subject. Basque culture is described as “…one of the least-studied elements in the pluralistic social fabric of the Americas despite the fact that they were among the first Europeans to emigrate to the New World, as well as one of its most widely distributed immigrant groups.”

Chapters include:

“The Basque People” – Details the history of the Basques from 5000 BC to present in their homeland in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. This chapter includes information on the Roman occupation and the conflict between the Goths and the Franks.

“Mercenaries, Missionaries, Mariners, and Merchants” – This chapter provides information on Basque activity outside their homeland, serving as a prelude to their immigration to the Americas.

Sheepmen of South America” – This chapter traces the movements of Basque emigrants to Spanish colonies in South America.

“Basques in Spanish California” – This chapter traces the movements of Basque from South America to Spanish California.

“Basque Beginnings in the New California” – A study of the first Basque immigrants in what is now the United States.

“Beyond California” – This chapter traces the movements of the Basque from California to other parts of the United States and North America, including Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Nevada.

Other chapters are “Ethnicity Maintenance among Basque-Americans” and “Conclusion.”

Douglass, William A. et al.

1981    Basque Americans: A Guide to Information Sources. Gale Research Company

This annotated bibliography lists many sources on a variety of Basque-related subjects. The authors divide references into several categories, including “Old World” works, “New World” works, history, social sciences, physical anthropology, literature, language, folklore, film, documentaries, sports, games, festivals, art, music, education, cookbooks, hostels, and popular accounts. The book sites over 400 sources.

Elderhostel Program 1996, Peaks Ranger District

1996    Dendroglyph Survey and Recording Procedures. Elderhostel Program 1996, Peaks Ranger District.

This information packet for a dendroglyph recording project outlines methods for the survey and recording of Basque dendroglyphs. Included are a recording form and a photo log form. The recording forms contain spaces for information such as location, subject, orientation, etc.

Etulain, Richard W. et al. (editors)

1999    Portraits of Basques in the New World. University of Nevada press

This collection of essays provides perspectives on Basque life and history in the United States. The first essays are about early Basque immigrants, the second grouping deals with nineteenth- and twentieth century Basque, and the third set “trace[s] careers of contemporary Basques who began in the sheepherding business or were closely linked to it.”  Finally, the concluding chapters detail the cultural contributions of recent Basque.

Jauraqui, Sara

1999    The Basque: A piece of the Flagstaff Tapestry. Flagstaff Live! April 15-21.

Jauraqui, a Basque descendant, gives a brief history of the Basque. The Basque heritage is nearly untraceable, and they first arrived in North America during Spanish colonization. Although many Basque first immigrated to California, a drought forced them to move to surrounding states where they began to take advantage of the growth of the sheep industry. The Basque built several structures in Flagstaff, including the only known Basque boarding house in Arizona, which is on South San Francisco Street. The article briefly mentions dendroglyphs, stating that they are a perishable piece of history that can help understand the lives of the Basque in Northern Arizona. The article states that there are over 100,000 aspen with Basque markings.

Lane, Richard

1985    Basque Sheepherders of the American West. University of Nevada Press.

Richard Lane is a predominant researcher of Basque culture in North America. Basque Sheepherders of the American West is a primarily pictorial exposition of Basque sheepherding life and culture. All accompanying text is presented in English, Basque, French, and Spanish.

Laxalt, Robert

1966    Lonely Sentinels of the American West. National Geographic Magazine. Volume 129, Number 6. Pages 870-888

Laxalt is the son of a Basque sheepherder and a prominent writer on Basque culture and society. This very personal narrative portrays “a slice of life” near the end of the Basque’s main sheepherding period in the American Southwest. The story is written as a subtle mix between the perspectives of father and son. Included are accounts of sheepherders who went insane and the paths that shepherds took after the crash of the sheep industry in the United States.

Mallea-Olaetxe, Jose

1992    History that Grows on Trees. Nevada Historical Society Quarterly. Volume 33, Number 1. 21-39

Mallea-Olaetxe researches for the Basque Studies program at the University of Nevada, Reno. Most aspen tree carvings in the western United States were made by the Basque people, and therefore carvings are a primary source of information on their lives. Aspen arbogylphs (or dendroglyphs) commonly record names, dates, sayings, poems, and many are accompanied by pictures. Mallea-Olaetxe views such carvings as vital clues to the history of the sheep industry and immigration to the Southwest—some shepherds created enough carvings that their movements can be traced from season to season and year to year.

Mallea-Olaetxe, Jose

1992    Speaking through the Aspens. University of Nevada Press

Mallea-Olaetxe researches for the Basque Studies program at the University of Nevada, Reno. Of all the references listed in this bibliography, this is the most comprehensive book dedicated specifically to Basque dendroglyphs.

Most previous research on Basque dendroglyphs has focused primarily on the carvings’ artistic value. This was partly due to language barriers (almost none of the carvings are in English, and some are in the Basque language, which has no known direct relation to any other European language.) Mallea-Olaetxe supports the assumption that almost all aspen dendroglyphs in the American West were made by Basque sheepherders.

Basque have been emigrating from their homeland for thousands of years. This is largely due to overpopulation and a strict inheritance system. Basques originally came to North America to mine in California. Because many Basque were very comfortable with livestock and the California gold rush did not meet expectations, many Basques became sheepherders.

Most trees that were carved were aspens. The population of aspens in the Western United States is declining steadily. This decline is caused by wildlife eating saplings and fire suppression, which does not allow for new forest regeneration.

Most carvings are of names and dates, but there are other prominent subjects. Many carvers write the name of their hometown or homeland—one’s birthplace was very important to Basque immigrants. Patriotic statements about France and Spain were also common. Drawings of sheep, deer, cougars, antelope, and other zoomorphs are found as well.

Traditionally, the Basque culture is said to view sexuality as taboo. However, seclusion and loneliness are thought to have brought many Basque sheepherders’ desires to the surface. Thousands of carvings reflect the absence of women. Some are textual messages longing for women, but many others are graphical portrayals of nude women in erotic positions.

Other, more unusual imagery that Mallea-Olaetxe interprets includes biblical depictions of snakes, men in military uniforms, and fantasy creatures.

McCall, Grant E.

1968    Basque Americans. R and E Research Associates

McCall’s thesis explores the topic of immigration from the perspective of the Basque people in America. Actual history is used to search for common trends relative to migration in general. For example, McCall debates whether the Basque came upon sheepherding by chance (and became the dominant sheepherders in the West) or if “the Basque character is naturally adapted to sheepherding and it is an occupation he favors.”

Smith, Erin

2002    Sheepherders used aspen trees as message boards. Arizona Daily Sun, Thursday, October 3, 2002.

This newspaper article, originally published in Colorado’s The Pueblo Chieftain, focuses on dendroglyphs as a sheepherder messaging system. As the carvings are under threat from both human and natural destruction, the researchers interviewed in the article suggest a thorough study program before the trees die. There is no specific mention of the Basque people in the article.

Stein, Pat

1991    The Basques in Arizona from Spanish Colonial Times to the Present, Arizona State Historic Preservation Office.

The Basque homeland is in the Pyrenees Mountains and consists of the French provinces of Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule and the Spanish provinces of Navarre, Alava, Vizcaya, and Gulpuzcoa.  Emigration was prompted primarily by lack of tillable land and a very strict inheritance system that allowed each Basque family to have only one heir. Arizona’s name may come from the Basque phrase arriz ona (the good or valuable mineral ore), which names a rich silver deposit in the Sonora desert. Basque sheepherders became a dominant group in the western sheepherding industry, sometimes as workers and sometimes owning their own companies. The article mentions dendroglyphs as a messaging system, but most prominently as the result of loneliness and boredom. Stein concludes with an account of what happened to the Basque in the second half of the twentieth century.

United States Forest Service

1994    Sustaining Our Aspen Heritage into the Twenty-First Century. U.S. Government Printing Office.

This report examines aspens’ role in the ecosystem. “Aspen is the most widely distributed tree in North America.” Flourishing in the early stages of forest development, aspen are later suffocated by pine and conifer. The article outlines methods for promoting the “natural” restoration of aspen habitats, which are slowly disappearing. Removal of forest overstory, controlled burns, and allowing natural fires to burn are proposed methods of stimulating aspen regeneration.

Weigand, Phil and Celia, Garcia de.

1995    Trails Among the Trees. Cañon Journal. The Museum of Northern Arizona. Volume 1, Number 1. Pages 42-47.

The Weigands are prominent researchers in the area of Basque dendroglyphs. Aspen dendroglyphs are usually in Spanish and were made by Basque-Americans. Many people believe that carving defaces the aspen, which is true, but Basque dendroglyphs have redeeming historical value:

Upon the aspens are written names, places and dates of birth, home towns and addresses, dates of inscriptions, longings, sayings, poems, wisecracks, drawings, political comments, and religious symbols which give us important insights into the lives of the penmen, insights unavailable through more conventional historical sources.

Aspens normally live about 80 years, but sometimes longer. Representing only a small phase of forest growth and easily scarred by elk and deer, aspen and their associated dendroglyphs are disappearing quickly.

Most inscriptions consist of a name and a date, but some also have self-portraits or other images. Certain names appear on many trees over an extended period of time and therefore it is possible to track the individual movements of people using dendroglyph recording and survey. Other dendroglyphs were used as guides (arrows pointing to encampments) or contained erotic imagery.

Woodward Architectural Group

1993    City of Flagstaff Southside / Oldtown Historic Building Survey. Volume 1.

This report was prepared for the Northern Arizona Pioneers Historical Society. It gives a history of the Basque people in and around Flagstaff, AZ from an historic buildings perspective. Especially prominent are analyses of the still-standing Basque structures on South San Francisco Street.