University of Nevada, Reno

CBS Home Page

Tree Carvings

Monument to the Basque Sheepherder

"Orreaga" by N. Basterrechea

Monument to the Basque Sheepherder

Reno is truly Basque Country
Centrally located within the Basque settlement pattern of the American West, it is a crossroads for the French Basque and Navarrese populations of California and northern Nevada and the Spanish Vizcayan Basques of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho.

Reno was once a supply center for Basque sheepmen ranging from Bridgeport to Alturas, California, and well into northern and central Nevada. It therefore has a significant Basque-American population, a Basque club, an annual Basque festival and two Basque restaurants.

The National Monument to the Basque Sheepherder was dedicated on Aug. 29, 1989. Conceived four years earlier by Jose Ramon Cengotitabengoa, President of the Society of Basque Studies in America, the monument was designed to commemorate the sacrifices of thousands of young Basques, who for more than a century have come from Europe to all 13 western states to herd sheep.

At times vilified and seldom appreciated, the Basque sheepherder ultimately triumphed as one of the architects of the region’s history and economy. He left a legacy that still endures in the hotels, festivals, clubs and family life of thousands of Basque-Americans. These grateful descendants were the prime supporters of the monument project; witness the hundreds of names on the donors’ plaque. At the same time, nearly half of the $350,000 cost of the project was raised in Europe, as a grateful Basque region recognized its longstanding links with the American West, personified in the solitary figure of the sheepherder.

The Monument
An international competition was conducted to select the design. Ten American and European sculptors entered and a committee of art experts made the difficult choice between concepts ranging from the traditional and figurative to the highly abstract. The winning design, entitled “Bakardade,” or “Solitude” by its author -- noted contemporary Basque sculptor Nestor Basterretxea -- was conceived as a statement about the past by the present to the future.

In the design, the solitary figure of a shepherd carrying a lamb is suggested rather than depicted. The contours of the figure might have been fashioned by the wind and rain rather than a human hand. The herder and his charge blend with the firmament supporting a half moon overhead and a planetary web traced upon their backs. The impression of oneness with the universe is enhanced by incorporation of the site into Rancho San Rafael Park’s Great Basin nature trail. The link with the past is conserved by the site’s proximity to former Basque sheep range. The tree grove in the background would have been an ideal campsite for any herder and provides a pleasant picnic setting for today’s visitor. The raised map of the United States identifies the nation’s principal areas of Basque settlement while four reader plaques describe aspects of Old World and New World Basque culture.

Nestor Basterretxea
Basque sculptor Nestor Basterretxea is a recognized figure on the contemporary European art scene. He has had more than 20 individual exhibits and participated in more than 150 collective exhibits. He is the creator of the massive mural adorning the crypt of the basilica of the Monastery of Aranzazu and the design gracing the assembly hall of the Basque Parliament building in Vitoria-Gasteiz. Poet, sculptor and cinematographer, Basterretxea’s work has been the subject of two books.

Born in Bermeo in Bizkaia in 1924, he was exiled by the Spanish Civil War, living first in France (1936-1942) and then in Argentina (1942-1952). It was in the South American nation that he began his artistic career, winning Argentina’s prestigious “Premio Unico a Extranjeros” at the National Salon in Buenos Aires.

Nestor Basterretxea’s work has been described as an exploration of Basque character, universality and beauty. His universality resides in the use of modern forms, making his work an integral part of the vanguard movement in Spain.

His expression of Basque character is most evident in his “Cosmogonic Series,” which transcend the silence of prehistorical time through Basque mythology expressed in the tangible images of his sculptures. As a Basque who matured in the Americas, with the National Monument to the Basque Sheepherder, Nestor Basterretxea continues to search his ancestral cave in order to express the character of his people in their emigration to the American West.


Copyright © 2000 the Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno. All rights reserved. Updated 8 December 2000. E-mail: