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A Timeless Walk

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On a lesser scale, the last part of that quote also applied to a race of men who, practically unnoticed, twice each year for the greater part of a century moved sheep through this valley. Few were suited to this existence, and none were genetically programmed to it. Most arrived, like we all arrive at things, by necessity.

 

This was the case of the Basques in America. Writer Robert Laxalt (brother of Governor—then Senator—Paul Laxalt of Nevada, both second-generation Basques) described them in his book of homage to his father, Sweet Promised Land, as “these men of leather and bronze.”

It is interesting that a people of such an adventurous, fiercely independent history as the Euskotar (ethnic Basque) should end up working in what was once one of the most denigrated occupations in the West, that of sheepherder. Renowned for their skill as whalers, cod fishermen, and navigators, Basques sailed with Columbus—yet were also known to be in the New World, at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, long before him. After Magellan’s death, it was his Basque lieutenant, Elkano, who successfully completed the first circumnavigation of the world. In that light, it’s a not-surprising tribute to their spirit that the Basques rose above any disparaging attitudes directed toward their occupation, and contributed mightily to any community they became a part of.

Contrary to belief, the Basques did not come here just to herd sheep, at least not initially. The decline of the California gold rush coincided with the opening of the West to free grazing, and many Basques, familiar with the agrarian lifestyle of their homeland, gravitated to interior Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and eastern Oregon to take up ranching as a way to new fortune. From there, circumstances combined to increase the population of immigrant Basques: large Catholic families, hierarchical inheritance laws (property and goods going to the firstborn son), economic depression, and lack of opportunity all fueled the movement. Nepotism also played a huge role in the increase. Everyone in the Pyrenees, it seemed, had an uncle, brother, cousin, or acquaintance in “Amerika,” working to make their fortune. Many came back, wealthy by local standards, either to stay at home and start a business or to claim a wife and return to the new life they had made in the United States. Many, after completing a three-year herding contract here, struck out on their own. The Basque diaspora of the interior West is rife with stories and examples of successful businesspeople, politicians, and community builders, and the history continues with each successive generation.

Of the various groups of immigrants that made up the “melting pot” of America, the Basques, initially, didn’t “melt” as readily as some of the others. Individually and as a group, they were isolated by occupation (grazing sheep requires constant movement), by geography (the vast, unpopulated spaces of the West), and by language. Among the more than 6,000 known languages, the Basque language, Euskara, bears no relationship to any other. And, although émigrés often knew some Spanish or French (of the seven Basque provinces, three are French and four are Spanish), their own language in its pure form was often a barrier to their integration into our society, as they sought out the company of their fellow countrymen. But one thing that did help their integration, and this seems universal with immigrants everywhere, was music.

“Singing . . . singing always” is what Victor Otozua recalled in an oral interview recorded by Miriam Breckenridge for the Ketchum Community Library regional history department in 1981.

“It no unusual,” he said, recalling his youth, to be working and singing in the barn and to hear someone singing in a field nearby, and another group returning from the village or next farm with their voices raised in song—“all at same time.” Anyone who has lived or stayed in Stanley, Idaho, in the summer during the last century might recall the singing of the Basques. >>>

 

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