Beyond Amerikanuak

by William A. Douglass

Commemoration of a way of life in bronze is most certainly a statement about its passing.

Now that the era of the Basque sheepman is over, what of the Basque-Americans who have inherited the images, though few if any of the realities, of that period? In the 1990 U.S. census nearly 50,000 people, half of whom reside in California, Nevada and Idaho, self-identified as Basques. There are currently more than 20 Basque social clubs in the United States, primarily in communities like Boise, Elko, Reno, San Francisco, Bakersfield, and others. Most sponsor a folk dance group and an annual festival which puts on public display the Old World Basque peasant heritage (folk costume, folk dances, and woodchopping, weight-carrying, weight-lifting competitions) and the New World sheepherding legacy (the western barbecue and social dance, sheephooking competition, sheep dog exhibitions). The festivals emerged as the Basque-American contribution to what has been called the "roots phenomenon," whereby in recent years "hyphenated" Americans have come to celebrate their ethnic heritage.

The other major expression of Basque-American ethnicity was the Basque hotel located in the servicing centers of the open range districts of the American West. Usually, founded by an ex-herder and his wife, the hotels began as boarding houses serving the sheepherder who was in transit to a new job, vacationing in town following a year on the range, or seasonally unemployed during the winter months after fall shipping and before spring lambing. For the herders the hotel was truly home. It was also the prime vehicle for formation of Basque-American families and, by extension, the Basque-American community. For it was in a hotel that a herder was likely to meet an eligible bride recruited by the hotel keeper from the Basque Country to serve as waitress or maid. The few single women in a largely male world seldom remained single for long.

If the majority of herders were sojourners who, after several years of sheepherding, returned to Europe with their savings, there gradually emerged a core of Basque-American families committed to a future in America. They and their descendants provided an additional dimension to the hotel clientele. For Basque-Americans it served as ethnic enclave where one could rub shoulders with Old World Basques, practice one's less-than-polished Basque language skills, celebrate a wedding or baptism, or simply enjoy a Basque meal.

By the 1950s the combination of several factors stimulated ethnic curiosity and associational impulses among Basque-Americans. The first was the glorification of rural life styles in an America increasingly disillusioned with contemporary life in the consumer society. The second was the search for ancestral roots. And the third was a generational distancing of a Basque-American community from both its Old World peasant and New World ranching heritages. In 1957 Robert Laxalt published Sweet Promised Land, an account of his father's life as a Basque sheepman in the American West and subsequent return to his natal village in the French Basque country. The bestselling book summed up the family history of most Basque-Americans and communicated its essence to a wider public. The Basque-Americans had their literary spokesman.

In 1959 the first National Basque Festival, held in Nevada, was attended by several thousand persons. It drew together for the first time Basques from throughout the American West. It provided the stimulus for the creation of Basque clubs in several communities, as well as the festival model which they adopted as their prime activity.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, then, Basque ethnicity evolved from an intimate expression largely confined to the privacy of the Basque-American home and the precincts of the semiprivate Basque boarding house to a conscious display of ethnic pride. Basque social clubs proliferated, their dance groups were increasingly requested to put on public performances, and the Basque festival in a dozen communities emerged as a major local, and even regional, attraction. Often, it was the object of considerable media attention.

The Basque hotel, with its cuisine served family-style in an exotic ethnic setting, was discovered by non-Basques. This conversion of the former, no-nonsense, working men's boarding houses into tourist attractions was accelerated during the 1970s with the decline of the open range sheep industry and the demise of the Basque herder within it. Several hotels ceased to accept boarders at all, becoming eating establishments exclusively; meanwhile Basque restaurants which had never catered to herders appeared on the scene. Whether a converted hotel or new enterprise, the Basque restaurant has become a monument to studied ethnicity--a place where Old World peasant artifacts and graphic village scenes share wall space with memorabilia from life on the western ranges. Costumed waitresses and bartenders, not necessarily Basques themselves, serve the patrons and are schooled to answer the oft-repeated question "Who are the Basques?"

In 1989 in Reno 2500 persons gathered to dedicate the National Monument to the Basque Sheepherder. Its centerpiece is an abstract sculpture by noted Basque sculptor Nestor Basterretxea. It evokes the solitary figure of the herder, lamb on his shoulders, standing tall under an imposing firmament. The dedication ceremony was pregnant with both symbolism and controversy. For Basque-Americans desirous of a traditional, figurative representation of their ancestors' contributions the work was unsatisfactory. Nor were the delegation of dignitaries from the Basque country entirely comfortable with the peasant and sheepherding depiction of Basque essence, since they wished to project the public image of one of Europe's more modern and industrialized regions. For present purposes, however, the important point is that the very conception of the monument itself represents a watershed development for the Basque-American community. Commemoration of a way of life in bronze is most certainly a statement about its passing.

In short, then, Old World peasant origins and a New World sheepherding legacy are increasingly irrelevant to the Basque ethnic identity in the American West. Today's Basque-American is likely two or three generations removed from Europe and unlikely to have been born on a sheep ranch. The union between an Old-World-born ex-herder and the New-World-born daughter of a Basque rancher or hotelkeeper, once quite common, is largely a thing of the past. Today's Basque-American family typically entails a "mixed marriage." Few young Basque-Americans are exposed to the Basque language in their homes. The Basque boarding house, once the lynchpin of the Basque-American community, has simply disappeared, or rather evolved into an eating establishment which caters more to the wider American public than to the needs of Basque-Americans. The festivals of the individual clubs are also showing signs of fatigue; all of the older ones are experiencing declining attendance. It seems evident, then, that we are truly at the end of an era.

Should this be lamented? Is the race over? The answer to both questions is probably "No". On the one hand, it is likely that the social clubs, the restaurants and the festivals will continue their activities at some level. Irish-Americans celebrate St. Patrick's Day and Celtic New Year--including folk costume, dance and traditional games. The level of enthusiasm of the Sons of Erin continues unabated even though, arguably, most Irish-Americans are increasingly out of touch with the contemporary reality of Ireland.

In the case of some Basque-Americans, as with a small segment of Irish and other hyphenated Americans, there is also a discernible interest in moving beyond the folkloric and celebratory expressions of ethnic heritage. This is manifested in the interest of a minority in many clubs to sponsor Basque language classes for the membership. It is reflected in the decision of the Basque-American student to attend a summer, semester or year-long course held in the Basque Country and organized by a consortium of American universities. The travel of young Basque-Americans to Europe is increasingly complemented by that of European Basque students who come to the United States to study. Indeed, to the extent that Basque-Americans marry Old-World Basques it is becoming increasingly common for the union to be between university students who met while one was studying in the other's country.

Finally, there are now institutional commitments to the sustenance of Basque culture in the United States which were entirely lacking when the Amerikanuak were founding their first social clubs and festivals. Since the 1970s North American Basque Organizations, Inc. (NABO) has provided an umbrella organization for the Basque social clubs in the United States. NABO regularly sponsors contacts between Basque-Americans and the Basque Country, while forging regional ties between the Basque organizations of the United States. Three American Universities have made commitments to Basque culture. Boise State University teaches the language and cosponsors the study abroad courses in the Basque Country. The University of California Santa Barbara has a Basque Studies chair. And the University of Nevada-Reno has a Basque Studies Program along with being the prime organizer of the study abroad initiatives in Europe. For its part, Euskojaularitza, or the government of the Basque Autonomous Community in Spain, has since 1980 pursued a policy of fomenting close ties with the Basque emigrant diaspora worldwide, including communities in South America and Australia. It regularly provides funding to NABO and to the American-University initiatives.

If dedication of the National Monument to the Basque Sheepherder marked the end of one era for Basque-Americans, then the decision to hold Jaialdi in Boise in 1990 may have initiated another. Jaialdi, or "Festive Event," incorporated elements of the standard Basque festival (folk dance, costume, Basque food) yet transcended it. Its participants included a charter flight of European Basques as well as many Basque students studying throughout the United States. The Basque government sent several of the best performing artists to the event, where they alternated with Basque folk dance groups from throughout the American West. The festivities included a contemporary Basque film festival, a Basque dance performance and a Basque lecture series underwritten by the Idaho Humanities Council. Approximately 30,000 persons, Basque and non-Basque, attended the Jaialdi. Each one had the opportunity to reinterpret the Basque experience against an historical backdrop of political separatism, of economic uncertainty and change, of linguistic differentiation, of cultural assimilation, and an immense array of other social factors that run together to form the heritage of any group. It is out of the elements of a Jaialdi that a new Basque-American identity for the 21st-century is likely to emerge--if it is to emerge at all.


The Amerikanuak and Beyond

by William A. Douglass


In the Basque language Amerikanuak means "the Americans,"--the emigrants who left their peasant villages in the Basque country of north-central Spain and southwestern France to seek opportunity in the United States. While Basques were players in the Spanish exploration and subsequent administration of parts of the American West, the discernible Basque presence in the region dates from the California gold rush. By that time Basques were already established as sheepherders on the pampas of southern South America, many of whom joined the ranks of the fortune-seeking argonauts.

When most failed to find gold they turned their attention to livestock-raising on the vast open ranges of southern California. Basques were in the forefront of developing the pattern of transhumance which continues to characterize sheep husbandry throughout much of the American West to this day. Under the system the sheep bands are winterized in the low-lying deserts, which are largely free from crippling snowfalls, and summered in the high country of the Sierra Nevadas, the Sawtooths, the Bighorns and many other mountain ranges of the American West. Transhumance could be practiced by established, landed ranch outfits but did not really require such investment. As long as there was ample public range available, theoretically on a first-come basis, a man could move perpetually about the public lands caring for as many as 1,000 ewes and their lambs, accompanied only by a pack animal and a sheep dog. By the turn of the present century such nomadic outfits, "tramps" to their detractors, were common throughout the American West. In several districts the competition between settled ranchers and transient sheep operators, mainly Basques, led to litigation in the courts, anti-Basque sentiment in the press and even violence.

Beginning in the late 1890s and during the first decade of the twentieth century vast forested districts of the American West were either declared national parks (in which livestock grazing was prohibited) or nation forests (in which livestock grazing permits were issued to American citizens and according to how much ranch land they held in private ownership). Both measures were touted in the region's press as victories over the "Basque tramp sheepmen." The immediate practical consequence was to further concentrate the transient bands onto the public range outside the reserves, some of which was still suitable as marginal summer range. In the unprotected districts, then, the problems that the reserve system was designed to address were simply exacerbated. It took nearly three decades, or until 1934 with passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, that the remaining unforested parts of the public lands were brought under effective federal control. The era of the nomadic Basque sheep band was over.

Some of the men simply sold out and went back to Europe; a few took out American citizenship and used their savings to purchase ranches in order to continue operating under the new rules. However, while the tramp outfit was not excluded, sheep husbandry in the American West continued to be influenced mightily by the Basque presence. By this time Basques had established their ethnic reputation as the best sheepherders and were eagerly sought by Basque and non-Basque sheep ranchers alike. Furthermore, Basques were prominent in the ranks of the camptenders, sheep foremen, livestock buyers, ranch owners and livestock transporters.

In short, the combination of the closure of the public lands to Basque itinerant sheepmen and the restrictive immigration laws severely curtailed the American West as a viable destination for intending Basque emigrants. By the 1940s, in part due to the manpower shortage occasioned by World War II, the sheep industry was experiencing a severe labor crisis. The U.S. Congress passed a series of "Sheepherder Laws" conferring permanent residence on individual Basques who were herding sheep as illegal aliens, as well as a series of enabling acts which exempted intending herders from the Spanish nationals' quota. Sheepmen created the Western Range Association whose sole purpose was to recruit herders (mainly in Spain) for three-year labor contracts in the American West. From 1950 until the mid-1970s the system worked reasonably well, introducing several thousand sojourning Basques into the United States. However, a combination of the struggle over access to the public lands between ranchers and environmentalists, which reduced the livestock grazing permits, and the improved economic condition in the Basque country, which made a sheepherder's wage unattractive, reduced the demand for herders while shifting the recruiting efforts of the Western Range Association toward Latin America (Mexico, Peru and Chile). By the mid-1970s there were fewer than 100 Basque sheepherders in the entire American West. At the same time, many Basque ranchers have either sold out or converted from sheep to cattle. Clearly, after a century and a half of serving as one of the prime architects of the rural economy of the American West the era of the Basque sheepman (defined broadly) is all but over.


IN THE MINDS of most students of Western history the Basque people are stereotyped as sheepherders. This impression, like all stereotypes, oversimplifies and hence distorts the facts; but like most stereotypes it also contains a kernel of truth. For the Basque people of the American West have a long-standing involvement in the sheep industry--an involvement which in some areas may be traced back for more than a century. Although most of the present-day sheepherders of the American West are Basques, the Basque role in the sheep industry is not limited to herding. Today Basques are prominent in all phases, from herder, to foreman, buyer, transporter, and sheep ranch owner.

However, in order to appreciate a major factor in the success of the Basque sheepmen of both North and South America, it is necessary to consider an aspect of the ethos of Old World Basque society. There are highly esteemed values in Old World Basque culture that are expressed by the terms indarra and sendotasuna. Indarra may be translated as "force" or "strength." Sendotasuna includes "physical prowess" and "strength of character."

Given the emphasis upon the test of indarra and sendoa rather than polished skill, it is common for Basque sporting events to pit a woodchopper against a weight lifter or a runner against both: the runner must cover a certain distance before the axeman cuts through so many trunks and the weight lifter accomplishes a specified number of lifts. This is not seen as a "mixing of apples and oranges" in a world where stamina and personal mettle are being tested.

Carried over to an occupational context we find that the Basque sees physical labor and adverse working conditions as a personal challenge which affords an opportunity to merit the approbation of his peers. In this sense the Basque sheepherder sees himself in competition with his fellow Basque herders as much as with potential non-Basque herders. Nor is it simply a question of Basques excelling at herding due to peculiar qualifications for the sheep industry. Rather, Basques tend to excel at any profession (particularly those involving hard physical labor) to which they dedicate themselves.

Basques were present in California when the area was annexed by the United States in 1848; today Old World Basques and their descendants residing in the American West number at least fifty thousand persons.

Despite their relatively sparse numbers and their dispersion over a tremendous geographical area, Basque-Americans have demonstrated tenacity in maintaining their ethnic identity. Over the course of the past 120 years of western history, they have developed a number of practices or mechanisms that both express and reinforce their ethnic identity. Some, such as marital patterns and home life, are private and little noticed by their neighbors. Others, like the Basque hotels and festivals, are more public and contribute directly to the accepted stereotype of the Basques. Each Basque ethnic practice and institution has a history and set of functions.

Through its regional festivals, the network of Basque hotels, preferential endogamy, the kinship system, sense of funerary obligations, social clubs, dance groups, the travels of Basque chaplains, and Basque-language radio broadcasts, the Basque community has been able to create and to project one of the most viable ethnic heritages in the American West. A close look at the organizational details of any one ethnic manifestation reveals tendencies within the Basque community, ranging from Old World regionalism and New World regionalism to generational differences between the Old World- and the New World-born. Considerable social diversity is masked under the single label of "Basque."

On the other hand Basque ethnic manifestations may be viewed from the perspective of the outsider. Our account has documented the transformation of the Basque stereotype from that of the despised itinerant herder of the days when men fought for use of the open range to that of the romantic hero, the humble worker, or the established hotelkeeper. Basques are now one of the most highly respected ethnic groups in the American West. Non-Basques frequent Basque hotels and attend Basque festivals; newspaper editorials and feature stories praise the virtues of the group. But there is a sense in which a new misconception now colors the Basque stereotype. The person who frequents the hotel and the festival observes the Basques in the context of relaxation and recreation. He comes away with the impression that Basques are addicted to good food, wine, dancing, and sport. This is only one aspect of Basque group life, the reverse side of a personality that can be dour to an extreme and pragmatic to the point of obsession. American society is most tolerant of ethnic differences in the areas of cuisine and innocuous folk arts. To contribute a new dish to America's "cafeteria culture" or to titillate audiences with unique dances, sports, and costumes is the surest way to gain approval. In their public displays of their ethnic heritage, Basques, like other groups, are prone to emphasize these features. The result is that "a good time is had by all," but, in many respects, the Basques remain as inscrutable as ever.

These comments represent some of Dr. Douglass' essential concepts and perspectives of the Basque presence in the Western United States as taken from his works, "The Basques of the American West: Preliminary Historical Perspectives," Nevada Historical Quarterly, 1970 and Amerikanuak, University of Nevada Press, 1975.



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