|There is a story told
by the Basque people of Idaho about a young man named Jose who immigrated
from the Euzkadi region of northwest Spain in the fall of 1922. A strict
immigration quota had been set by the U.S. government in 1921, but because
of a labor shortage on sheep ranches Idaho and Nevada congressmen got special
legislation approved making visas available to sheepherders.
Jose and Alejo, another Basque fresh from
the Old Country, found sheepherding jobs in Idaho and were instructed to
trail a band of 750 sheep over a mountain range to winter pasture. On the
second day of their journey they woke to find their camp blanketed with
snow and not a sheep in sight.
"Where are the sheep?" shouted Jose.
"You tell me. You're the sheepherder," Alejo
"Not I," said Jose. "I'm a fisherman."
"And I am an innkeeper," Alejo said.
After staring at each other in disbelief,
the pair went off in search of the missing flock, which they found winding
its way down the mountain towards winter pasture.
||The Basques are a people whose homeland
is in the western Pyrenees Mountains along the border between France and
Spain. They speak a language that's unlike any other in Europe and their
cultural traditions are far different from those of the French and Spanish.
They call themselves "Euskaldunak" in their native tongue and feast on
spicy sausages, hearty breads and rich red wine. Their dancing is light-footed
Today the largest population of Basques outside
their native Pyrenees is located here in Idaho. More than 10,000 live in
Boise area alone, and another 10,000 or so reside elsewhere in the state,
including the Wood River Valley.
||"Oh, it was a hundred
percent big change when we come into this country. Back home is such small
and such close... And we come over here, and we look and look and can't
even see a house a lot of places. So big the country and all the cities."
Basque immigrant and
Wood River Valley resident
Wars in Europe prompted many Basques to move
to the Americas. Others immigrated because there were few opportunities
for them at home.
The first Basques who immigrated to Idaho,
mostly young men, roomed together in Basque boarding houses. They ate traditional
Basque meals, swapped stories in their native tongue, and played vigorous
games of pelota, or jai-alai. Like the Cajuns in Louisiana or the Chinese
in San Francisco, the Basques in Idaho have maintained their ethnic identity
through stories, songs, dances and food.
Annual Basque festivals are held in several
Idaho communities, including Hailey, where a Basque Dinner occurs in late
summer when Basque sheepherders used to return with their flocks from summer
pastures in the mountains.
Traditional meals of braised lamb, potatoes,
beans and flan are served up while musicians squeeze out tunes on accordians
and dancers bounce and twirl. It is a time for celebrating and reaffirming
bonds of family and friendship.
Few Basques are sheepherders these days.
It's more likely that they own the herd if they are in the sheep business
at all. But sheepherding opened the doors of immigration and introduced
the Basque people to Idaho. For those who cherish the Basque culture in
America, it will forever be an important part of that heritage.