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IDAHO BASQUES
Annual  migrations of domestic sheep to summer pastures in the mountains and winter pastures in the valleys occurs along a stock driveway on the hillside to the west. For many decades, these sheep herds were tended by Basques, an ethnic group deeply rooted in the history of the Wood River Valley.
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 responded.

"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 and acrobatic.

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."
Victor Otazua
Basque immigrant and
Wood River Valley resident


Sheepherder's Wagon

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.

Resources

A Travel Guide to Basque America: Families, Feasts, and Festivals by Nancy Zubiri

Michael Hofferber
Michael Hofferber

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