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Basque Sheepherding

Sheepherders of Northern Nevada | A Trip through (Idaho) Basque Sheep Country | Hidden Basque Kitchens Sheepherding on NPR | Ulacia Sisters of Oregon | Life Magazine photographs of Utah Sheep Camp (1951) | Documentaries on sheepherders | California's Basque sheepherders (BBC) | Arborglyphs - tree carvings | Basque Sheepherders of Jordan Valley, Oregon | New York Times Sheepherding article

Essentially unique among American ethnic groups, only in the American West did one group of people become so exclusively identified with just one occupation:  Basques & sheepherding.  So now you know why those Basque BBQ's always feature lamb!

ArtzainaBasques have been in the Americas for centuries--possibly even before the arrival of Columbus.  Most of the current Basque communities of the American West, however, trace their origins to the more recent past.  The Basque sheepherding story of the American West goes to the California Gold Rush that brought a sustained number of Basques to the American West.  Most "49ers" did not find their gold and had to turn to an alternative plan, and thus some Basques went into ranching.  By the 1870s Basque sheep outfits had expanded throughout the high desert country of the American West.

Anyone who has driven the high desert ranges of the West has pondered how someone could possibly live there.  It's possible, but the life was very demanding, compounded by the reality that sheepherding as an occupation was not favorably looked upon.  Basques took the job because it offered them economic opportunity.  These hundreds of herders tended bands of sheep for months on end in a harsh, desolate environment.  They were usually all alone.  It was not an easy existence, but thanks to their perseverance their descendants were able to enjoy a better life here in America.

Ironically these Basque newcomers knew little or nothing about herding sheep; they literally learned on the job.  They did so well that they quickly became sought after by sheep outfits while some Basques moved into positions of ownership that together initiated the practice of bringing over other Basque young men.  Many obtained U.S. citizenship, and trips to the Basque homeland now became vacations often with the primary purpose of finding a Basque wife.

While shepherding served as the foundation of the Basque community for many years, today few Basques remain active in the sheep industry.  By the 1970s the Basque involvement in the sheep business began its decline.  Various factors contributed to this transformation, beginning of course with the immense challenges posed by the occupation that thrust the herder into "one of the loneliest professions in the world."  A domestic struggle over the use of public land which resulted in the limitation of livestock grazing permits, improved economic conditions in the Basque homeland, recruiting efforts shifting to Latin America and changes in the livestock industry that favored cattle to sheep ranching effectively brought an end to a 150 year story. 

But sheepherding was always just a means not an end for most Basques.  Thus the children and grandchildren of the herders have diversified into many careers.  As William Douglass noted, "the work ethic, business integrity and success of Basques in a wide variety of walks of life resulted in their being viewed in the region as one of its unique cultural and economic assets." 

Euskal Artzainak Ameriketan

Euskal ArtzaiakMany Basques came here as sheepherders, and most had the same idea:  they would work for several years then return to the Basque Country.  That some changed their minds is evident or else you are likely not reading this now. Others however return and this is their story

See the original online story and the latest news of the Basque Diaspora at: www.Euskalkultura.com

Here recently a new organization has been formed to periodically gather those men who herded sheep in the United States from 1940 to 1970.  It is called Euskal Artzainak Ameriketan or the Basque Shepherds in America. 

The launch of the new organization was announced at the Sept. 2011 gathering that was marked by emotional moments, like the Mass when the celebrating priest commented on the harshness of those months alone.  Then when a choir sang “Agur Jaunak” fifteen people had to leave the church when overcome with emotion.  The event included a photographic exhibition with images retrieved by the association, and it concluded with a dinner at the sports center of Zubiri, Nafarroa.

The new association is at work developing initiatives beyond an annual gathering, to include a return trip to the American West in conjunction with some of the festivals. Currently, the board is comprised of twelve people, and after Saturday's lunch they already have almost 1,000 members. Anyone who would like to join Euskal Artzainak Ameriketan or contact the board of directors can do so by emailing:euskalartzainakameriketan@gmail.com

 

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