Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sheep whisperers

Basques in Blaine County and why they came


By BRENNAN REGO
Express Staff Writer

An unidentified Basque sheepherder stands in a grove of aspen trees. Two sheep dogs rest behind him. Photo courtesy of The Community Library in Ketchum

    Basque culture has flourished in Blaine County since the first decade of the 20th century. Basque influence in the county began in the 1890s, when Basque immigrants ventured from California to Idaho in search of work.
    “Dominated and suppressed by Spanish fascists, Basques wishing to avoid poverty or military conscription headed for California after finding themselves on the losing side of both Carlist Wars,” Wendolyn Holland writes in “Sun Valley: An Extraordinary History.” “Population pressures in California gradually forced them north into Nevada and Idaho. Soon the word reached Euzkadi that Idaho was the new promised land.”
    Euzkadi—as the Basques call it—is the Basque homeland in the Spanish Pyrenees.
    In “Home Away From Home: A History of Basque Boardinghouses,” Jeronima Echeverria writes that the first big wave of Basque immigration to Idaho took place in 1907, spurred primarily by a large-scale crop failure in Euzkadi between 1904 and 1906. According to Echeverria, in 1900, there were 61 Basques in Idaho. In 1910, there were 999.
    In “The Basques in the Northwest,” a University of Portland dissertation, Sister Flavia McCullough writes that Basque migration to Idaho peaked in 1922 due to the adoption of federal quota immigration laws, which slowed down immigration to the U.S. According to McCullough, at that point there were about 2,500 to 3,000 Basques in Idaho.
    In Blaine County, the Basques are famous for their contributions to the sheep industry, which formed the backbone of the Wood River Valley’s economy during the first half of the 20th century.
    Holland writes that the sheep industry in the valley began during the Civil War, decades before the silver mining boom hit the area in the 1880s. This was due to the elevated demand for wool during the war. Holland writes that during that time, the sheep industry shifted westward, due to cheaper land—and thus cheaper wool—in the West.
    However, it wasn’t until mining declined in the Wood River Valley after 1892 that the sheep industry really took off. When it did, the demand for trustworthy, hard-working sheepherders skyrocketed, and the Basques began to trickle in to fill that gap.
    The Basques were revered for their work ethic, writes Wood River Valley sheep rancher Miriam Breckenridge in a transcript of a March 1983 interview with Joe Laragan—son of Basque immigrant and Idaho sheepherder Marcelino Laragan. The transcript is in the Community Library.
    “That is why the Basque people were so good, because they would apply themselves and learn, and you knew they wouldn’t leave and go to town,” she said. “They stayed there and were responsible.”
    In the interview, Laragan jokes about how responsible his father was at keeping track of his flock.


“Few will argue with a Basque about
the uniqueness of his or her culture.”
Jeronima Echeverria
Basque historian


    “He was great at counting sheep,” he said.
    Though Basque sheepherders in Idaho and throughout the New World are often touted as having an almost innate ability with their flocks, Basque immigrants to the United States did not bring their sheepherding skills with them from the Old World.
    “It has been said that the Basques possess an ancestral inclination for livestock raising,” writes Joe Eiguren in “History and Origin of the Basque.” “Perhaps this explains why so many Basques from Argentina to Canada have chosen this occupation, even though they were dedicated to other occupations before they migrated to the New World.”
    Echeverria writes that the first Basques to leave Euzkadi immigrated to locations such as Argentina and California. Many Basques who immigrated to Argentina found work as sheepherders, then caught the California gold bug and moved again, to the American West Coast.
    “The large-scale herding techniques that Basques are credited with bringing with them to the American West were a carryover from Argentina rather than from the Old World,” Echeverria writes. “Popular depictions not withstanding, open-range herding is not found in the Old World, nor is it ‘instinctively’ a Basque innovation.”
    According to Echeverria, between 1870 and 1900, sheep trailing became a new trend in California and spread across the American West. The Basques, disillusioned by limited success in the California gold fields, employed the sheepherding skills that they had picked up in Argentina and found work trailing the flocks.
    As sheep trailing spread, Basque culture followed suit, taking a particularly firm hold in Idaho.
    “Basques are Idaho’s largest and most enduring ethnic group, continuing to celebrate traditions and their solidarity with festivals of music, dancing, costumes, games and food,” Holland writes. “The Basques’ habit of keeping to themselves has maintained their culture in Idaho to this day.”
    According to Echeverria, Basques claim the distinction of being Europe’s oldest surviving ethnic group. The Basque language, Euskara, is the only remaining pre-Indo-European language. She writes that Basques refer to themselves as Euskaldunak, which literally means “holders of the language” or “speakers of Euskara.”
    “Few will argue with a Basque about the uniqueness of his or her culture,” she writes.


Brennan Rego: brego@mtexpress.com




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