Idaho is home to one of the largest populations of Basques outside of Spain. Numbers around 30,000 in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon are thrown around as estimates. They have been here about as long as western settlers have inhabited the region-since the mid to late 1800s-first coming for mining, then as shepherds. It was so nice, they invited their friends and family from the old continent.
Stereotypically, the Basques are known as a somewhat secretive culture, friendly and helpful to strangers and outsiders, hard working and industrious, but content to keep to themselves. To understand the Basque way of life in the West-one filled with tradition and a sharp sense of history- it is important to understand their culture and the history that defines them.
In A Basque History of the World, author Mark Kurlansky begins Chapter One by describing the Basques as "a mythical people, almost an imagined people." It is somewhat true. The Basques are the oldest living ethnic group on the European continent, yet have never managed to have a country of their own. Yet they have survived as a culture unlike others who long ago were assimilated into others after invaders swept across Europe, not once, but many times.
The Basque country is made up of seven provinces occupying the corner of Europe where France meets Spain along the Atlantic coast. It is a region occupying just 8,218 square miles, slightly smaller than New Hampshire, slightly larger than Owyhee County. According to Nancy Zubiri, author of A Travel Guide to Basque America, almost 90 percent of the Basques in Idaho trace their heritage back to the Bizkaia (also spelled Viscaya) region, which includes the cities of Bilbao and Guernica.
There are no early written records by Basques, but when the Romans arrived in 218 B.C. they wrote about them as if they were already an ancient race with a clearly defined culture. There are unique characteristics-including language, physiological traits, geography and a skill in innovation-which have defined and protected the Basques, allowing them to survive through 20 centuries.
The Basque language is the only non-Aryan language in Europe and cannot be traced to any other linguistically similar tongue. Linguists believe it may be the oldest living European language. This mysterious language defined and separated them from the Latin-based romance language cultures.
Basques are also distinct and unique in their physiological characteristics. These traits may have preserved the culture from the most successful form of invasion-assimilation. The Basque people have the highest concentration of O type blood in the world and the highest concentration of Rh negative type blood of any people. While modern medicine can prevent this today, historically, women with O-negative blood miscarried when their fetuses had Rh-positive blood.
Geography protected the Basque culture, too. The Basque country straddles the Pyrenees mountains separating France and Spain. This land is not suited to farming and is undesirable to invaders, but has often been used by invading armies passing through. The Basques were fine with people passing through their lands, but when the travellers stopped, it wasn't copacetic.
Armies encountered fierce resistance from a people that could assemble quickly, fight, then disappear into the rugged countryside. No invading army was ever able to conquer the Basques.
The Basques also were great shipbuilders, relying on the riches from the sea to not only feed their people, but provide dried fish and whale meat to other kingdoms throughout the middle ages. Their voyages followed whales to their summer feeding grounds in the arctic, and some historians believe the Basques may have discovered America and its rich fishing grounds long before Columbus. During the age of discovery, any Spanish or Portugese vessel of any acclaim-from Columbus's Santa Maria to Magellan's circumnavigation of the world-had Basque sailors on board and were perhaps commanded and and even built by Basques. There is evidence that Basques may have invented armor plating for ships and a ship powered by steam, centuries before they showed up elsewhere.
The first Basques in Idaho showed up as miners in the 1880s and 1890s, quickly turning to sheep herding as a means of a living. These Basques wrote home and invited their friends and family who came in large numbers between 1900 and 1920. Today, there are many Basque celebrations around the West. In Reno, Elko, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and in numerous small towns, picnics, festivals and celebrations, the Basques come together, even from overseas. This tightly knit community continues to celebrate its own culture and welcomes others to join in.