Basque Folklife

Many of the Basque folkways that we see today in Nevada formed part of the cultural baggage of Basque immigrants, and first found collective expression here within the context of ostatuak, or Basque boarding houses. These establishments, which began to open their doors as early as the 1860s, served Basques who were engaged primarily in the sheep industry and in mining.

At one time or another, Basque boarding houses operated in sixteen northern Nevada towns, many of them located within a triangle formed between Gardnerville, Ely, and McDermitt. Many traditions from the Basque homeland were preserved in these ethnic enclaves. Social gatherings, handball games, and dances punctuated the daily routine and networks developed among various ostatuak.

Traces of Nevada's Basque sheepherders may still be found in the form of arborglyphs among the aspens. Names, dates and images carved into their white bark testify to the presence and lifestyle of sheepherders over the last century on Peavine Mountain in Reno, and in groves across northern Nevada. Many Harri mutilak, or stone cairns, built by sheepherders still stand marking ranges now devoid of sheep.

As the sheep industry declined, so did the institution of the Basque boarding house. Many of these establishments, however, adapted and became restaurants. The style of food and the form in which it is served naturally reflect their Basque-American origins rather than homeland cuisine. As in the days of feeding a dining room full of hungry sheepherders at long tables, today's restaurants serve up generous amounts of hearty food family-style. Typically a meal consists of soup; green salad; beans; vegetables; stew; lamb, beef, chicken or fish; bread; red wine; ice cream and coffee. Sweetbreads, beef tongue, and salt cod are often offered. Red and green peppers, tomato, onion and garlic are the underpinnings of most dishes.

In 1959, the first national Basque festival was held in Sparks, Nevada, with nearly 6,000 Basque-Americans in attendance. The popularity of the event highlighted the need for new social institutions among Basques in the United States, and served as a catalyst for the subsequent formation of Basque clubs throughout Nevada. At present there are active Basque clubs in Gardnerville, Reno, Winnemucca, Elko, Battle Mountain, and Las Vegas. They offer activities for members, including card tournaments featuring the betting and bluffing game mus, and also festivals that are open to the public.

In 1973, a meeting was held in Reno to organize a national federation of Basque clubs. North American Basque Organizations, Inc. (NABO) now has over thirty member clubs. One of the federation's most successful initiatives has been Udaleku, an annual two-week music and culture camp for children ages ten to fifteen. The camp offers classes in dance, txistu (a three-holed tabor pipe), mus, Basque language and culture, cooking and pilota, or handball. Elko and Reno clubs have hosted the camp on many occasions.

Dance was a popular recreational activity in the homeland and remained so in the boarding house period. Most immigrants, however, had no formal training in Basque ceremonial dance. They brought with them instead the participatory dances Jota and Porrusalda or Fandango and Arin Arin. Because dance is a visible manifestation of culture and conveys vitality, Basque clubs sponsor folk dance groups who perform at events and festivals. Over the years, these groups have expanded their repertoire to include a wider variety of genres.

The music that animated celebrations at the early boarding houses often emanated from the bellows of accordions. While a few Basque instruments, including txistu, followed immigrants to the United States, the accordion has remained dominant in Nevada's Basque communities. Bernardo Yanci and Mercedes Mendive of Elko have distinguished themselves as accomplished accordionists. Jean Iribarne, also of Elko, provides clarinet accompaniment for Yanci.

Singing is an important component of social gatherings among Basques. The first Basque song festival was held in Gardnerville, Nevada, in 1988 and has become a yearly tradition. The most unique form of Basque song is bertsolaritza. This art consists of spontaneously improvising rhymed verse that follows specific rules and uses certain rhythms, all while collaborating and competing with other singers before an audience. Topics and roles are assigned by a moderator, and the singers must compose a clever verse on the spot, vying for the approval of the audience. This art demands native command of the Basque language. Jesus Goi of Reno is a well-known bertsolari, or verse-maker, and performs at festivals throughout the West. He was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003, along with three others.

Basque sports are popular events at Nevada festivals. Several boarding houses had frontoiak or handball courts at one time. At present the only viable court in Nevada is located in Elko. The other Basque sports seen at festivals originated from rural chores. Wood chopping competitions derived from cutting tree trunks for charcoal-making. The woodchoppers, or aizkolariak, stand on horizontally placed trunks and chop them in half with an axe. Athletes known as Harrijasotzaileak lift cylindrical and rectangular weights along with a granite ball. The txingak contest consists of carrying a weight in each hand over a course for the longest distance possible.

Nevada's Basque festivals provide excellent opportunities to experience Basque-American folkways. Festivals take place during the summer and usually feature a parade, followed by exhibitions and contests, a Catholic mass, and a public dance. Sheepherders' Dutch oven bread is often auctioned off as well.

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