Thursday, August 14, 2008

The US West's Basque Legacy

This article comes to us thanks to the Baker City Herald:

Speaker outlines Basque sheepherders' legacy in the West

Published: August 13, 2008


Baker City Herald

In the early 1970s, Kent McAdoo joined a group of Nevada-based Basque sheepherders for 13 months to study the effects coyotes were having on the large flocks tended by Basques.

On top of his predation research, McAdoo came away with a deep appreciation of the sheepherders, who came to this country from their homeland in the Pyrenees Mountains that separate Spain and France.

"They had a penchant for hard work, a dedication to the task at hand, strong entrepreneurial skills, and they've left an indelible imprint on the High Desert" of Northern Nevada, Southern Idaho and Eastern Oregon, McAdoo told a crowd of about 45 Saturday evening at the Baker Public Library. "I met a lot of very interesting characters."

McAdoo, who works for the Nevada Cooperative Extension, came to Union and Baker counties last week as part of the Libraries of Eastern Oregon's "Sense of Place" series sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

McAdoo called his hour-long presentation "Basque Herders: The End of an Era." While 90 percent of the herders who worked their flocks in the High Desert in 1970 were Basque, their numbers had shrunk to 14 percent of all herders by 1976.

McAdoo thinks he knows why: Francisco Franco, the Spanish leader who "kept his thumb on the Basques," died in 1975, and many Basques returned home as soon as they could following the death of Franco and the expiration of their work contract.

"I wasn't in there when (Franco) died," McAdoo said, "but I guarantee you throughout the region there was a big celebration going on. It changed their lives."

The Basque presence changed the region and changed McAdoo, too.

"In our part of the country, many small towns have celebrations" of Basque culture, he said. "Elko (Nevada) draws between 8,000 and 10,000 every year to watch people lift weights and chop wood. It keeps the culture alive even though the sheepherders are gone from the face of the landscape.

"To me that is kind of sad," McAdoo said. "I mourn the loss of their culture. I know when I was working with them that they were something special, but the impact they had was something I took for granted."

Sheepherders from the old country

Basques began moving to the American West in the 1850s. Many, according to McAdoo, "were sheepherders in the old country."

With the 1934 passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, formal sheep and cattle operations were put in place. Many operations were owned by Basques, who used the option of taking part of their payment in "bummer," or orphan lambs, as a way to build up their herds.

The herders McAdoo studied worked hard. Their contracts specified just one day off every year — for the sheepherder to celebrate his birthday.

The men McAdoo lived among followed the Goicoechea Trail, lambing just north of Elko, Nev., then driving the sheep up to summer range just south of Mountain Home, Idaho.

Sheep do indeed play follow the leader, McAdoo noted: one slide he displayed showed a pair of sheep jumping over nothing in particular after they'd seen their leader jump over a clump of sagebrush.

"I'll bet 90 percent of them jumped over nothing, too," McAdoo said with a laugh. "I must have taken a whole roll of film."

The sheepherders were up by 4 o'clock each morning to cook breakfast and boil coffee.

"I learned to pour coffee over rich, thick sheepherder bread with condensed milk," McAdoo said, smacking his lips at the memory. "I got so I liked it pretty well."

The country the sheep and the shepherds traversed is steep, "but these guys are used to it," McAdoo said. They never trucked their sheep, instead slowly working them along a common trail.

"The sheep aren't pushed intensively," McAdoo said. "It's better for weight gain and better for the trail."

To McAdoo's consternation, every day a herder would count the 60 or 80 black sheep among the 7,000-member herd. Why spend time every day counting such a tiny minority, he wondered.

He learned that the Basques figure if one black sheep is missing, that means 100 or more white sheep are missing. If two or three black sheep are missing, time to drop everything and find the hundreds of lost white sheep.

"It was not just a ritual," McAdoo said.

The men clearly had time on their hands, which often led to endless debate, McAdoo said.

"They would melt snow for their horses, and a big topic (of conversation) was not to burn the water so it takes on the metallic taste of the tub," he said. "That conversation took hours."

The Basque language is notoriously difficult to learn — and here are examples why: "etxekoandrea" means "housewife." The number "77" is rendered "Iruetamarzazpi."

"Their language is 75 percent unrelated to any other language, and 25 percent related to Latin languages," McAdoo said. One linguist, he said, found a connection between the Basque language and the language spoken in strife-torn Georgia.

During his 13 months of study, McAdoo met only one sheepherder who could read and write his native language. The afore-mentioned Franco wouldn't let Basques speak their own language on the streets, nor would he allow it to be taught in schools.

"People weren't literate," McAdoo said, "in the language they spoke every day."

In the early 1970s, shepherd pay began at $350 per month, and the rancher bought all the shepherd's clothes and food, "and some of their whiskey and all of their wine," McAdoo said.

"These guys saved money like you wouldn't believe," he said. "Remember, they only had one day a year (their birthday) to spend their money in town."

Nowadays, McAdoo said, sheepherders in Western states come from many different nations, including Mexico, Chile, Peru and China. They, too, are willing to work hard for very little money, he said.

One thing McAdoo has learned to do when he offers his presentations is to say the place names and family names involved in the stories he's telling.

"I pronounce their names because people know them," he said. "This is a very tightknit community, and they have relatives throughout this region."

With that, McAdoo flashed one last message in the Basque language: "Eskerrik asko!" or "Thank you very much!"

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