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A1.16  That's Not Basque  

Adapted from a previous Hizketa article and published here July 7, 2006 by John M. Ysursa . Neither NABO or the Basque Government is responsible for the following content. For more information, &/or to get on our email list, contact us at info@nabasque.org


A discussion of what it means to be "Basque" can be a touchy subject.    One's understanding of being Basque is a very personal matter for some, and these individuals are certain of several aspects or elements which contribute to their Basque identity.  Yet what characterizes Euskal Herria or the Basque Country is the wide assortment of customs and traditions.  This diversity of cultural expression—in such a small area—provides for varied definitions of what is means to be Basque.

t remains a marvel that our Basque ancestors of long ago did not go the route of most all other small ethnic groups that became assimilated by the neighboring, dominate population.  Instead, the Basques sustained a unique "island" culture in their small corner of western Europe.  It is not because others did not try:  for example Euskal Herria was "visited" by numerous groups and armies since the time of the Romans.  Nor can geography solely explain the endurance of western Europe's oldest ethnic group.  The reasons Basques are still around today consist of several explanations, but one of them must include the "buru gogor" factor. 

The reason for the Basque's perseverance should come as no surprise after a moment of reflection.  To those who danced in older dance groups, or served on a Basque club board of directors, or worked with other Basques, the answer is soon apparent:  Basques are stubborn!  Therefore, it is most probable that the Basques have endured because of their hard-headed refusal to abandon their language and traditions.


One way of defining Basque characteristics is the "tx" trilogy of Txistu, Txistorra eta Txapela:

"Basqueness" is a difficult thing to define, and some definitions contain several parts.  One version is Txistu, Txistorra eta Txapela--one is Basque if one plays the txistu, eats txistora or Basque sausage and wears a txapela or beret.  Another's definition would insist that one be born in the Basque country, while another's include that one speak Euskara or the Basque language.  The intent of this article is not to correct or critique one's perception of "Basqueness"--a difficult thing to define--nor to set forth the dictates on what is and is not Basque.  Instead the primary objective is to offer a word of caution that asks for a moment of reflection before blurting out "that's not Basque!!"

Our Basque-American culture is unique--it is not completely American nor is it purely European.  With only a few exceptions, for example, you will not find the same "Basque" food that we are accustomed to here in our Basque-American restaurants if you travel to the Basque country.  Many of our Basque-American restaurants derived from the early Basque boarding houses--hence family style dining. 

OSTATUA--Basque Boarding Houses.  For many Basque immigrants here in America, the Ostatua, or Basque Boarding House, became a home away from home.  Pictured here is the former Star Boarding House in Boise, Idaho.  In 1911 there were six Basque boarding houses clustered together in central downtown Boise; the Star opened in 1903 and it had a canopied handball court.

It was around the dining tables of these Basque boarding houses that the American style of Basque cuisine was born.  While sharing some things in common with its European cousin, Basque food in America is not synonymous with Basque food back in the European homeland.

The American context added new elements, but traditional staples remain.  Many restaurants and Basque clubs continue to serve Basque delicacies for the daring diner that include “tripota / morcilla” or blood sausages, “txerri patak” or pigs-feet, and of course “Rocky Mountain Oysters.” 

You can really stump a European Basque if you ask them if they know about the Basque drink--"picon punch?"  For that matter, Basques in Idaho are not really familiar with it either.  It would be too hasty, however, to dismiss a picon-punch or the Basque-American style of dining as not being Basque.  For some, these and other elements are Basque because they have made them so. 

A picon-punch, for example, derives from a French liquor familiar to those herders who came from the Iparralde (north or French side of the Basque country).  They added a few other ingredients, and it slowly became their drink of choice.  Basques from Bizkaia who make up most of the Basque population in Idaho, on the other hand, did not have this French liquor in their homeland, nor here.  (Don't fret, because they made due with good Kentucky spirits).  For some, it is a "Basque" drink, and you're not going to change their mind if you tell them it isn't.  There are many more such examples, but the point is not to immediately dismiss something that we don't recognize or understand as not being Basque.

We Basque-Americans are different from our European cousins.  We cannot be like them--nor they like us--because of different circumstances.  Therefore, it is unrealistic to copy everything that they do across the Atlantic.  Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of Euskal Herria.  It remains the focal point of our heritage, because much of what we seek to preserve here derives from the traditions brought over. Therefore for some things, the Basque country should be where we should look for guidance and direction.

The dance traditions of the Basques are multi-faceted.  This photo is from the historical region of Lapurdi.  Very few Basques from this region immigrated to the United States making these dances unfamiliar to many Basques here. 

When Zenbat Gara from Reno performed these dances it triggered the comment from a spectator: "that's not Basque."  How is it when someone hasn't seen all of the Basque country's traditions that they become an expert on what is and is not Basque?

The comment that triggered this editorial concerned a new dance costume.  Years ago the University of Nevada "Zenbat Gara" dancers presented the carnival dances from the province of Lapurdi--dances new to most of us here in America.  In this case, it makes sense that we should look to Lapurdi for our model.  This group followed the patterns of those  costumes which called for the men to wear hats consisting of a hat adorned with flowers.  This is consistent with other headgear in carnival dances, but the only thing we have seen here for the men are bonetas or txapelas.  While most of us would all agree that the beret is "Basque," that does not disqualify all other headgear.  Many dances also call for the use of a scarf instead of a beret.  Remember that many costumes derived from daily wear, and a scarf could be just as useful as a beret for blocking the sun's rays.

Before hastily dismissing something as not being Basque, take a moment to consider that there might be a story there that you do not know about.  For some Basques, that dance, costume, word or custom that you do not recognize is something very real for them.   Therefore, it is not only unfair to quickly dismiss something as not being Basque, but very presumptuous.

The image at the top of this article is the proto-typical photo of Basque dancers, and many hold this to be "the" Basque dance costume while it is only "a" costume.   

Today's costumes were oftentimes yesterday's everyday wear, and there was a variety from person to person and place to place.  Whereas many men's dances were based on primarily white costumes, not every woman wore a red skirt so there was plenty of variety.

Recall that few have traveled through all of our Basque-American communities and throughout Euskal Herria.  The fact of the matter is that most all of those who came here from Europe knew only a small portion of their homeland.  I grew up in Idaho, and I'll bet that not more than a dozen European-born Basques there have ever traveled to the province of Zuberoa.  Now I live in Chino, CA and though "Gernikako Arbola" is sung to begin the festivals here, I wonder how many have traveled to Gernika to see this tree or to the province of Bizkaia?

While there are some things that are more "Basque" than others, but it becomes a tricky endeavor sorting through them.  The Basques have persevered because of their insistence over dividing "us" from "them." But this strategy can be questioned now in a world that is continuously becoming more homogenous.  There are concentrated efforts underway in the Basque country to bridge regional differences and to work together to promote their shared heritage.  Here in the United States, we Basques are few, so if we hope to sustain our heritage here, we should try to get along together and respect the various ways of "being Basque."  And remember that there is always more to learn about our Basque heritage--just like everything else.  There are seven provinces with hundreds of towns in the Basque country, and nearly three dozen different Basque clubs in NABO, making for at least that many ways of being Basque.