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A1.22  Buffalo Besta '06 

Originally published August 16, 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  

Since 1979, NABO has celebrated an annual Convention.  This year it was hosted by the Big Horn Basque Club of Buffalo, Wyoming.  For a weekend in July a town of 4,000 inhabitants became the home of 5,000 festival-goers who made this a festival to remember.

NABO today counts nearly three dozen Basque organizations as members.  Most NABO member organizations are Basque clubs or social organizations, while a few are educational.  Our membership ranges from east to west (New York to San Francisco) and north to south (Seattle to Chino).  Some organizations are very active while others might just have an event or two a year.  Some have larger memberships in the hundreds while some count members by the dozen.  For all this diversity, however, we all share the pursuit of a common goal:  the preservation of our Basque heritage here in America.  And that is what we all gathered to celebrate on the slopes of the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming in the town of Buffalo.  For two days in July this town of about 4,000 inhabitants became the home of 5,000 festival-goers who made this a Basque festival to remember.

Buffalo has been a home for Basques for a century. Like many of our shared stories, most Basques found their way there as sheepherders so it was fitting that the Big Horn Basque Club choose to make this a Sheep wagon Festival.  The Saturday morning parade had three dozen sheep wagon entries.  Most all of the local Basque families had a connection to the sheep business, and while hardly any are still directly involved anymore, most have kept a sheep wagon in the family as a way to pay tribute to their ancestors.   The streets of Buffalo were lined with thousands of spectators--the whole town seemed to be there along with plenty of outsiders who heard about the Basque festival.  The parade came to an end at the city park, and that is where soon the thousands congregated.

The Buffalo festival gathered three dozen sheep wagons for the Saturday morning parade.  While few Basques are still directly involved in the sheep industry, many local families have kept a wagon as a way to pay tribute to their ancestors. 

In this photo, a creative family did their impersonation of the Shriners in their mini-racers darting around through different formations.  Instead they used self-propelled mini-wagons for the choreographies through the streets of Buffalo.  

For this visitor, and a good many others that I spoke with, the town of Buffalo has a special feel about it.  Maybe its the altitude (4,645 feet), its location at the base of the Big Horn National Forest, the wide-open spaces, the old-time downtown (image at left), the small-town ambiance, or most likely, the people we meet there.  Everyone was so friendly, and everyone seemed to be into the festival spirit.  As you went through the town there where ikurrinas or Basque flags everywhere.  The club there might be small of membership, but they sure did put on a great party!  On Saturday the city park was filled with thousands of people, and most of them weren't Basque.  The word is starting to get out--partying with the Basques is a good time!  And this is a plus.  The participation of non-Basques in our events not only helps us financially, it also lends another crucial dynamic--validation that what we're doing is worthwhile and that it's not just for a select few.  Others too are welcomed to take part and we love it. 

Whereas most Basque festivals are lucky to count one visiting Basque band, Buffalo gave us two!  We were treated to some great music with Tapia eta Leturia and their band, as well as the band Ketxo.  Other entertainers included the local "Zaherrer Segi" Basque dances, the visiting Utah-ko Triskalariak dancers, and Wyoming's own bertsolari Martin Goikoetxea.  The local theater sponsored two showings of the "Last Link" documentary that chronicles the story of sheep herding and features local Basques.  Both showings were filled, and copies of the DVD ran out with orders being taken for a hundred more!  Part of the proceeds from this film go to NABO's education fund.

The kids loved it! With "rocks, sticks & water" and some time behind bars--they lived large in Wyoming!   

It wasn't just all play as NABO delegates did find some time to get some work done.  We assembled Friday morning for one of our tri-annual NABO meetings.  A special treat was the lunch which featured talks by two long-time Buffalo Basques who told us the story of Basques in Buffalo.  We hammered out some new procedural rules to hopefully make our meetings more efficient, delegates shared the latest from their clubs, and work began on preparing for our upcoming Udazken Biltzarra (previous Astero) or Basque Forum in October.  We're trying to take a serious look ahead to develop a strategy to keep our young Basques involved.  Mary Gaztambide was once again elected as President, and all of the NABO officers and chairpersons remain the same for another year. 

Whereas most Basque festivals are fortunate to have one visiting Basque band, Buffalo counted with two!  We were treated to the music of "Tapia eta Leturia" (pictured) and "Ketxo". 

I wish we could have stayed, because it sounded like Monday's mountain tour was a special treat.  Fifty five people took part in this fishing expedition into the Big Horns.  The morning's catch was then served up at a mountain cabin along with barbecued lamb and other potluck offerings.  Lunch was followed by Mus and plenty of conversations.  That's what makes Basque festivals so much fun--good food, good entertainment and good times.  Catching up with old friends--or making new ones--is what makes it a special time.  We don't remember whole years, nor whole months, nor weeks nor days.  We remember the moments.  And the festival in Buffalo gave us plenty of those.  If you went, you know what I mean.  If you missed it, you'll have another chance next year.  We're getting together in Winnemucca the first weekend of June.  So come ready for the good times!

Thanks to our friends in Buffalo--you made us feel very welcomed and you gave us an opportunity to create some special memories.  Here's hoping we'll be back there before too long, and that you'll be able to "Zaharrer Segi" ("Follow the old ways").  Mil esker (thanks)!


Following is an additional article brought to my attention by Kirstie Auzqui that appeared in the Billings, Montana Gazette.  It is reproduced here in case it moves.

Story available at http://www.billingsgazette.net/articles/2006/07/25/news/wyoming/25-basque_z.txt
Published on Tuesday, July 25, 2006; Last modified on 7/25/2006 at 1:38 am

Photo by Ruffin Prevost/Gazette Staff
Kaisa Jones chases sheep that were used Sunday during a sheep-hooking contest and sheepdog demonstrations that were part of the Sheep Wagon Festival in Buffalo, Wyo.


Basques celebrate culture at festival in Buffalo
BUFFALO, Wyo. - Anyone worried about the survival of Basque culture would have that fear laid to rest after spending time with the hundreds of Basques and their descendants who gathered in Buffalo this past weekend to celebrate their unique heritage.

"I wouldn't say we were overrun, but we were overwhelmed," said Dollie Iberlin, one of the Sheep Wagon Festival organizers who helped host the annual gathering of the North American Basque Organization.

Photo by Ruffin Prevost/Gazette Staff
Marty Camino, left, and Hayley White practice their dancing Sunday in preparation for a fandango contest. Dancers in traditional Basque outfits performed Saturday and Sunday at the Sheep Wagon Festival in Buffalo, Wyo.

Sellout crowd

She wasn't sure how many people attended, but in a town of about 4,300 people, the Bighorn Basque Club had sold more than 10,000 food and drink tickets by noon Saturday, Iberlin said.

"We ran out of lamb burgers and went through 800 pounds of sausage," she said. People waited up to two hours Saturday for lukainka, a spicy Basque pork sausage made with garlic and peppers.

Chad Jones visited the lukainka stand Sunday, hoping to chat with his grandmother, Jeanine Eyhrabie Jones. But with dozens waiting in line for her "secret" recipe, she was too busy to talk.

Jones and his wife, Kaila, had their young daughters, Kaisa and Joee, decked out in red, green and white, the colors of the Basque flag.

"I want them to hang out with grandma and learn the Basque language and culture," Jones said. "It's important to keep that link going with each generation."

Photo by Ruffin Prevost/Gazette Staff
While a large crowd gathers in line, Pete Reno cooks lukainka, Basque sausages made with pork, garlic and peppers. Lukainka and lamb were among the traditional Basque foods offered Saturday and Sunday at the Sheep Wagon Festival in Buffalo, Wyo.

Cultural celebration

Jones' comments echoed those of others at the festival, a celebration of the centuries-old heritage of the Basque people of Spain and France. Believed to be the longest continuous inhabitants of a single region of Europe, they share a strong cultural and ethnic identity.

"We want to keep it going," said Rhonda Spivey, of Salt Lake City, Utah. "We're a close community, and everything about it is really fun. The kids are involved in everything, too, which is what passes it down to them."

During a weekend when nearly everyone seemed to be an honorary Basque, or at least behaved like one, the appeal of the culture was obvious. Music, dancing, food and drink were omnipresent.

Children learn traditional dances at an early age, said Ianire Rivera, a 16-year-old Basque exchange student spending a month in Utah with Spivey and her family.

"The music here today is very similar to what it is like at home," she said in Spanish. Rivera, from the coastal Basque province of Gipuzcoa, speaks Basque and Spanish, but little English. "It's good to see this here."

Events at the festival included a parade with three dozen sheep wagons, dance contests, sheepdog and sheep-hooking demonstrations and traditional displays of strength, including a tug-of-war and a weightlifting contest.

Kirstie Auzqui, of Colorado, performs an irrintzi Sunday during the Sheep Wagon Festival in Buffalo, Wyo. The irrintzi is a war cry believed to have developed among Basque women during the Spanish Civil War.

Photo by Ruffin Prevost/Gazette Staff

But the most singularly Basque display was the irrintzi contest. Part yodel, part holler and part improvised squeal, the irrintzi is a ululating screech ending in a kind of shrieking laugh.

Like the yodel, the irrintzi was a means of calling out across the mountains. But some say it was later adopted as a kind of war cry by Basque women in the 1930s, during the Spanish Civil War.

As important as the events and activities are, the festival represents for Basques an affirmation of a way of life centered on family and a strong sense of place.

"I didn't speak English until the fifth or sixth grade," said Simon Iberlin, husband of Dollie.

Born in Wyoming to Basque parents, Simon first learned the Basque language, which he said is unique among European tongues.

"With him, I sometimes think it's Basque first, American second," Dollie said.

Martha Arambel Judice, of Great Falls, Mont., didn't learn the Basque language as a child but plans to study it with friends in her Basque club.

"My parents used it as a language we couldn't understand," she said. "But now my mom is really sad she didn't teach it to us."

At a time when the world is becoming more homogenous and unique cultures struggle to survive, Judice said she's optimistic the Basque ways will last.

"There's a lot of interest in it, and lots of young kids picking things up," she said. "We're very proud of our heritage. I think it's going to continue."

Contact Ruffin Prevost at rprevost@billingsgazette.com or (307) 527-7250.