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Basque Sheepherding

Essentially unique among American ethnic groups, only in the American West did one group of people become so exclusively identified with just one occupation:  Basques & sheepherding.  So now you know why those Basque BBQ's always feature lamb!

LambBasques have been in the Americas for centuries--possibly even before the arrival of Columbus.  Most of the current Basque communities of the American West, however, trace their origins to the more recent past.  The Basque sheepherding story of the American West goes to the California Gold Rush that brought a sustained number of Basques to the American West.  Most "49ers" did not find their gold and had to turn to an alternative plan, and thus some Basques went into ranching.  By the 1870s Basque sheep outfits had expanded throughout the high desert country of the American West.

Anyone who has driven the high desert ranges of the West has pondered how someone could possibly live there.  It's possible, but the life was very demanding, compounded by the reality that sheepherding as an occupation was not favorably looked upon.  Basques took the job because it offered them economic opportunity.  These hundreds of herders tended bands of sheep for months on end in a harsh, desolate environment.  They were usually all alone.  It was not an easy existence, but thanks to their perseverance their descendants were able to enjoy a better life here in America.

Ironically these Basque newcomers knew little or nothing about herding sheep; they literally learned on the job.  They did so well that they quickly became sought after by sheep outfits while some Basques moved into positions of ownership that together initiated the practice of bringing over other Basque young men.  Many obtained U.S. citizenship, and trips to the Basque homeland now became vacations often with the primary purpose of finding a Basque wife.

While shepherding served as the foundation of the Basque community for many years, today few Basques remain active in the sheep industry.  By the 1970s the Basque involvement in the sheep business began its decline.  Various factors contributed to this transformation, beginning of course with the immense challenges posed by the occupation that thrust the herder into "one of the loneliest professions in the world."  A domestic struggle over the use of public land which resulted in the limitation of livestock grazing permits, improved economic conditions in the Basque homeland, recruiting efforts shifting to Latin America and changes in the livestock industry that favored cattle to sheep ranching effectively brought an end to a 150 year story.

But sheepherding was always just a means not an end for most Basques.  Thus the children and grandchildren of the herders have diversified into many careers.  As William Douglass noted, "the work ethic, business integrity and success of Basques in a wide variety of walks of life resulted in their being viewed in the region as one of its unique cultural and economic assets." 

monumentThe monument to the Basque sheepherder is located in Reno, Nevada.  Entitled “Bakardade,” or “Solitude” by its author -- noted contemporary Basque sculptor Nestor Basterretxea -- the artwork was conceived as a statement about the past by the present to the future.

In the design, the solitary figure of a shepherd carrying a lamb is suggested rather than depicted. 

 

 

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