Boise, Idaho, is becoming a big city, and its Basque block will soon be in the shadow of a 20-storey building.
Among Boise’s attractions is a unique, 5 Compass Basque Museum and Culture Center at 611 Grove Street downtown near the State Capitol. I say unique because this is the only museum in the United States specifically about this ethnic group in northern Spain and southwest France.
The Basque people’s traditional home, Euskal Herria, is in the Pyrenees Mountains. It’s close to the size of Maryland and comprises 7 provinces and 3 million people. Three provinces are in France. The largest Basque city is Bilbao, Spain, home to architect Frank Gehry’s flamboyant Guggenheim Museum. When it opened in 1997 in the province of Bizkaia, the Guggenheim received much international coverage. The capital city of the partially Basque province of Navarra (Nafarroa) is Pamplona, scene of the annual running of the bulls.
Some say that Basque is the oldest culture in the world, and the Basque language, Euskera, cannot be linked to any other. Its roots remain completely unknown. 25% of Basques in Europe still speak it.
Basque people have a homeland but no nation of their own. There was a short-lived Basque Republic in 1936 before the Franco years that ended in 1975. This dictator would not allow the red, green, and white Basque flag to be flown in Spain.
One display in Boise’s Basque Museum and Culture Center describes them as “hardworking, stubborn, and frugal”. They are also adventuresome. Basques have been leaving their homeland for opportunities since, at least, the 16th century. Many became whalers. Basque sailors were aboard his ships when Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492.
It’s a misconception that Basque men began emigrating to the United States in the 19th century specifically to become sheep herders. They came in large numbers beginning with the Gold Rush in California in 1849 and found work as sheep herders. Making their way to The West via the Union Pacific railroad, Basques settled mostly in Idaho, California, and Nevada. Sheepherding jobs were ideal for them because they required no English fluency, no previous experience, and appealed to men who could adapt to extreme isolation. Boise became the unofficial capital of Basque America with more than 50 boarding houses that became Basque culture centers during the year’s colder months. Many Basque women followed their men to America and found work in these boarding houses.
Today, there are 3 Basque restaurants in Boise, a Basque market, Basque studies at Boise State University, and a pre-school program, Ecastola, for kids to learn the Basque language. The current Mayor of Boise, David Bieter, is Basque. A Basque Center is in the same block as the Museum.
Although sheep in Idaho have declined from 3 million in the early 20th century to 200,000 today, there is still an annual sheep festival. In 2015, it runs from October 7 to 11. This, the 19th annual Trailing of the Sheep, affords the chance to see sheepdog champions, eat lamb, etc. Increasingly popular, this Festival is centered in Hailey. USA Today has called it one of the “Ten Best Fall Festivals in America”. Boise has its own international Basque Festival. Jaialdi 2015 was held in late July, early August. While in Boise, check out the Basque Museum and Cultural Center to become culturally enriched.