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Tracks of an old Frontier shepherd life: Great Basin Basques

“What is a Basque?,” asked Orson Welles in his 1955 television travelogue. “All we know for sure is what a Basque is not. Besides not being French or Spanish, a Basque is not Mediterranean, Alpine, Celtic, Magyar, nor Scandinavian… No one knows who his ancestors were, according to him Adam and Eve were pure Basque. He was in Europe before the other Europeans came along. To this day he speaks his own weird language, a tongue no expert has ever been able to trace.”

Today, in states like Idaho there are thousands of Basque Americans many of whose ancestors immigrated here a century ago to herd sheep. Henry Etcheverry is one of the last of the Basque sheepmen. His father, Jean Pierre, immigrated in 1929 from the Basque Country (a region in the Pyrenees partly in Spain and partly in France).

“My father back when he came to the country at that time there was a great migration from the Pyrenees from both sides of the border, from Spain and France, coming here to the United States to work in the sheep business. He came at 16 years old. It was way different then. He used to tell me there were close to 100 million people and 55 million sheep.”

Boise, Idaho has the highest concentration of Basques outside the Basque Country. The mayor is of Basque descent and there’s an entire block dedicated to Basque businesses. Tony Eiguren runs the Basque Market– part store, part restaurant- with his wife Tara. “All four of my grandparents are 100 percent Basque. The picture right there is my dad’s dad,” he says pointed to the Basque Market sign. “He came over at 16 by himself. Two days of American school and then he was given sheep and told where to go. A lot of the Basques did that. They were sheepherders. They didn’t own the sheep. There was one owner and he would own thousands of sheep and they would get Basque workers to come in, I think because they didn’t have to know the language, they were willing to work. All of my grandparents same kind of basic story.”

Many of the buildings on the Basque Block were once boarding houses for recent arrivals to the US. “If a person was immigrating over to the United States to Boise for example they’d get off the train a few blocks from here and come to a boarding house,” explains Annie Gavica of the Basque Museum (3 of her grandparents were Basque).

“There were something like 45 or 50 boarding houses in Boise during that 30 or 40 year period. Originally there was a chunk of people that immigrated over in the mid-1800s for the Gold Rush and like a lot of people during that era were not successful and then found whatever jobs they could and for them it was sheepherding. There was a big group in the 1900s who came over for that because they heard from somebody who’d been here already.”

Today the Sheepherders Ball is still a popular Boise event (Tony met his wife Tara there) and the Basque Block still has a “fronton”, a court for playing Basque pelota: a type of handball played with a bare hand and a hard ball, something “quite painful” according to Gavica.

Now 66-years-old, Etcheverry still works his sheep ranch- built up by his father and himself with permits to graze thousands of acres in Idaho and Wyoming- but these days, his shepherds aren’t Basque. “My shepherds are from Peru and this is an opportunity for them to come here and better their lives,” he explains. “They’re here and it’s quite a sacrifice.”

One of his shepherds, Olympio, has spent over a decade working here for Etcheverry. From May to September he lives in a sheep wagon- or sheep camp- in the mountains, following the sheep. Etcheverry brings him food and supplies every few days, but he spends most of his time alone, sleeping, eating and cooking in his tiny home on wheels. He uses a propane burners to cook, firewood stove for heating, a cooler as a refrigerator and washes his clothes by hand. Olimpio says he’s used to the lifestyle since he started in the same line of work as a young boy in Peru. He admits it can be lonely, but he points out the advantages of what Etcheverry calls a sacrifice. “It’s really beautiful to take care of animals. The countryside is beautiful.”

Etcheverry has no luck finding workers in nearby Boise or Salt Lake City. “When this way of life is over for me I doubt there is going to be anyone behind me here. It’s too hard. Saturday and Sunday. You do what you got to do. People don’t want to do that anymore.”