Las Vegas Sun

August 19, 2019

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Q+A: Expert discusses Basque history, culture in Nevada


Lance Iversen / AP

In this Aug. 15, 2015, file photo, dozens of Basque chefs tend the fire pits at the Inaugural Basque Fry at Corley Ranch in Gardnerville. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and a slate of conservative officials and political figures will descent on a Northern Nevada ranch Saturday, Aug. 25, 2018, for the 4th annual Basque Fry hosted by Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt.

Politics and food are some of the long-lasting marks that Basque immigrants have made on Nevada, and both will be on display at a Republican event in Northern Nevada today.

Republicans are gathering for the conservative Morning in Nevada PAC’s annual Basque Fry Fundraiser in Gardnerville, an event that is expected to draw Kellyanne Conway of President Donald Trump’s administration as well as celebrate some of the traditions of American Basques. From the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s to boarding houses turned restaurants in the American West, Basques have a long and sometimes complicated history, said William Douglass, a professor emeritus of Basque studies.

Douglass has been researching and writing about Basques for nearly 60 years and founded what would become the William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies at UNR. The center celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. Douglass, who continues his research and is close to finishing a book on Australian Basques, recently spoke to the Sun about the immigration story of American Basques and how life in the West influenced their traditional dishes. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Can you describe how Basque immigrants have shaped Nevada?

It’s been fairly profound. Certainly one of the most famous political families in the state, the Laxalts, are Basque. The major Basque political figure of course was Paul Laxalt, governor and senator for the state of Nevada. Robert Laxalt, his brother, wrote a book in 1957, "Sweet Promised Land," that was very popular. It brought national and international attention to Basque Americans. Bob then became the founder and director for many years of the University of Nevada Press. There aren’t that many Basques historically at any one point in the state, so that influence is pretty notable.

What about Basque food?

The food that we think of as Basque food here is actually Basque boarding house food. There got to be boarding houses throughout the American West, a whole network, because sheepherding was a seasonal activity. They would ship the lambs in the fall and lay off one of the herders for four or five months. That herder would go to town, and in the towns in the sheepherding districts, places like Elko, Winnemucca, Reno, Boise, parts of California, there developed a kind of Basque boarding house phenomenon that was like an ethnic refuge or an ethnic haven, if you will. For the Old World herders, it was a place to spend five months possibly until they got work again during lambing. They would stay in their favorite hotel, they would eat with other herders at long tables all together, family-style. That’s why you get that Basque family-style dining that accompanies, quote, "Basque" dining.

And then those hotels were also a kind of ethnic beacon for the few Basque Americans. They were semi-private institutions, particularly before World War II, because Basques were badly viewed by the wider society. They were tramp sheepmen who were wandering around the public lands that the settled ranchers thought was theirs, even though it was on public lands and the Basques technically had as much right to it as the settled rancher. The image began to change, and Basques (became) romanticized. Once that happened, the Basque hotels began to open up to the public. The food that was being served in them acquired a certain amount of fame. They’d have wine and you could have this lavish food served family-style at a long table, so you’d sit next to a stranger and pass the food around.

Old World Basque cuisine is largely seafood-based and here in the Great Basin, back in those days, it certainly wasn’t seafood-based because you couldn’t get fresh fish in the interior that easily. So what developed here was a kind of Old World Basque, Sunday-fare cuisine.

In the Basque country, they had lamb but it wasn’t eaten that regularly. But of course, in the Great Basin, there was a lot of lamb and so that emerged as part of it. Steaks, beefsteaks — big ones — salad, garbanzo beans, chickpeas, tripe, all of that used to be like what people would eat in the Basque country for a big Sunday dinner or for a celebration. Well the boarding houses, to compete with each other, began to offer more cuisine like that all the time and eventually it got sort of set in stone. Now there are 30 or 40 "Basque restaurants," in quotes, throughout the American West that used to be semi-private Basque boarding houses.

In the Basque country, (a very common Basque dish is) Bacalao, which is cod. That cod was primarily salt cod, because the Basque were the quintessential cod fishermen off Terranova for a couple of centuries. Europeans would cross the Atlantic and fish for cod, and the only way they could get it back was to salt it. And so they would bring it back and soak it for eight or 10 hours before they would cook it, so it has a very distinctive flavor.

What are some of the differences between American and European Basques?

Basques were not really sheepherders over there. That’s a misconception. The kind of herding they were doing in Europe was very different from what they did here. First of all, the Basque country is one of the most industrialized areas of the Iberian Peninsula (which includes Spain). So about 3 percent of the Basque population is agricultural today. It was higher in the past, but even so it was always a minority.

The Basque family farm might have 30 sheep or something, and they’d stick them on a mountain up behind the farm and every couple of weeks somebody might go up and check on them, but they weren’t herding them the way we do 1,000 sheep on public lands with predators and the need for full-time herding. Very, very few professional Basque sheepherders ever entered the United States, and the few that did didn’t really have any experience in herding sheep under the conditions they found here. So it wasn’t the transfer of an old-world skill to a new world opportunity.

How did the Basque people come to Nevada?

They came primarily from California. There was an older, colonial Basque presence but the baseline for the Basque coming into Nevada was the California Gold Rush. The Basques that participated in the Gold Rush came not so much from the Pyrenees (Mountains bordering France and Spain), but they were already settled as sheepmen in South America in the Southern Cone countries, Argentina and Uruguay primarily. So when Gold was discovered in California, some of those people came up here looking for gold. They didn’t find it, but they saw an opportunity to raise sheep in Southern California and the Central Valley. They saw a big, vast, open area with very very few people, and most of them non-whites of course, American Indians, so they started roaming around with sheep bands.

Eventually, by about the 1870s, the ranges in Southern California began to fill up and a few Basque itinerant sheepmen with bands of sheep came over the Sierra Nevadas and out into Nevada. So by about 1900, Basques were the stereotypic and ubiquitous sheepmen of the Great Basin, and the entire American West really.

Are there Basque sheepherders in the West today?

I doubt if there’s a dozen in the entire American West. What happened was, by about the 1970s, there got to be a shortage of sheepherders after we put in immigration legislation in the 1920s that limited the number of people that could come in. Then the Great Depression in the 1930s cut down on immigrants going anywhere in the world, and then World War II dried up the manpower in the United States.

By then, the sheep ranchers were pretty desperate to have sheepherders and a few Basque began to sneak into the United States. They were illegals, and they would get to Nevada or Idaho and get up in the mountains with a band of sheep. And if they did that, they were pretty safe because they were way outside of the scrutiny of the law. Some of the sheep ranchers then went to their congressmen and Congress would introduce individual bills to legalize the status of one or two sheepherders. That wasn’t very efficient, so Patrick McCarran, our U.S. senator at the time and a very anti-immigration guy, co-authored the most restrictive immigration law in U.S. history, except that they put in a special provision to allow Basque sheepherders into the United States on a temporary basis, as essentially itinerant labor.

The sheep ranchers under that legislation set up something called the Western Range Association, and the association sent recruiters to the Basque country in Europe and they would bring guys over and ultimately there were about 1,500 Basque sheepherders in all throughout the American West. That would have been in the early 1970s, but at that time, the economy in the Basque country recovered in (military dictator Francisco) Franco’s Spain and after World War II to the point that people stopped signing contracts to come and herd sheep. They could make better wages at home and not be out in the mountains by themselves. And they preferred that.

So it was actually a crisis in the industry again and the Western Range Association diverted its attention to Latin America. And so the stereotypic sheepherder began to be the Peruvian or Chilean or Mexican herder that got recruited and brought in under the same terms. It would be a three-year contract to preclude the guy from spending five continuous years in the United States, because if he did so, he qualified to apply for permanent residency, and it was viewed as a guest worker or foreign laborer itinerant program. These guys (and) the Basque too, they would sign a contract and then they’d have to leave. They could sign another one and come back, because once they’d left the United States, the clock started over again on the five years.

That’s why things shifted and now there are virtually no Basque sheepherders left. There aren’t a whole lot of sheepherders period because the open range sheep industry in the United States has gone way down. There are far fewer sheep today being raised on the public lands than even in the 1970s. There’s probably half as many sheep out there today.

What are some ways we can still see the influence of the culture today?

Basques have been romanticized and they’re kind of a symbol of hardworking people. We had sort of a reaction against urban life and the hustle and bustle of American life generally in cities and all of that. The image of the Basque sheepherder out there on the range by himself with a band of sheep became a very romantic one, and so people began to write articles about them, people began to make documentary films, and also the Basques began to take an interest in their own ethnic heritage as part of the roots phenomenon. They started organizing dance groups and social clubs, and the social clubs and dance groups developed festivals.

In the 2000 Census they estimated there were roughly 57,000 people of Basque descent in the United States, and there were Basques in every state, every one of the 50, but the largest concentration, or the largest number, was California in the low 20,000s, and then there was Idaho with about 6,500, and Nevada, about 6,000.