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Discovering the Basque culture in Oregon and Idaho


Idaho alone had 3 million sheep in 1910 ... Hundreds were killed and three-quarters of the town’s homes were destroyed. A few days later, Franco led a land assault and occupied what remained of Gernika. He told the world that the town had been ...


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JORDAN VALLEY — If you ever find yourself driving U.SHighway 95 through the dry basin lands of southeastern Oregon, don’t be too surprised when you round a corner and come face-to-face with a towering concrete wall It’s been there, in one form another, for more than 100 years, as a place where Basque sheepherders and their descendants play “pelota.” The open-air handball court, properly called a fronton, has a long, stepped side wall and a tall back wall, both connected by a cement floorIt has been modernized since 1915, when it was built by boardinghouse owner Ambrose Elorriaga, but it remains a landmark in this remote community of fewer than 200 peopleAnd it’s still in use Almost directly across a side street, in the house that Elorriaga and his wife, Maria, built in 1910, the town’s Heritage Museum operatesThis was once one of eight boarding houses that operated in the small community, catering to migrants from the Basques’ European homelandThey tended sheep by summer but in winter lived quietly — except during the Christmas-New Year season, when it seemed every house had a dance party Indeed, Basque pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries lived a lonely life in the Great Basin region, particularly in the high desert of Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and eastern California, where most of them settled Few spoke English, and herding sheep didn’t require any particular experience other than the ability to work alone and in serious isolationWith a reputation for being hardworking, stubborn and frugal, the Basques fit right in Boardinghouses (“ostatuak”), such as those in Jordan Valley and elsewhere across the Great Basin, were more than places to eat and sleepThey were places where, for a few weeks or months, the Basque culture was reborn in language and friendshipsFeast days, good wine and pelota filled the days far from their homeland on the Spanish-French shores of the Bay of Biscay, in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains Boardinghouse proprietors became surrogate parents for regular boardersThey assisted with translating, banking, mail, medical needs and other tasks, and often were confidants As snow began melting, the men were back in the hillsLambing and branding took place in early springOut here in Malheur County’s Owyhee drainage, sheep were moved to higher pastures in summer, then to lower rangeland in winter, when bands were often combined and herders laid offAnd the cycle began again‘Euskaldunak’ About 3 million people live in Euskal Herria, the lush, temperate region known as Europe’s Basque CountryAbout the size of the state of Maryland, it extends along 115 miles of North Atlantic coastThe slightly larger, mineral-rich Spanish side of the province, with its largest city at Bilbao, has prospered with industry, while the French side, focused on Biarritz, relies on tourism and agriculture The Basques call themselves EuskaldunakThey are a people without a nation, even though they have lived here since long before the Spanish-French border was established in 1512Ancient Greeks knew them as “fierce tribes speaking a very strange language.” Through history, they have been a coastal people of fishermen, merchants, shipbuilders and explorersBasque sailors accompanied Christopher Columbus to America in 1492Others sailed with Magellan a generation later Inland Basques raised subsistence crops and a few cattle, farming and milling grain into flourThey traditionally lived near a Catholic church in a family homestead, which was passed down to a single heir, not necessarily the oldest nor a maleOther children could choose to stay at home and work for the new master, or they could leave to pursue their own lives — perhaps working in a large industrial town, joining a religious order, or emigrating to a foreign country Nearly every Basque surname originated as a toponym from the location of the family homeUberuaga, for instance, means “hot springs.” Zubiondo is translated as “near the bridge.” Indeed, the Euskara language is unique, with no known linguistic relatives to trace the tribe’s originSuppressed for more than 35 years in the mid-20th century, it has slowly recovered since the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975Today the language is in recovery modeThere are Basque-language films and broadcast networks, as well as education programs not only in Europe, but in American Basque communitiesBoise’s museum Most prominent of those communities today is Boise, a drive of less than an hour and a half northeast of Jordan Valley, and six hours from BendAbout 15,000 people of Basque heritage live in Idaho’s capital cityIts Basque Museum and Cultural Center is a trove of information for those who, like myself, want to learn about these fascinating people The museum, in the heart of downtown Boise’s “Basque Block” just steps from the state Capitol, teaches Basque culture and language in its classrooms; it has a library and archives and hosts numerous special events to celebrate heritageA gift shop supports the museum’s mission, and several rooms of exhibits welcome curious visitors These displays explain the Basque experience both in Europe and in AmericaAs early as the California Gold Rush of 1849, many young Basques began coming to the United States to escape Spanish military conscriptionAt the start of the 20th century, their numbers increased as word filtered back to Europe of the need for herders in the Great Basin area Idaho alone had 3 million sheep in 1910(Today there are fewer than 250,000.) And scores of boardinghouses opened to support the new immigrants’ needsThere were more than 400 “ostatuak” across the West, especially in Idaho, Nevada and CaliforniaOregon had about two dozen, the majority in BurnsOthers were in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana and Washington A map in the museum locates 97 historic boarding houses in BoiseSeven of those original buildings still stand, including the Jacobs-Uberuaga House, which not coincidentally is next door to the museumIt is the oldest surviving brick residence in BoiseGuided tours depart the museum at least twice daily Built in 1864 by pioneers Cyrus and Mary Jacobs, the house was a private residence until the turn of the 20th centuryJosé and Hermenegilda Uberuaga rented it in 1917, purchased the home 11 years later and raised three childrenThey ran it as an “ostatu” until 1969, by which time the sheep market had declined dramatically and their clientele had integrated into mainstream neighborhoods But the proud Basques didn’t want to sever all ties with their homelandSo in 1983, a Boise philanthropist, Adelia Simplot, bought the building, financed its restoration and in 1985 established the Basque Museum and Cultural Center hereIt became a place where Idahoans could speak Euskara, eat familiar food, play music and dance Just down the block, on the other side of the museum from the Jacobs-Uberuaga House, was another “ostatu,” the ­Arduiza HotelJuan Cruz Arduiza built his boarding house in 1914 with an indoor pelota court at its heartBeginning in 1948 the building was home to an engineering firm, but in 1993 the Fronton Building was purchased in 1993 by two local BasquesNow administered by the cultural center, the pelota court (122 feet long, 28 feet wide and two stories high) is in regular use by the Basque community todayTree of Gernika Back in Europe, the Basque lands were challenged by warThe Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) took nearly 1 million lives as a vicious prelude to World War II The socialist-leaning Basque Nationalist Party, which favored autonomy for its own people, had lent support to Spain’s constitutional republican government in a failed 1936 coup d’état attempt by the Spanish armyIn retaliation, the rebel army — led by General Francisco Franco and supported by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy — countered with a series of land and air attacks on key Basque cities No Basque will ever forget what happened at Gernika (Guernica) on April 26, 1937Throngs of innocent people, most of them women and children, crowded the heart of the small lowland town on a Monday market dayWithout warning, German and Italian aircraft unleashed a strike that continued unabated for 3½ hoursHundreds were killed and three-quarters of the town’s homes were destroyed A few days later, Franco led a land assault and occupied what remained of GernikaHe told the world that the town had been deliberately burned by its own peopleDisheartened, the entire Basque region fell to the Franco’s army by JulyThe regional government was forced into exile, along with more than 150,000 Basques — among them, 30,000 orphans Franco ruled Spain with an iron hand until his death in 1975, never compromising on his version of the factsBut much of the world relates more strongly to the image of terror presented by Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece mural, “Guernica.” Though its military significance was minimal, Gernika was the cultural heart of the Basque people Its Tree of Gernika, “Gernikako Arbola,” originally planted in the 14th century, is a symbol of Basque freedomMiraculously, the great oak survived the 1937 bombingsA direct descendant stands in its place today, as do several offspring in the United StatesOne of them is on the front lawn of the Jacobs-Uberuaga House beside the museum After Franco’s death, the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi) was returned to a measure of autonomyThe region is a world leader in renewable energy; its Portland-based Iberdrola Renewables is the second largest provider of wind turbine power in the United StatesAnd Bilbao, especially, has become a popular tourist destination, with its numerous museums including the Guggenheim, built in 1997Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, this museum consistently draws more than 1 million visitors a year Basque dining Boise has nothing to compete with the GuggenheimBut it does offer ethnic dining at several locations on the Basque Block, and even a successor to the boarding houses of old That was where I chose to stay on my most recent visitLeku Ona was not a boarding house itself, but it carries that flavorIt was opened in 2005 by José Mari Artiach, who was born and raised in the Basque Country but came to Idaho as a sheepherder at the age of 23, in 1968He started his own hay-trucking company in 1975, married and raised a family The hotel is nothing fancyIt’s not a “boutique” hotel in most senses of the word, regardless of how it may be advertisedBut the price is right, at $65 to $85 a nightRooms are carpeted, private bathrooms are large, beds are sufficiently large, and there’s TV and Wi-Fi, albeit spottyI would only recommend, should you choose to stay here, that you request a room on the back side of the building, away from the streetIt can get mighty noisy in the wee hours of weekends, when the nearby bars close The best thing about Leku Ona is its restaurantI enjoyed a superb lamb stew (what else, from a sheepherder?) with tender diced meat, vegetables and potatoesLamb was also available as shank and chopsOne of the servers recommended the prawns, sautéed in olive oil, garlic and red chiliesI was tempted by the stuffed squid, stewed with peppers and onions in its own ink I considered returning here for each of my meals, but there were too many other options on this blockThe intimate Bar Gernika, founded by Dan Ansotegui in 1991, was the perfect place for a lunch of beef tongueServed to me at the bar, it came in a tomato-rich Bizkaian sauce with a glass of tempranillo from the Rioja wine region More than 200 Basque wines are on the shelves at Tony and Tara Eiguren’s Basque Market — white txakolis and viuras, red garnachas and tempranillos, both crianza and reserveTastings are available on requestThe shop also sells imported meats and seafood, olives and olive oils, Spanish pepper, sauces and a variety of giftsAnd several evenings a week, chef Jake Arredondo prepares paella or pintxos (tapas) dinnersI loved every bite of my three-course Friday night meal, including cod-stuffed piquillo peppers, meatballs in a chorizo-pepper sauce, and rice pudding for dessert The only non-Basque business on the Basque block is Bardenay, which claims to be the nation’s first restaurant-distilleryI stopped in for a weekend brunch and didn’t try the vodka or rum, but I loved Phil’s Ranchero OmeletIf it’s not a Basque recipe, it should be adopted: an eggy crepe layered with chipotle chicken, artichoke hearts, green chilies, Roma tomatoes, sour cream, mozzarella, cheddar cheese and fresh pico de galloKeeping the culture The first Basque migrants known to have visited the Jordan Valley were a pair of herders who arrived in 1889, having disembarked a train in Winnemucca, Nevada, and headed northTheir trail was soon followed by other sheepmen, who traveled to Boise, Nampa, Gooding, Twin Falls and other Idaho communitiesBoarding houses typically sprang up within a few years of the herders’ arrival, frequently within sight of the railroad station, making them easy to find Winnemucca was a major staging platform for migration to Oregon and IdahoThe town’s oldest building is an 1863 Basque hotelElsewhere in Nevada, Basque communities remain significant in Reno, Ely and ElkoThe latter has a 1910 inn, the Star Hotel, that still has Basque borders who take their nightly meals in the dining room In California, Stockton, Fresno and Bakersfield, all in the Central Valley, retain Basque communities — although there once were as many (or more) boarding houses in Los Angeles and San Francisco to orient new arrivals Burns and Jordan Valley were the main centers in OregonBurns once had 11 “ostatuak” and Jordan Valley eightIn addition to Alorriaga’s Heritage House, the Madariaga House still stands from that era Sun Valley, Idaho, continues to honor the sheep-ranching era with its annual Trailing of the Sheep festival in mid-OctoberAt this time each year, flocks of sheep were moved from mountain meadows to more temperate winter grazing grounds, as herders returned to their seasonal Boardinghouse residences The festival includes a parade, of course, when shepherds and dogs move hundreds of sheep down Idaho State Highway 75 through the heart of KetchumThere are sheepdog trials and a culinary festival, a town ball and storytelling event for herders, a shearing demonstration and display of woolen goods by weavers and textile artists But the annual highlight may be the appearance of Boise’s Oinkari Basque DancersSince its founding in 1960, the troupe has earned international acclaimThe dancers are accompanied by musicians playing traditional Basque music on instruments like the txistu (flute), pandareta (tambourine) and trikiti (button accordion) It seems that you can take a Basque out of Euskadi, but you can’t take the Euskadi out of a Basque — John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at janderson@bendbulletin.com 18738724 --> #article-map-canvas { height: 300px; margin: 10px; } If you go EXPENSES Driving miles, Bend to Boise via Jordan Valley, 665 miles (roundtrip) @ $2.50/gallon $66.50 Lodging (two nights), Leku Ona $170 Dinner, Leku Ona $39.08 Breakfast, Flying M Coffeehouse $9.50 Lunch, Bar Gernika $18.57 Admission, Basque Museum $4 Dinner, Basque Market $53.58 Breakfast, Bardenay $14.72 Lunch, Rockhouse Coffee (Jordan Valley) $12 TOTAL $387.95 INFORMATION Basque Museum and Cultural Center611 Grove St., Boise; basquemuseum.com, 541-343-2671Boise Convention and Visitor Bureau250 SFifth St., Boise; www.visitidaho.org, 208-344-7777LODGING The Grove Hotel245 SCapitol Blvd., Boise; grovehotelboise.com, 208-333-8000Rates from $129Leku Ona117 SSixth St., Boise; lekuonaid.com, 208-345-6665Rates from $65Restaurant serves lunch and dinner Monday to Saturday; moderateThe Modern Hotel and Bar1314 WGrove St., Boise; themodernhotel.com, 208-424-8244Rates from $130DINING Bardenay Boise610 Grove St., Boise; bardenay.com, 208-426-0538Lunch and dinner every day, brunch Saturday and SundayModerateBar Gernika202 SCapitol Blvd., Boise; bargernika.com, 208-344-2175Lunch and dinner Monday to SaturdayBudget and moderateThe Basque Market608 Grove St., Boise; thebasquemarket.com, 208-433-1208Lunch and dinner Monday to SaturdayBudget and moderateFlying M Coffeehouse500 WIdaho St., Boise; flyingmcoffee.com, 208-345-4320Breakfast and lunch every dayBudgetRockhouse Coffee909 Highway 95 West, Jordan Valley; facebook.com, 541-586-2326Breakfast and lunch every dayBudget Share this story View next article in 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