Basque Americans

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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2014
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Basque Americans

Elizabeth Shostak


The Basque Country is not an independent state but a region in the western Pyrenees that straddles the border between France and Spain. It is bordered by the Bay of Biscay to the north, France to the northeast, and Spain to the south and west. In Spain, where six-sevenths of its territory lies, the Basque Country was established as an “autonomous community” in 1979. The Basque Country in Spain consists of the provinces of Alava, Guipuzcoa, Navarre, and Vizcaya (Bizkaia). Its capital is Vitoria (Gasteiz), and other principal cities include Donostia-San Sebastián and Bilbao. In France the Basque Country comprises the regions of Labourd, Basse Navarre, and Soule. Much of the Basque Country is composed of rugged mountains, and the terrain is suitable for intensive cultivation on small farms. Measuring only about one hundred miles from end to end, the Basque Country is about the size of Maryland.

The Basque Country had just over 2.1 million inhabitants in 2012, with 92 percent living in the Spanish portion, according to Basque government estimates. The region is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic in its religious orientation. Traditionally, Basques were sailors, fishermen, and agricultural workers. Life in the contemporary Basque Country is similar in quality to that in its sovereign nations of Spain and France. While violence from separatist groups has harmed the Basque Country's ability to create a tourist industry, the region still draws tourists, especially to the picturesque and historical city of Donostia-San Sebastián. Rich in natural resources, the Basque Country in Spain embraced manufacturing in the post-fascist 1970s, resulting in four-fifths of the population living in or near the largest city, Bilbao. The Basque Country subsequently weathered the debt crisis that pummeled the Spanish economy in the late 2000s, brought on by a drop in tourism and real estate sales combined with fiscal mismanagement.

Basques first began significant migration to the United States in the late nineteenth century. Many in this first wave of Basque immigrants to the United States came via Argentina. Basques then began to come directly from the Basque Country to the United States, and this pattern of immigration peaked between 1910 and 1920. While many of these early Basque immigrants initially came seeking easy riches in the gold rush, they discovered various economic opportunities in the western United States, particularly in California, Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada. Basque immigrants most frequently became sheepherders, due to the enormous demand for sheep in the American West as well Basques' difficulty acquiring cattle as a result of their low social standing. Over time, Basque immigrants established a strong cultural presence in the western United States. Immigration regulations after 1920 made immigration to the United States less feasible, and an improved Basque economy from the 1970s made it less attractive. Nevertheless, some recent immigrants have come to join relatives, to study English, and to earn college degrees.

According to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates for 2009–2011, the number of U.S. residents claiming Basque ancestry is relatively small, 54,432 (about half the size of the population of Springfield, Illinois). However, this number is probably inaccurate due to Basque Americans sometimes falling under the status of Spanish or French rather than their own ethnic grouping. Basques have generally done well integrating into American communities while also leaving their imprint on the communities where they settled. A strong sense of ethnic pride, particularly since World War II, has led to strong cultural expressions throughout the western United States, including a dedicated academic research center—the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno—established in 1967.


Early History Although the Basques have perhaps the oldest civilization on the European continent, their precise origin remains unknown. The Basques lived in the Pyrenees before the arrival of Indo-European tribes during the second millennium BCE. When Christianity was introduced by the Romans, the Basque tribes resisted conversion, and they avoided occupation during the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula during the eighth century. The success of this resistance to outside influence was largely an outcome of the remoteness of the mountainous terrain that the Basques occupied. While other groups on the Iberian Peninsula were conquered by the Moors, the Banu Qasi Page 252  |  Top of Articledynasty formed an autonomous principality in Basque territory in the 700s. In the ninth century, the Banu Qasi dynasty coexisted harmoniously with the kingdom of Navarre, which formed in 824 CE. Evidence shows that the Basques also successfully defended themselves against invasions by earlier groups, including the Visigoths, Franks, and Normans. Navarre was the first and only Basque political state, and during the reign of King Santxo the Great (999–1035), many Basque-speaking regions, including that of the Banu Qasi dynasty, were unified under its jurisdiction. The kingdom withstood many challenges and was able to maintain independence for some 700 years. In 1512, however, Castilian (Spanish) forces conquered and occupied the kingdom. The northern section of the region was ceded to France, and the rest incorporated into Spanish territory.

Because Arab invaders did not vanquish the Basques, the Spanish crown considered them hidalgos, or noblemen. This status allowed individuals of relatively modest backgrounds to find powerful positions within civic and church administrations. During the years when Spain concentrated on building colonies in the New World, several of the Basque elite were given important government posts in Latin America. In this way, a tradition of emigration was established among the Basques. In both France and Spain, the Basques enjoyed a large degree of political autonomy as well as economic and military privileges, which had been codified in fueros (bodies of traditional law) since the eleventh century.

Modern Era By the late eighteenth century, political turmoil in both France and Spain had taken its toll among the Basques. The French revolution and the Napoleonic campaigns brought invading armies to the Basque territory in France; soon thereafter, during the 1830s, many Basques in Spain supported the conservative pretender to the Spanish throne, Don Carlos, whose cause was brutally defeated. His supporters were forced to flee the country, and many Basques made their way to Spanish colonies in the Americas and joined Basque communities that had already been established. When the Basques supported the Carlist rebellion of the 1870s, the Spanish government retaliated by abolishing the fueros.

The creation of the Spanish Republic in 1931 split loyalties in the Basque Country. The regions of Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya (Bizkaia), and Alava supported the republic, hoping that the government would grant them autonomous status. Navarre however, vigorously opposed the republic. The ensuing civil war attracted international attention. The Nazi bombing of the Vizcayan city of Guernica, memorialized in a painting of that name by Pablo Picasso, was seen as a brutal suppression of Basque nationalist hopes. At the war's end in 1937, many Basques went into exile. When right-wing dictator Francisco Franco assumed power in 1939, his government instituted harsh anti-Basque policies, most notoriously the suppression of the Basque language.

After Franco's rule ended with his death in 1975 and the liberal Spanish monarchy was established, Basques pushed for self-government. In 1979 the statute of autonomy recognized the Basque Country as an autonomous community, but radical Basque factions were not satisfied. The military wing of the Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna (“Basque Homeland and Liberty,” known as ETA) was responsible for many bombings and other terrorist activities intended to press Basque demands for complete political independence. Since the late 1970s, calls for Basque unity and an independent Basque state have been hampered by the division of the Basque Country between France and Spain. Proindependence politicians controlled the Basque political scene until 2009, when legislation went into effect banning far-left political parties, a response to the violent tactics and political power of ETA. For the first time since the Franco era, Spanish nationalist parties controlled over half the seats in the Basque parliament. In October 2011, following an international peace conference in Spain, ETA announced a permanent ceasefire and heralded what many hoped would be a new era of diplomacy between the independence movement and the nations of Spain and France.


Renowned as seafarers, Basque fishermen and sailors had probably reached American waters well before the voyage of Columbus in 1492. They were among the first Europeans to hunt whales off the northeastern coast of North America. When Columbus recruited his sailing crew, Basques made up the largest ethnic group on board, and they continued to participate in voyages across the Atlantic during the earliest years of European exploration of the continent. A few educated Basques held administrative posts in Spanish California, and several of the priests who founded missions there in the late 1500s were Basques. Large-scale immigration to the United States did not begin until the late 1800s, however.

The California gold rush brought the first waves of Basque immigrants to the United States, but most of these adventurers did not come directly from Europe. Instead, they generally were Basques who had immigrated earlier to Spanish colonies in South America. During the period of Spanish colonization, Basques from Spain had often taken administrative posts overseas. Political exiles also found their way to South America. In the 1820s Basque immigrants were welcomed in Argentina, where they were able to procure unused rangeland on which to raise sheep. There, they learned about transhumance, a specific ranching and herding method, which some eventually brought with them to North America.

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, Basques in South America were well positioned to take advantage of the opportunity. They could sail quickly to California, arriving well in advance of Page 253  |  Top of ArticleEuropeans or even residents of the United States' eastern regions. Many European-born Basques living in South America came to California by this route. Large numbers of French Basques also came directly from Europe, sailing around the South American continent to San Francisco. Although it is difficult to determine the precise number of Basques who came to the United States during the gold rush because many were counted as South Americans, it is evident that at least several hundred entered the country in 1848.

Basque immigrants were not successful with mining and soon migrated from the gold fields to the ranchlands of southern California. Familiar with the South American style of ranching, the Basques quickly established themselves in the area as cattle herders. Because herding was an isolating activity, the job attracted single men, primarily between the ages of sixteen and thirty; Basque women were almost nonexistent in the United States until these men became financially established and sent for wives from Europe. Later, after a Basque American population had been established, Basque women came to the United States independently, to work in boardinghouses.

As Basques entered the ranching business, they began to raise sheep, due to discrimination they encountered among American cattlemen. Though not their first choice of livestock, sheep proved more resilient than cattle to drought and flooding. The type of ranching Basques had learned in South America, transhumance, also proved successful. It required sheep to be moved across a large open area according to seasonal needs. The animals wintered in lowland areas that the Basques either leased or purchased, and they summered in the high grazing lands of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Conditions in the West proved quite suitable for transhumance, and during the 1860s the number of sheep in California more than doubled.

Los Angeles had become the center of the Basque community in California in the 1840s and remained its largest settlement through the late 1800s. By 1886, about two thousand Basques lived in Los Angeles, and the city's downtown area had a distinct Basque district, complete with Basque boardinghouses and handball courts. As Basques increased their herds, however, the California ranges became crowded. By 1870, Basques had begun to spread into northern California and also Nevada, where gold and silver strikes had created a booming economy and an increased demand for sheep to feed the new miners. During the 1890s, Basques moved into Oregon and southern Idaho. By 1910, Basques had spread into all the open-range areas of the West.

The success Basque immigrants found in sheepherding caused significant conflict, however, with the area's settled ranchers, especially cattle ranchers. At the time, grazing was permitted on public lands on a first-come basis, but ranchers who owned private holdings wanted to use adjacent public ranges as their own exclusive property. These settled ranchers resented the presence of itinerant Basque sheepherders and began harassing them and spreading anti-Basque sentiment. As the national forest system developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, most of the mountain rangeland in the West became part of that system. Although some grazing was still permitted, rights were denied to aliens and to herders who did not own ranch property—a practice that, in effect, targeted Basques. In 1934 the Taylor Grazing Act placed almost all remaining public rangeland under federal control, with the same grazing restrictions. This law effectively ended itinerant herding, and, coming at the height of the Great Depression, caused severe economic hardship to the Basque community. As a result, many Basque shepherds returned to Europe. Those who had been able to buy land, however, remained in the United States and sometimes prospered.

As their operations expanded, Basques in the United States began to send back to Europe for additional helpers. The pattern of recruitment continued until strict immigration laws in 1924 limited the annual quota of Spanish nationals to a mere 131; these regulations effectively stopped additional immigration from the Basque Country. After World War II, however, the situation changed. Sheepherders had become so scarce that Senator Patrick McCarran of Nevada sponsored legislation to exempt European herders from immigration quotas. Over the next decade more than five thousand European Basques applied for jobs on U.S. ranches. By the late twentieth century, however, the American sheep industry was in serious decline, decreasing the need for new immigrants to take herding jobs. Basques often remained in the business, however, as ranch owners and managers, or sought out other careers. Basque immigration also slowed significantly after 1970 in the wake of improved economic conditions in the Basque Country.

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We were in the foothills of the Basque country, but night had fallen and everything about us was lost in obscurity. Yet, as fleeting as glimpses out of memory, scenes that told us where we were, caught and hung momentarily in the passing headlights of our car, and then were gone in the darkness. There was a little boy in a beret and short trousers, and under his arm a loaf of bread that seemed as long as he was. There was a crude, wooden cart pulled by two oxen, whose nodding heads kept rhythm with the gay fringes on their horns. There was a girl in a scarf and bright peasant dress, visiting with her young man at the juncture of a country lane, whose eyes our lights brushed in passing, and whose laughter tinkled after us in the night like tiny bells.

Robert Laxalt, Sweet Promised Land (Harper & Brothers Publishing, New York, 1957).

For a variety of reasons, it is difficult to determine the number of people of Basque ancestry living in the United States. One reason is that many of the first Basque immigrants were counted as “Chileans”

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(an umbrella term for all South Americans). Further, before the recognition of the Basque Country, Basque immigrants were often categorized as either “French” or “Spanish,” and anti-Basque sentiment frequently led people to sustain these inaccurate national affiliations. The Census Bureau's American Community Survey (2009–2011) estimated the number of U.S. residents claiming Basque ancestry to be 54,432, though this number is likely lower than the actual population.

Although most Basque Americans are found in the western parts of the country, some communities were established on the East Coast. After the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, Basques from Europe did not have to sail all the way around South America to reach California; they could make the much shorter ocean journey to New York City and then take the train from there to the western states. Many did in fact follow this plan, but some remained in the city and established a small but close-knit Basque community there. Small Basque communities also sprang up in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., and Florida, in part as a result of a gambling industry that emerged on the East Coast around the Basque game of Jai-Alai.

Immigration patterns among the Basques reflected their regional distinctions in Europe. Those who settled in California, central Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana were generally from France or Navarre, while those who moved to northern Nevada, Idaho, and Oregon came from the Spanish province of Vizcaya. These groups traditionally tended to remain relatively separate in the United States. In 1973, however, the North American Basque Organization (NABO) was founded to encourage cohesion among Basque Americans and to promote the “perpetuation of ‘Basqueness.’”


The Basque language, Euskara (also spelled Euskera), has ancient origins that remain obscure. Linguists have been unable to establish a relationship between the Basque language and any other known language groups. Although some faint similarities with Finnish, Georgian, and Quechua have been found, these connections remain inconclusive and researchers have been unable to agree on a relationship between Basque and any other known language. The fact that several Basque words for tools derive from the Basque word for “stone” (haitz) has led specialists to suggest that the language is among the most ancient in Europe and may link Basque culture to the prehistoric people who created the Lascaux cave paintings.

Basque is considered a particularly difficult language to learn. Basques joke that the devil himself spent years trying to learn the language in order to tempt the Basque people, but after seven years had mastered only two words, ez and bai (“no” and “yes”). The basic structure of Euskara uses agglutination, or Page 255  |  Top of Articlethe practice of adding prefixes or suffixes to words to create different meanings. Although Euskara shows influences from Celtic and Iberian languages as well as from Latin, it has remained largely unchanged for centuries. It has not, however, enjoyed a strong literary tradition. Works in Euskara were not transcribed in writing; instead, the language was passed down orally. The first printed book in Euskara did not appear until 1545. Some scholars consider this a central reason that the Basques did not produce a particularly rich literature.

Several regional dialects of Basque include Guipuzcoan, Alto Navarro Septentrional, Alto Navarro Meridional, Biscayan, and Anvala. Souletin (Zuberera), spoken by Basques in France, is the dialect most distinct from the others. Because this proliferation of dialects was a hindrance to greater Basque unity in Europe, in the late 1960s a unified Basque language known as Batua was developed. Verb forms in Batua were modeled on the Guipuzcoan dialect. Batua also standardized spelling. It has not, however, been introduced to the United States, where Basque speakers continue to use the dialects they inherited from their immigrant ancestors.

One estimate from the late 1990s suggests that Euskara is spoken by close to a million people in the Basque Country, but other accounts place the number around 700,000. About 8,100 people in the United States count themselves as Euskaldunak, or Basque-language speakers. The language was suppressed in Spain during Franco's dictatorship, but interest in preserving Euskara increased as the Basque separatist movement grew stronger in the latter half of the twentieth century. Basques' pride in their heritage had led to the creation of several organizations in the United States dedicated to preserving Basque culture and sustaining the language, both through academic research and language courses open to Basques and the larger community.


As a result of their geographic isolation and the spread of Islam during the Banu Qasi dynasty, the Basques were fairly late to convert to Christianity. However, they became primarily Roman Catholic beginning in approximately the eleventh century, and they brought this faith with them to the United States. Although the Basques who worked as sheepherders in the remote American west often found it difficult to attend mass, the Roman Catholic Church has played an important role in the lives of Basque Americans. According to Father Jean Eliçagaray, isolated sheepherders often kept their faith by repeating the prayers and hymns they had learned by heart in Euskara. Having the Catholic liturgy available in their native language was very important; Father Eliçagaray himself was part of a twentieth-century lineage of Basque priests requested and sent to oversee Basque American dioceses. For a period beginning in the 1960s, the U.S. Catholic Conference sponsored a Basque priest from France to minister to Basque Americans in the western states and to celebrate masses in Euskara; these were broadcast by various radio stations in the west. Catholic rituals such as baptisms and first communions are important social as well as religious events for the Basque community.


Basques who worked as sheepherders experienced a lonely life. They spent long months alone on the range, moving from place to place. When they returned to the towns at the end of the season, they rented rooms at Basque boardinghouses, known as ostatuak or hote-lak, where they could socialize with their countrymen, speak their native language, and enjoy Basque food and drink. These boardinghouses served an essential role in maintaining Basque culture among a group who were scattered over a wide geographic area. They also became places where Basque men could meet potential wives among the young women recruited from the Basque Country to work as boardinghouse maids. Other men, once they were financially established, sent back to Europe for wives, who joined them in the United States. In this way, Basque American families maintained a strong ethnic identity through the first generation. Often, other young male relatives from the Basque Country came to help with the herds, further cementing family bonds.

The conflict between established ranchers and itinerant Basque sheepherders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created some prejudice toward Basque immigrants and caused economic and political discrimination against them. Some families recall hearing epithets such as “dirty black Basco” or “tramp.” Even worse was the physical intimidation some suffered at the instigation of landed interests during the height of the western range wars, during which their camps were sometimes vandalized and herds killed. Yet Basques were also respected as hard workers who were frugal with their money and conservative in their politics. After federal legislation from 1934 ended competition for grazing rights, anti-Basque sentiment began to disappear. By the later decades of the twentieth century, the Basque sheepherder had acquired a highly romantic image—the opposite of the negative stereotype from earlier years.

Basque immigrants tended to remain clannish at first, socializing with other Basques—often from the same villages in Europe—and patronizing Basque businesses. However, by the second and third generations, this pattern began to change. Intermarriage with other ethnic groups became more common, and many parents urged their children to learn English—to the extent that, by 1970, only about eight thousand Basque Americans knew their ancestral language. In addition, Basques assimilated well because, unlike some immigrant groups, Basque Americans were scattered over a vast land area and never established Page 256  |  Top of Articlean ethnic majority in any town or even county. It was imperative, therefore, that Basque immigrants did business with and lived among an ethnically different majority. At the same time, it is possible that their relatively small numbers motivated Basque Americans to emphasize their ethnic traditions more consciously than larger immigrant groups have done. The Basques recognize a person's right to claim Basque ethnicity if he or she has only one Basque ancestor and encourage Basques scattered throughout the country to participate actively in the many associations and festivals that have sprung up since the 1960s.

Basque culture largely relies on an oral tradition to propagate itself. This may have started with the dominance of Latin as a written language during the Middle Ages, helping establish the Basque oral tradition. The oral tradition also helped sustain Basque language and culture during the oppression of Franco's regime. The Spanish dictator occupied the Basque Country in 1937 and banned Basque cultural expressions, including the teaching or speaking of Euskera. By the time of Franco's death in 1975, the Basque language was almost nonexistent. Fortunately, a concerted effort revived the language in the Basque Country and elsewhere.

Basque Americans have also embraced the oral foundation of their cultural heritage. Not only have they sustained the tradition through stories, song, and dance, but also, contemporary Basques support Basque language schools, where many Basque Americans and their children study the language. As a testament to the Basque American cultural heritage and the importance of oral tradition to it, the Idaho Oral History Center recorded the stories of many Basque Americans, providing a record of their experiences and an important resource for researchers.

Traditions and Customs The Basque identity is based on a deeply held sense of the Basques' distinctness from other cultures. Their language, for example, includes some negative terms for non-Basques. Although Basques accepted Christianity, they maintained myths and legends of supernatural creatures, including Tartaro, a one-eyed giant who is usually outwitted by humans. Basques also have legends of the Basa-Jaun and his wife, Basa-Andre, wild forest creatures who are sometimes depicted as

At the Trailing of the Sheep Parade on Main Street in Ketchum, Idaho, sheep are moved to their winter pastures. At the Trailing of the Sheep Parade on Main Street in Ketchum, Idaho, sheep are moved to their winter pastures. David R. Frazier Photolibrary, Inc. / Alamy

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mischievous beings but other times described as an ogre and a witch. Basque fairies are called laminak, and, like fairies in Celtic legend, they supposedly live underground. Basques folktales often mention astiya (witches), sorcerers, magicians, and the Black Sabbath.

Elaborate masquerades or folk plays, part dance and part theater, are an ancient part of Basque culture. Scholars have found links between these events and Greek drama, as well as medieval miracle and mystery plays. Many derive from the romances of Charlemagne, and others are taken from biblical or classical subjects. Characters often include such villains as devils, infidels, demons, and sometimes Englishmen, and the action emphasizes the struggle between good and evil. The forces of good always prevail. Actors dress in colorful costumes and incorporate song, dance, and exaggerated gestures into their performances. Often, a chorus plays an important part. Masquerades have served as the basis for some of the more intricate dances performed by Basque American dance troupes.

Art Although Basque American individuals have not established themselves as notable visual artists, immigrant sheepherders developed an art form unique to the American West. The herders carved the trunks of aspen trees, often cutting their initials and dates into the bark, but sometimes adding short thoughts, poems, or drawings—often about women or sex, but also about politics, sports, hometowns, and other topics. As time passed, the aspen would produce scar tissue around the cuts in a manner that outlined them. As many as five hundred thousand such carved trees may exist in the western states. One carver who signed his name “Borel” appeared to have had some formal art training, and the trees he carved are near Kyburz Flat in California's Tahoe National Forest. Dr. Joxe Mallea of the University of Nevada, Reno, who specialized in the study of Basque tree carvings and has been instrumental in their preservation on public land, called Borel “an amazing carver.”

The single most significant piece of art for Basque Americans is the National Basque Monument in Nevada. Unveiled in Reno on August 27, 1989, the five-ton bronze piece was created by renowned Basque sculptor Nestor Basterretxea (1924–), who named it Bakardade (“Solitude”). The sculpture depicts a sheepherder carrying a lamb on his back under a full moon. Not all Basque Americans appreciated the memorial's abstract design, and some complained that it did not adequately memorialize their history. Yet the committee that approved the design felt that the memorial would stimulate discussion about Basque cultural heritage.

Cuisine Basque cuisine, based on simple peasant dishes made with fresh ingredients, is admired as one of the most delicious in Europe. Food is a serious and pleasurable thing for the Basques, who emphasize fresh, homegrown ingredients and simple preparation. The Basque Country's rich culinary tradition has grown increasingly sophisticated in recent years. According to the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, the region has “more Michelin stars per capita than anywhere else in the world,” a reference to the venerable restaurant rating system.

Salt-cod (bacalao) and beans are staple ingredients of the Basque Country table, and olive oil, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers are often used. Farmers traditionally make their own cheese from sheep's milk and also mill their own cider (sagardo). Snacks or appetizers (tapas) are popular, as are sausages known as chorizo (txorixos or txistorras). Tuna, anchovies, and sardines are also popular. When meat is served at the Basque table, it is usually lamb, beef, or pork. Main dishes are customarily accompanied by a simple salad, sometimes made with vegetables picked minutes before from the household garden, and they are almost always served with the region's Rioja wines. Festive dishes include pastel vasco or gateau basque, a custardfilled cake essential for any celebration. Another special dessert is intzaursala, a creamy dish made with ground walnuts boiled with water and sugar and then cooked with milk.

According to María José Sevilla in Life and Food in the Basque Country, the cuisine of Basques in France differs from that of Basques in Spain. French Basques live a bit farther inland, and their food is based more on meat than fish. Similarly, Basques in the United States have had to adapt their cooking to ingredients readily available in the western areas of the country. Lamb replaced fish as a food staple for Basque herders and ranchers in the United States, and beans and potatoes were also regularly cooked. Even during his lonely months out on the range, the Basque herder would always cook himself a hearty meal—often a lamb stew with potatoes and beans—and consume it with sourdough bread and plenty of robust red wine. Herders continued this practice even during the Prohibition years, when the sale of alcohol was outlawed in the United States. Somehow, Basques made sure that red wine was always available.

Large, group barbecues have been very popular among Basque Americans; homemade chorizo and red wines are plentiful at these events. Because early Basque boardinghouses served dinners to large numbers of residents, this “family style” dining around a large table came to be considered a Basque tradition—although it is one that evolved in response to American conditions and is not customary in Europe. Although Basque Americans make up a very small percentage of the U.S. population, Basque restaurants are plentiful in several areas of the country. Throughout the western states and especially in California, Nevada, and Idaho, both large and small cities boast Basque restaurants.

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4 pounds of lamb shoulder cut into pieces oil or lard

3 onions, diced

3 cloves garlic, crushed

3 carrots, cut into pieces

½ small dried red pepper, seeds removed and minced

1 cup red wine

1½ cups chicken broth

salt to taste

6 medium potatoes, cut into pieces

1 cup chopped cilantro

Brown lamb in oil or lard with onion, garlic, carrot, and pepper. When vegetables are soft and meat is getting tinges of brown add salt to taste, cilantro, wine and broth to cover. Cook for an hour or until meat is getting tender. While meat is simmering, heat oil or lard in a skillet and brown potatoes. When meat has simmered for an hour, add potatoes. Cook until done.

Traditional Dress Perhaps the most recognizable piece of traditional Basque attire is the txapella, or beret, worn by many Basque men as they go about their daily business or socialize. This beret is still worn in the Basque Country today, when all other daily dress is contemporary. Basque men also wear the beret with traditional costumes, including the red and white worn during the annual festival of San Fermin. Today, Basques and Basque Americans alike only wear folk costumes during festivals, usually in presentations of traditional dance. Male dancers typically wear white pants and shirts, with a red geriko (sash) around their waists, along with white shoes with red laces. Sometimes they wear long white stockings with elaborate red lacings up to the knee and a pair of bells just below the knee to ward off evil spirits. Some dance costumes include a black vest, and the men always wear the txapella. Women dancers also wear white stockings with elaborate lacings. Their blouses are white, and their full skirts are sometimes green (more common among Basques of French origin) and sometimes red (among Basques of Spanish origin). The women wear black vests and white head scarves. On their feet they wear abarkak, or leather shoes.

Dances and Songs Dance is a central and very colorful part of Basque life. According to the Southern California Basque dance troupe Gauden Bat, there are more than four hundred different Basque folk dances, many of which are associated with particular regions. Only men perform traditional or ritual dances, while both men and women perform recreational dances. Many of the most celebrated Basque folk dances involve arm movements with sticks, swords, or hoops and demand great agility. John Ysursa, an American expert in Basque culture, has emphasized the influence of Basque dances on other traditions, pointing out that some steps in modern ballet may have derived from Basque folk dances.

As early as the 1930s, Basque Americans began organizing festivals that included dancing, along with music and other activities. These festivals have expanded since the 1960s. The Oinkari Basque Dancers of Idaho, incorporated in 1964, have toured extensively at Basque American cultural events as well as at national venues and World's Fair exhibitions. The troupe lists an extensive repertoire that includes both secular and religious dances. Since their inception, the Oinkari Basque Dancers have learned and perform dances from all the Basque regions. One of their most colorful dances is from the Zuberoa'ko Maskarada, or Zuberoan masquerades. Scholars believe that it originated as part of an ancient fertility rite. Dancers come forward one by one and perform individual steps around a wine glass, finally stepping onto it and then leaping away. Another thrilling dance is the Amaia'ko Ezpata Dantza, the sword dance of Amaia, based on the history of the Basques in the seventh century. Eighteen men, formed to represent two armies, perform the piece, which involves high kicks and spinning twists.

In the Xemein'go Dantza, a dance symbolizing the struggle between good and evil, a dozen sword-bearing men dance in a circle around their leader, who is believed to represent the archangel Michael. They then hoist him onto their swords and lift him above their heads, as two men dance in front. The Kaxarranka, a dance from the fishing town of Lekeitio, is performed to honor Saint Peter, patron saint of fishermen. In this dance, six to eight men carry a large arch on which a man dances high above their heads. The procession winds through the town, stopping at designated areas. The donibane is usually performed at night around an open fire and is associated with the feast of Saint John.

Songs are also integral to Basque cultural functions. Among the best known are “Gernika'ko Arbolo,” which honors the Tree of Gernika, a symbol of Basque democracy, and “Boga, Boga,” which describes the difficult life of fishermen. “Aitoren Ixkuntz Zarra” tells of the beauties of the Basque language and urges the Basque people to speak their native tongue. Indeed, Basque choirs have been organized in the United States as a means of preserving the Basque language and culture. The choir Anaiak Danok (“We Are All Brothers”) performed in Boise during the 1970s. It became the Bihotzetik Basque Choir in 1986 and recorded its first album, Biotzetik, From the Heart, in 2000.

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Music is extremely important in Basque culture. Old songs are sung at festivals, and summer music camps in the United States enable children to learn traditional instruments such as the txistu (flute) and the tambourine. Basque musicians also play the violin and accordion, though use of the violin is less common among in the United States than in the Basque Country. Central to Basque musical culture are the bertsolariak, poets who compete in festivals by improvising songs on any subject. Although bertsolari competitions are common at Basque American gatherings, Nancy Zubiri points out in A Travel Guide to Basque America that all the bertsolariak in the United States by the 1990s were from the Basque Country, and not American born. The linguistic fluency required by the art form, specialists believe, has been almost impossible to acquire in the United States.

Holidays Basques celebrate the main Christian holidays but also enjoy their own unique holidays and festivals. The biggest holiday among Basques is the feast of their patron saint, Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. It is celebrated on the last weekend in July and includes a mass and picnic, music, dancing, and sports contests. The famous running of the bulls to celebrate the festival of Saint Fermin takes place in the Basque city of Pamplona, also in July of each year. Basque Americans in different states organize specific festivities throughout the year. In Boise they have held an annual Sheepherders' Ball since 1929. Basque Americans have also held several jaialdi, or international festivals, at which athletes, musicians, and dancers from the Basque Country and the United States have performed.

Health Care Issues and Practices Although there have been no health or psychological issues identified as specific to Basque Americans, Basques do have distinct physiological traits. Of all European peoples, Basques have the highest rate of blood type O and the lowest incidence of blood type B. They also have the highest rate in the world of Rh negative blood factor.


Early Basques Americans' traditionally solitary lifestyle caused Basque immigrants to develop a high degree of independence and self-sufficiency. For herders on the high ranges or ranchers at remote settlements, opportunities for socializing were few. Eager and diligent workers, Basques preferred to work for themselves or for a family business when possible. Basque Americans did not begin organizing cultural groups until about the 1930s, but even then Basques of French origin and those of Spanish origin had little contact with one another. In 1973, however, a group of Basque Americans formed the North American Basque Organizations, Inc., to unite the various local groups and promote more interaction among Basque Americans of different backgrounds. In A Travel Guide to Basque America, Zubiri observes that although Basque Americans continue to harbor some regional differences, they consider it important to work together to preserve their unique cultural heritage.

Gender Roles Women and men in Basque American households traditionally worked hard to make their ranches or small businesses work. Women packed food and supplies to send out to the herders,

The Oinkari Basque Dancers perform at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival in Hailey, Idaho. The Oinkari Basque Dancers perform at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival in Hailey, Idaho. DAVID R. FRAZIER PHOTOLIBRARY, INC. / ALAMY

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Azeria solas ematen zaukanean ari, gogo emak heure oiloari.

When the fox is engaging you in conversation, keep an eye on your chicken.

Dakien guztia ez derrala, ahala oro jan ez dezala.

Don't say as much as you know and don't eat as much as you can.

Danbolin ordainduak soinu txarra jotzen du.

A drummer paid in advance doesn't play good music.

Dezagun gutxi, dezagun beti.

Let us have little, but let us always have enough.

Dirua, mutilik hoberena eta nagusirik txarrena.

Money is the best of servants, but the worst of bosses.

Diruak malkarrak zelaitzen.

Money can turn rough, hilly terrain into flat fields.

Ez naiz joaten elizara, maingu naizelako; joaten naiz tabernara, ardoa on zaidalako.

I don't go to church, because I'm lame, but I do go to the bar, because I like the wine.

and they also cooked, sewed, and performed countless physical chores around the ranch. Although in many ways this kind of work resembled the responsibilities held by Basque women in Europe, in the American west families often lived at far greater distances from one another than they had in the Basque Country and were much more isolated. Louis Irigaray, a California Basque shepherd and singer, wrote in his memoir that his mother found ranch life boring and profoundly lonely. In towns, Basque American women also played significant roles. Paquita Garatea, a professor of history, researched women's work in Basque American communities, and she found that many boardinghouses and hotels were run by men and their wives but that the women played a central, if not dominant, role.

As later generations of Basque Americans grew further from their ancestral roots, they assimilated with the values of mainstream American culture, including intermarrying and attending college or joining the mainstream workforce—regardless of gender in any particularly “Basque” way. With the interest in revivifying Basque culture that began in the 1960s and continues today, both men and women launched programs and organizations, and both boys and girls participate in Basque language learning, dance and choral troupes, and festivals.

Courtship and Weddings During the first decades of Basque immigration, many men sent for their wives in Europe to join them in the United States. If the man had accumulated enough money to afford the trip, he might return to the Basque Country to choose a wife from his own village. Other men asked a matchmaker to arrange marriages for them. Many Basque boardinghouses employed maids from the Basque Country, who were frequently courted and wed by patrons. In later generations, however, Basque men more often courted local women of various ethnic backgrounds.

Basque American weddings are often gala affairs, with the entire Basque community in attendance. After the church ceremony, a large feast is held, complete with good wine, music, song, and dance. Weddings provide a welcome opportunity to socialize and strengthen community ties.

Funerals Funerals are taken very seriously by Basques and serve as an occasion for Basque Americans to affirm their ethnic bonds. They consider it important to attend funerals of other Basques even when they scarcely know the family involved and sometimes travel hundreds of miles to be present. This funerary obligation was of particular importance during the early 1900s, when many Basques in the United States lived isolated lives on the range and had few social contacts. Their families back in the Basque Country worried that these men might die alone, deprived of a proper burial ceremony. Consequently, the Basque American community took great care to bury each of their dead with due ceremony.

In the United States, Basques have formed associations to help provide flowers and memorial services for their deceased. In Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, and Venezuela, they established their own burial crypts and cemeteries. Basque associations in New York City and Boise offered their members burial insurance. Basque funerals follow the rituals of the Catholic Church, and if a Basque priest is available, he offers the funeral mass in Euskara. Until about the mid-1940s, it was customary to hold a gauela, or wake, at the home of the deceased or at a Basque hotel. It was also traditional to make a financial donation for a mass for the deceased, a practice that the mourners reciprocated when the occasion arose. After the ceremony, a funeral feast was always held.

Recreational Activities Basques have brought several unique sports to the United States, and they enjoy participating in athletic contests at festivals. Many of these events can be traced to the physical work Basques performed in the Pyrenees. Wood chopping is a very popular event at Basque American Page 261  |  Top of Articlefestivals, as are weight carrying and stone lifting, all of which allow athletes to demonstrate their skill as well as their strength and endurance.

Handball games are also an essential part of Basque American life. Pelota, or handball, was developed from the medieval game of jeu de paume. According to Zubiri, Basques invented the basic modern handball game as well as several variations. Jai alai, played with basketlike extensions (txistera) that are fastened to the wrist, is probably the best-known of these variations. Basque immigrants began building pelota courts (called “frontons”) soon after they arrived in the United States, and their love of the sport is considered an important factor in unifying the American Basque community. From the earliest days of Basque immigration, weekly pelota matches were held throughout the western states, enabling people scattered over a large geographic area to come together for competitions. Until World War II, every significant Basque community in the United States had at least one pelota court. Jai alai, on the other hand, has been most popular in Florida, the first state to boast a professional team, as well as in Connecticut. Mus, a card game, is another common pastime when Basque Americans get together.

Interactions with Other Americans Basques have lived successfully among different ethnic groups in the United States. Because of their small numbers, they have had to work and associate with many non-Basques, but they have also supported each other through clubs, sports, and other activities. Although Basque Americans express a deep appreciation of their distinct culture, intermarriage is not discouraged.


Basque Americans are unusual in that they are, as an ethnic group, associated almost exclusively with one business: sheepherding. Yet, significant as their presence has been in that industry, they have also succeeded in several other enterprises. They have traditionally worked in agricultural jobs or at manual labor. In addition to ranching and herding, Basque Americans have opened small businesses such as dairy farms or turned their boardinghouses into restaurants. Less often, they have taken urban jobs in meat-packing plants, bakeries, or construction. Relatively few Basque immigrants have entered professional fields—a trend that some have linked to the group's traditional indifference toward higher education. However, this is less true of later generations of Basque Americans, who are more likely to attend college and work as bankers, lawyers, politicians, and in other professions.


Most Basques who settled in the American west expected their stay to be temporary. They planned to work for a few years, save money, and then return to the Basque homeland. Though in the end many remained in the United States, their ambivalence about where they should finally settle caused many to delay the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship. Thus the political involvement of the first few generations of Basque immigrants was relatively low. More recently, Basque Americans have participated in American politics and, as with the majority of the population in western states, have generally supported conservative causes and the Republican Party. Although Basques have served as mayors or other local officials, few have sought higher office.

Basque Americans have remained generally indifferent to political events in either France or Spain. Further, the Basque separatist cause has elicited little enthusiasm from Basque Americans. Although some groups and individuals in Idaho have denounced Spanish government crackdowns on Basque separatist activities, other Basque Americans throughout the west have expressed no interest in the matter, which they consider an urban and middle-class movement unrelated to their rural concerns. This attitude differs markedly from the views of Basques throughout Mexico and South America, who have generally showed strong support for Basque nationalism. However, the Basque Country and the Basque government of the autonomous region have been known to help finance Basque cultural activities in the United States.

Military Service During World War I, many Basque immigrants were harshly criticized for refusing to serve in the U.S. army. Some who were drafted chose to renounce their new citizenship to avoid service. Often, these men were denied the chance to reapply for citizenship—a condition that deprived them of grazing rights in the western states. In their study Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World, William A. Douglass and Jon Bilbao state that this apathy toward military service was consistent with the Basque pattern of indifference to political causes in either Spain or France. Douglass and Bilbao report that throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, the rates of military evasion in the Basque provinces was consistently high. Military service was not a significant issue among Basque Americans, however, during World War II. Former Idaho secretary of state Pete Cenarrusa, for example, proudly cited his record as a Marine fighter pilot during that war. He retired with the rank of major.


Academia The University of Nevada, Reno, has an acclaimed Basque Studies program. It offers course work in Basque language, history, and culture and publishes the Basque Book Series, which numbers more than thirty titles. As of 2005, Boise State University has also formed a Basque Studies program. It boasts the highest number of Basque students in a program outside Page 262  |  Top of Articleof the Basque Country. The University of California, Santa Barbara, and California State University, Bakersfield, have also for formed initiatives in Basque Studies. Together, these programs have begun to form a Basque Studies consortium that publishes an academic journal.

John Etchemendy (1952–) was appointed the provost of Stanford University in 2000. He received his doctorate in philosophy from Stanford in 1982 and joined the faculty there in 1983.

Journalism Robert F. Erburu (1930–) was the publisher of the Los Angeles Times and was president, CEO (1981), and chairman of the board (1986) of its parent company, the Times Mirror Co. After his retirement, he became a notable philanthropist, serving on several boards and committees, including the chairman of the board for the National Gallery of Art and honorary trustee of the Brookings Institution.

Literature Basque Americans have been relatively slow to establish a literary tradition, in part because so much of their background was based on an oral culture and in part because they came to the United States with little education. In addition, most of the Basque intelligentsia who emigrated chose to go to South America rather than the United States, leaving the American West with virtually no foundation to support Basque literature. One writer, however, received extensive recognition. Robert Laxalt (1923–2001), brother of politician Paul Laxalt, earned critical acclaim for his books exploring the Basque American experience. Sweet Promised Land (1988), Laxalt's first book, is a memoir of his immigrant father. In The Basque Hotel (1993), he chronicles the coming of age of a young boy whose parents run a boardinghouse in Nevada. Child of the Holy Ghost (1992) tells of his journey to the Basque Country to discover his parents' roots, and The Governor's Mansion (1994) recounts how an oldest son enters politics in Nevada. The Land of My Fathers: A Son's Return to the Basque Country (1999) explores Laxalt's experience moving his family to the Basque Country in the 1960s and his attempt to understand his cultural heritage. Time of the Rabies (2000), a novella, tells of ranchers fighting a rabies epidemic in the 1920s.

Music Among the more celebrated Basque American musicians was accordion player Jim Jausoro (1920–2004). Jausoro and his partner, Domingo Ansotegui (1913–1981), began playing dance music at Basque festivals and gatherings in the 1940s and eventually became quite well known. From 1960 Jausoro played regularly for Boise's Oinkari Basque Dancers. In 1985 he was chosen as one of twelve master traditional artists in the United States to receive the National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Jausoro also received a lifetime achievement award from the North American Basque Organization. In 2004, a few months before he died, Jausoro accompanied the Oinkari Basque Dancers to Washington, D.C., where they performed at the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center.

The singer and actor David Archuleta (1990–) is of Basque descent on his father's side. He was the youngest contestant on the popular TV show American Idol and finished as the runner-up in 2008.

Politics Pete T. Cenarrusa was a fighter pilot during World War II and served nine terms as an Idaho state representative beginning in 1950—three times as speaker of the house. He became Idaho's secretary of state in 1967 by appointment and was elected seven times, until his retirement in 2002—making him the longest-serving secretary of state in U.S. history and the longest-serving elected official in Idaho state history. Cenarrusa served as the national dean of the secretaries of state in 1999.

Other Basques have served as politicians. Paul Laxalt (1922–) is one of the few who sought national office. He became governor of Nevada in 1966 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1974, becoming the first Basque American to be elected to a federal post. Anthony Yturri (1914–1999) served several terms in the Oregon senate. In Nevada, Peter Echeverria (1918–2000) served as a state legislator and as chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission. Democrat John Garamendi (1945–), a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, spent several years in California state politics after a Peace Corps stint in Ethiopia. Despite several failed campaigns, including a bid for governor in 1994, he was elected lieutenant governor of California in January 2008 and elected as U.S. representative for California's tenth district in November 2009.

Science and Medicine Florence Bascom (1862–1945) was the first woman hired by the U.S. Geological Survey, in 1896. She was also an associate editor of the journal American Geologist from 1896 to 1908 and was featured prominently in, ironically, the first edition of American Men of Science in 1906. During her graduate school courses, she was forced to sit behind a screen in order to not “distract” the male students. In addition to conducting geological research, Bascom taught at several colleges, including the Hampton Institute for Negroes and American Indians (now Hampton University) in Virginia and Bryn Mawr College.

Sports Benny “the Jet” Urquidez (1952–) is a world-renowned boxer and martial artist. He became particularly well known for his flamboyant fighting style. Further, he competed across various fighting styles, from karate to muay thai. After retiring from professional competition, Urquidez developed his free-form martial arts system, which combines several different fighting styles and that Urquidez calls Ukidokan karate.

Stage and Screen José Iturbi (1895–1980) was a renowned pianist, composer, and movie star. He trained as a classical musician, and fostering the appreciation of classical music in the modern era became one of his biggest causes. In his Hollywood films, including Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Three Daring Daughters (1948), he generally played himself. Iturbi's recording of Chopin's “Polonaise in A-flat” (recorded in 1944) was a massive hit that stayed on the charts for 219 weeks.

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Two Basque-language newspapers were published in the Los Angeles area during the late 1800s. Lawyer Martin Biscailuz (1861–1899) published Escualdun Gazeta, the first newspaper in the world printed exclusively in the Basque language, during the 1880s. When Biscailuz's reputation suffered after his alleged mismanagement of a wealthy client's estate, the paper folded and was succeeded by California'ko Eskual Herria, published by journalist José Goytino. During the 1890s the large population of Basques in central California prompted the Bakersfield Daily Californian to print occasional articles in Basque, and during the 1930s the Boise Capital News also included stories in Basque. From 1973 to 1977, Brian Wardle, a non-Basque from Boise, published a newspaper called The Voice of the Basques.

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Newsletter of the Center for Basque Studies

Semiannual publication covering the Basque Studies Program and Basque-related news. Carries articles about Basques and news of research in Basque studies. In 2011 the newsletter went entirely digital, and editions could be downloaded from the website or emailed directly to readers.

Sandra Ott, Editor
Center for Basque Studies University of Nevada
MS/2322, Reno
Nevada 89557-2322
Phone: (775) 784-4854
Fax: (775) 784-1355

Clearinghouse for news and information about the Basque diaspora and Basque culture outside the geographical limits of Euskal Herria (the Basque Country). Features news, information of other Basque-related resources, and genealogy aids. Content in English, Spanish, and Euskara.

Paseo de Bera Bera 79, Donostia-San Sebastián
Phone: +34 943-50447


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The Basque Center

Provides meeting space and social activities as well as rehearsal space for the Oinkari Basque Dancers and the Boise'ko Gasteak Dancers (a children's group).

Patty Gabica
601 Grove Street
Boise, Idaho 83702
Phone: (208) 342-9983

Basque Educational Organization (BEO)

Founded in 1983; offers Basque language, dance, music, and sports classes; sponsors theater and educational programs; and maintains a museum and reference library.

P.O. Box 31861
San Francisco, California 94131-0861

North American Basque Organizations, Inc. (NABO)

Umbrella organization that includes local clubs; maintains cultural relations with the Basque government, the French Basque Cultural Institute, and other international centers; sponsors music festivals, summer camps, and sporting events; maintains website; and publishes the weekly newsletter Astero.

15850 Old Hickory Lane
Chino Hills, California 91709
Phone: (909) 597-4526


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Basque Museum and Cultural Center

Maintains museum displays, classrooms, archives, and a research library. Exhibits include a preserved Basque home and boardinghouse.

611 Grove Street
Boise, Idaho 83702
Phone: (208) 343-2671

Basque Studies Program at Boise State University

A multidisciplinary program in which students study language, culture, history, and political challenges of the Basque Country and Basques in America.

David Lachiondo, Director
1103 Grant Avenue
Boise, Idaho 83725
Phone: (208) 425-5331

The Center for Basque Studies

Based at the University of Nevada, Reno, the center is an international research organization that also publishes widely in Basque-related studies. It offers language and Basque-focused courses for undergraduate and graduate students and hosts scholars and conferences related to Basque culture and history.

Center for Basque Studies University of Nevada, Reno
Reno, Nevada 89557-2322
Phone: (775) 784-4854

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Douglass, William A., and Jon Bilbao. Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1975.

Echeverria, Jeronima. Home Away from Home: A History of Basque Boardinghouses. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1999.

Etulain, Richard W., and Jeronima Echeverria, eds. Portraits of Basques in the New World. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1999.

Irigaray, Louis, and Theodore Taylor. A Shepherd Watches, a Shepherd Sings: Growing Up a Basque Shepherd in California's San Joaquin Valley. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1977.

Laxalt, Robert. Sweet Promised Land. Harper & Row, 1957. Reprint, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1988.

Mallea-Olaetxe, J. Speaking through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2000.

Río, David. Robert Laxalt: The Voice of the Basques in American Literature. Reno: Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno, 2007.

Sevilla, María José. Life and Food in the Basque Country. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1990.

Urza, Carmelo. Solitude: Art and Symbolism in the National Basque Monument. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1993.

White, Linda, and Cameron Watson, eds. Amatxi, Amuma, Amona: Writings in Honor of Basque Women. Reno: Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, 2003.

Zubiri, Nancy. A Travel Guide to Basque America: Families, Feasts, and Festivals. 2nd ed. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2006.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3273300030