LAS VEGAS (AP) — Their numbers may be small, but Basques and their descendants have left an indelible mark on Nevada — so much so that the theme of the 34th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko is “Basques & Buckaroos: Herding Cultures of Basin, Range and Beyond.”
“They really have played a huge role in the American West in ranching culture, in herding culture,” said Meg Glaser, artistic director of the Western Folklife Center, organizer of the six-day annual festival. It’s a natural fit considering many Basques came to the West to work as sheepherders, just as they have for generations in the Basque country in the Pyrenees Mountains of southwestern Europe.
Today, about 5,390 Basques live in Nevada, mostly in the central and northern parts. The National Basque Festival is in Elko each year, and the National Monument to the Basque Sheepherder is in a Reno park.
Jose Beristain, president of the Lagun Onak Las Vegas Basque Club, said the club has about 50 to 60 members who get together for twice-a-year picnics and a Christmas party. He said the purpose of the club is to promote Basque customs and traditions “because we’re proud of our heritage.”
“It’s a small country,” Beristain said. “Our language is one of the oldest in the world, and it’s hard to learn. We like to promote the use of the Basque language, so we don’t lose it.”
A scan of Nevada political and business leaders reveals a long list of Basque names — Erquiaga, Parraguirre, Ernaut, Goicoechea, Ascuaga — but none more prominent than Laxalt. Paul Laxalt was governor of Nevada from 1967 to 1971 and a U.S. senator from 1974 to 1987, and his grandson, Adam, is Nevada attorney general and a candidate for governor.
“Paul Laxalt was really the first prominent Basque to ascend to the absolute pinnacle of power,” in office and as “first friend” to President Ronald Reagan, said Pete Ernaut, chief government relations officer for R&R Partners. Ernaut added that Paul Laxalt, a Republican, was elected in an era when Democrats held a two-to-one advantage in Nevada.
“He was such a tremendous role model and such an inspiration to the Basque culture for me and a lot of my fellow Basques that have followed in politics or business,” Ernaut said. “People wanted to be like him and felt it was possible, if he could do it.”
Paul Laxalt’s brother, Robert, authored “Sweet Promised Land” in 1957 detailing the immigrant history of their father, Dominique, and other Basque-Americans. Two of Robert Laxalt’s later books about Basque culture received Pulitzer Prize nominations. He was a consultant on Basque culture to the Library of Congress and founded the University of Nevada Press.
And the Laxalt name is known in Basque country as well. Once, while visiting a cheese shop there, Adam Laxalt recalled being asked where he was from. When he said Nevada, they asked if he knew the Laxalts.
“I am a Laxalt,” he replied. “He didn’t believe me, as you can imagine. I had to pull out my driver’s license to prove I was really a Laxalt. It was really cool.”
THE BASQUE DIASPORA
Basque country extends over parts of France and Spain in an area that is smaller than New Jersey and has a population of just 3 million.
“Basques were kind of the mystery people of Europe,” said William Douglass, coordinator of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, from its founding in 1967 to 2000. “Nobody knows where they came from.” Their language, he said, is unlike any other.
Douglass said there are Basques in every U.S. state and many countries. According to the most recent data available, 59,586 people in the United States identify as Basque, compared with nearly 47 million who consider themselves German or of German descent. More than 21,000 are in California, followed by 7,000 in Idaho.
The immigrants came to Nevada for varying reasons. Many were escaping Spanish oppression, others sought economic opportunities unavailable elsewhere. Douglass said the first wave of Basque immigration to the West began in the mid-19th century, during the California Gold Rush and the expansion of the cattle industry.
“Most Basques came here without any intention of settling,” he said. “They came with the idea that they would herd sheep for a few years and run it on the public lands. Most of the people who came left. Then the Depression kicked in and World War II kicked in, and that kind of cut off immigration.”
After the war, the country had a labor shortage that was particularly acute in the sheep industry, he said. Sen. Pat McCarran of Nevada, who had been a sheep rancher, sponsored legislation in 1950 to allow Basque sheepherders to enter the United States for three-year periods. But some managed to stay, and along the way, a couple of Nevada industries were born — most notably hotel and restaurants.
“It’s important to note that that lifestyle created the Basque hotels that populate all of those same areas,” said Pete Ernaut, chief government relations officer for R&R Partners. “Because most of the sheepherders needed a place to stay in the winter, these boarding houses sprung up.” They served meals family-style because it was more efficient, he said.
“More people in town started to get onto the fact that that was really good food,” Ernaut said. “It evolved from just feeding the tenants and boarders to full-blown restaurants.”
A CENTER WAS BORN
Robert Laxalt was instrumental in the founding of the Center for Basque Studies, which offers an undergraduate minor in Basque cultural studies and is the only center for Basque studies in the United States.
“It’s become the major English-language source of publications about the Basque people,” Douglass said, adding that UNR and the center have published 200 titles.
“Before we started doing that, Basque-Americans had little idea of the substance of their own origins,” Douglass said. “Nor did the American public.”
Laxalt invited Douglass to be the first director, but he had yet to write his dissertation. By 1967, the center was ready to open, and Douglass was available.
From that day to this, he has marveled at how important Basque culture was — and is — to the region, and yet, how few people know or appreciate its many contributions.
“They’re one of the tiles in the American mosaic,” Douglass said. “We’re a nation of immigrants. While we know a lot about Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans, the smaller tiles are lesser known; the Basque tile is as important as any other if you want to have a complete picture. Without an understanding of all the tiles in the mosaic, the picture of we as a multicultural society is incomplete.”