Father Tim Ritchey (The St. Maries priest who also serves Harrison) and I were talking after Mass following “Good Shepherd” Sunday recently about how few northern Idaho residents have the opportunity, as many in southern Idaho do, to be exposed to the unique Basque culture.
It is one’s loss not to know a “Basco” or to have worked with one. The hardest working, most ethical, most loyal, most friendly people we know, we agreed were Basques. As Father Tim put it, “If a Basque gives you his word and shakes your hand, you can take it to the bank.”
Historically residents from time immemorial of several provinces along the border between Spain and France, many Basques immigrated to the United States in the 19th and early 20th century.
In particular, Basques took positions as sheepherders, an awfully lonely task trailing bands of sheep across high mountain country as the sheep wandered looking for grazing. The sheepherder’s job included protecting his band from the predation of wolves and grizzly bears, not to mention magpies that pluck out the eyes of recently born lambs during the lambing season.
Idaho has the largest concentration of people of Basque heritage outside of Spain, and many have contributed to the political, business and social fabric that make Idaho what it is today.
Among Idaho’s outstanding Basque-Americans are Ben Ysursa, the current Idaho Secretary of State, and Pete Cenarrusa, the former speaker of the Idaho house and long-time secretary of state. Across Idaho’s border with Nevada resided for many years a former governor and United States Senator, Paul Laxalt, probably President Ronald Reagan’s closest friend.
Father Ritchey and I discussed the many other fine Basques we know, folks with last names like Etchart, Eiguren, or Ubarragua, and always there was a story of perseverance. We agreed that to have a well-rounded life you must attend a Basque picnic, witness their contests, drink wine from a bota bag and revel in Basque warmth and friendliness.
I was reminded of all this during a recent trip to eastern Montana to attend a water conference sponsored by the Wheeler Center at Montana State University. The conference included a tour of the massive Fort Peck Dam, which, at the time it was built (1933 to 1940) was the largest earthen dam in the world. To think that President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched this project with the stroke of a pen, and almost simultaneously also authorized the construction of the Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dams was simply mind-boggling. (more…)