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Carlson: Knowing Basques

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

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.

There was no authorization by the Congress, no appropriation, no environmental impact statement. Under the powers granted FDR under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), he simply ordered it done and two weeks later the Corps of Engineers was at work on the site.

The conference was held in nearby Glasgow. While there I called on the parents of John Etchart, a former Helena business partner. They are 94-year-old Eugene and his 90-year-old wife, Elaine. Both were still sharp, in good health, and delightful hosts. Altogether, my former Boise business partner, Marc Johnson, and I spent two hours listening to Gene recall the early days of the dam.

He also told the story of his parents immigration to America, the hard and lonely work of herding sheep in Nevada for ten years before coming to Montana, where by more hard work the family accumulated three ranches in Valley County that together with the fee land they owned and the acreage they leased totaled almost 500,000 acres.

Gene proudly showed a picture of his father and some forty other westerners standing in front of the Department of the Interior during the 1930’s with then-Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. The group was there to provide input for legislation that became known as the Taylor Grazing Act. Gene also served on BLM’s national advisory board from 1958 to 1976.

In addition, Gene is a qualified pilot who still loves to fly (though with a qualified co-pilot these days) and spent years teaching hundreds of Montanans how to fly under a federal act that paid college students before the war to learn to fly. FDR, in seeing the looming war over the horizon, knew that America would someday quickly need many trained pilots.

Father Ritchey and I also agreed that the most sterling Basque quality is loyalty. Once a friend, a Basque is a friend for life, but of course loyalty has to run both ways.

This trait came to mind my last night in Montana, in Fort Benton, where we were staying in the grand old restored 1880’s hotel. In the small park in front of the hotel beside the Missouri River stands a statue to “Shep,” a border collie. Of course dogs were an important tool in managing sheep for any Basque sheepherder, and often they were border collies.

The plaque on the statute tells the story of how Shep came to town in 1936 following the casket of his sheepherder owner, who was soon placed on a train and shipped away for burial. Every day for six years Shep returned to his lookout position beside the tracks where he’d last seen his master disappear, until in 1942, he was accidentally hit and killed by a train.

To have inspired such loyalty I’m certain the sheepherder must have been a Basque.

A native of Kellogg, a former teacher at Kootenai, and a former journalist, Chris served as press secretary to former Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus for ten years. He is the founding partner of the Gallatin Group, is now retired and he and his wife, Marcia, reside at Medimont.

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