When they unveiled the mural on Boise’s Basque Block in 2000, José Luis Arrieta refused to go see it.
Arrieta, shown hefting a 230-pound cube during a traditional Basque weightlifting competition, was extremely proud to be included on the outdoor mural depicting Basque life through the ages. It just wasn’t in the longtime Boise resident’s nature to put on airs or promote himself.
“He wouldn’t go see it until Patty Miller (then executive director of the Basque Museum & Cultural Center) grabbed him by the hand and made him see it,” said Arrieta’s son, Jon, 39.
Arrieta, who left the Basque Country at age 18 and spent his entire career in the sheep business, died Wednesday morning at St. Luke’s Boise Medical Center, several days after suffering a stroke. He was 76.
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“It’s a sad day for the sheep industry and the Basque community both,” said Lt. Gov. Brad Little, whose family employed Arrieta soon after he arrived in Idaho and for four decades afterward. “He was a big part of our family and he took care of the sheep like they were his own. We were very lucky to have him working for us.”
A rosary service will be held at 7 p.m. July 9, with a funeral held the following day at 11 a.m. Both services will be at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 2612 W. State St. in Boise. Burial will follow at Morris Hill Cemetery.
Arrieta is survived by his wife, Josune; a son, Jon, of Mountain Home; and two brothers: Javier, of Mountain Home, and Ignacio, of Gernika, Spain.
Arrieta met Josune, also a native of the Basque Country, when she was visiting relatives in Boise. They married in the Basque Country in 1971.
Arrieta, who came from the small village of Ziortza-Bolibar in the Biscay province, arrived in Boise the day after Christmas in 1958. Three days later, he went to work for Jessie Naylor, Little’s aunt from Emmett, and the Little family’s Highland Livestock and Land Co. He became so intertwined with the Little family and their sheep operation that he became known as “Highland Joe.”
While Basques did not herd sheep in the old country, a lot of Basque immigrants who came to the United States did. They didn’t have to speak English. The skills were easily learned. And by spending most of their time in far-flung sheep camps, they saved their money, which was often used after a few years to buy a business or start a new one.
Arrieta stuck with the sheep business. He spent 11 years as a sheepherder and was promoted to foreman when the person in that position retired. He wasn’t sure he wanted the position and the extra responsibilities it entailed, but another worker convinced him that he was the right man for the job, Jon Arrieta said.
“He loved every aspect of the sheep industry. He knew it wasn’t the most glamorous job or the best job, but it was clean and pure and he really enjoyed it,” Jon said. “He enjoyed the guys, the mountains, the deserts. That whole industry just felt like home to him.”
Arrieta was a hardworking guy who was well known in U.S. Basque circles for his weightlifting skills in what is known in the Basque language Euskara as Herri Kirolak, or Basque rural sports, said Joe Guerricabeitia, whose father was a cousin of Arrieta’s.
The sports, including stone lifting, chopping wood and drilling holes in quarry rocks, trace their origins to farm work. Steeped in bravado, men wanted to show they were the strongest and the fastest, said Guerricabeitia, who grew up in the Treasure Valley and now lives outside Seattle.
“Those skills were very important,” he said.
Guerricabeitia said Arrieta would have never asked for his image to be placed on the Basque Block mural, but it was fitting that he was depicted in the weightlifting scene. Arrieta and fellow local weightlifter Benny Goitandia traveled the West extensively to compete against one another.
“I’m sure tons of people have seen his face on the mural and didn’t know who that was,” Guerricabeitia said.
Annie Gavica, current executive director of the Basque Museum, said Arrieta was “super involved” in the Basque community and took part in events at the cultural center.
Arrieta also assisted Josune, who has operated a day-care center in her North End home since 1977. The Arrietas passed along their knowledge of Basque culture to the hundreds of kids who went through their homes over the years. They were beloved by three generations of children, the oldest of whom are now in their 40s.
Two weeks ago, Gavica said, Arrieta was competing in a Mus card game tournament in California. The game, popular in Spain and France, is of Basque origin. He was active right up until his death, she said.
Arrieta went out of his way to avoid conflict and to treat everyone working under him well, which made a deep impact on his son. He’d be at the airport to pick up new workers flying in from Peru and the Basque Country. And he tried to make them feel welcome, knowing the fears and anxiety he experienced as a newly arrived immigrant, Jon Arrieta said.
“It didn’t matter how mean and ornery a sheepherder was or how nice and kind a sheepherder was, he treated everyone the same. He treated everyone with dignity and respect,” said Jon.