Henry Etcheverry whistled, and a row of sheep dashed down a fenced dirt path. On the other end, two men branded the freshly sheared animals.
It was late morning on St. Patrick’s Day, exactly 13 years after Etcheverry’s father, Jean Pierre, died. The man from Bidarray in the French Basque Country was one of the big sheep outfit owners at the peak of Basque immigration to Minidoka County. In those days, sheep outnumbered people.
Henry took over Etcheverry Sheep Co. on the very property his father ran. As the older generations of Basque immigrants died and the local outfits shut down, Etcheverry remained one of the few Basque sheepmen left in Idaho.
It’s a point of pride.
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But even as Etcheverry and Idaho’s other second-generation Basques carry on some traditions of their mothers and fathers, they are vestiges of a culture that’s fading away, a culture once a big part of Southern Idaho’s agricultural fabric and cultural diversity.
SHEEP AND MOTIVATION
Etcheverry’s occupation is the one that explains the Basque presence in Idaho.
“There’s hardly a Basque in the West who hasn’t had ties to sheep,” Etcheverry said, counting newly shorn sheep in March.
In a large blue trailer, contractors pinned down sheep, running through their white, thick curls with clippers. Etcheverry waited outside in a holding area where the naked sheep wobbled out in a line.
He took count with a clipboard, then corralled his ewes to be branded. With tiny spray guns, Etcheverry and two of his employees, Peruvians with H2A temporary work visas, painted “M” and “22” on the sheep with a deep turquoise dye.
In his father’s day, the workers were Basque.
From the late 1800s through the 1930s, many Basques came to the American West to work on sheep outfits like Etcheverry’s. For many, economic prosperity was scarce in the Basque Country, an autonomous area of the Pyrenees Mountains in northern Spain and southern France. Older siblings inherited the family ranches, leaving the younger ones with few prospects at home.
But the Magic Valley, like much of the Western U.S., had high demand for sheepherders. It was a new, vast country where young Basques could thrive.
In Idaho, they found a high desert valley within reach of frigid mountains. Basques drove thousands of sheep through the mountains of Challis and Sun Valley, and the canyons of the Magic Valley.
I take great pride in my own outfit and everything.
Henry Etcheverry, owner of Etcheverry Sheep Co.
They traveled with wagons that served as their living quarters just as Etcheverry’s sheepherders do today. They kept everything — food, clothes and other necessities — in big sacks strapped on top of burros. They stayed in the mountains and hills for months on end. They had little contact with other people except the ranch owners who checked on them every few days.
Life in the mountains was just about surviving and saving money. Some herders stayed in Idaho, working on short contracts before returning to Spain with money for their families. Those who made their homes in the Magic Valley included Etcheverry’s father, Jean Pierre, who first moved to Nevada as a teenager in the 1920s to work on sheep outfits before starting his own operation in Rupert.
“That’s what you call the American spirit,” Etcheverry said.
LOSING THE MOTHER TONGUE
Etcheverry’s first language was Basque. He picked up his Spanish in high school and by talking to the herders on what was then his father’s ranch. Jean Pierre came to the U.S. in the 1920s knowing French and Basque, and similarly picked up Spanish and English while reading and working with native speakers in Nevada.
When I came here, there was nothing in Spanish. It was for me to learn English if I wanted to survive in a new country. Nowadays, everything is so easy.
Asun Bedialauneta, former Gooding Basque Association treasurer
Jean Pierre always wanted to learn but was especially adamant on becoming fluent in English once he moved to America. When you move here, Etcheverry said, you learn the language.
Etcheverry hasn’t had to use Basque for some time. He worked with a man who spoke the language, but after he died there was no one to converse with. His two daughters refer to Etcheverry and his wife, Kathy, as aita and ama, Basque for father and mother.
But the daughters don’t speak Basque.
Etcheverry’s kids aren’t alone. Of Bedialauneta’s two daughters, one knows Basque, the other not even Spanish.
The late Victor Bollar, who came from Murelaga in the Spanish Basque Country to the U.S. in 1922, didn’t teach his sons the Basque language.
“Dad didn’t see any reason to learn it,” son Rick Bollar said.
Basque was spoken only when working in the sheep industry. The life of a sheepherder was tough work that Victor didn’t want to force his sons into. Instead, he encouraged them to find their own career paths.
Rick became a judge, hearing cases at the Minidoka County Magistrate Court.
A NEW COUNTRY
The memories of a few remaining first-generation immigrants illuminate the classic Basque experience in Idaho.
Juan Irigoyen lives in Mini-Cassia’s Jackson area with his wife, Beverly. The property is huge, with land they lease to people who grow potatoes, beets and grain. They’ve lived at their home since around 1962 when Jackson was still part of Minidoka County — it’s in Cassia County now.
The Irigoyens’ home is decorated with pictures from Ciga, a beautiful, lush green city with berry-covered walls in Spain’s mountains. As a kid Irigoyen played pelota, a racquetball-like sport that morphed into jai alai in Florida, Nevada and parts of New England.
But long before moving to Jackson, the now-84-year-old from Ciga was a 19-year-old sheepherder based in Challis. After taking a flight to Salt Lake City from Bilboa, Spain, he found work with sheepman Jay Beaus for 1 1/2 years.
“There were a lot of sheep in this country, and they didn’t have enough people to do that kind of work,” Irigoyen said. “Nobody wanted to work with the sheep.”
Also, an older brother in Spain inherited the family property.
“I was pushed out,” he said, laughing.
ON THE DECLINE
Today the state has just a fraction of the sheep outfits it had when Irigoyen came to Idaho in the 1950s.
Etcheverry chalked up the decline to competition. Lamb meat from Australia, he said, is produced more cheaply than it is in the U.S.
“Because the dollar is so strong, they can undercut us,” he said. “They don’t have as many creditors and regulations.”
Another factor: the appeal of working for dairies. That industry, Etcheverry said, entices workers with higher wages.
“They take a lot of our men,” he said. “They pay more by the hour, but the guy has to buy his own groceries, a vehicle and pay rent. For us, it’s show up and work. Everything else is paid for.”
Etcheverry’s ranch and St. Nicholas church’s Basque dinners in Rupert are relics of a disappearing culture. Many of the first-generation Basque immigrants are dying, and with them an identity is, too.
“In the last three months or so we went to Boise for three funerals, and we’ve had two here,” Bedialauneta said.
Asun Bedialauneta, active in the Gooding Basque Association, hopes younger generations will embrace their heritage and get involved with Basque events. But she doubts they will. It takes work to learn a language or explore an uncommon culture.
Cooking dinners for hundreds is hard work, too, a task that older Basques relish.
“But we are getting old,” Bedialauneta said, “and we cannot do very much.”
Escaping repression in Spain
For many immigrants, coming to Idaho wasn’t about making a fortune in the sheep business. It was a matter of survival.
During the Spanish Civil War, close to a half-million prisoners, mainly soldiers from the Spanish Republican military and other opponents of Francisco Franco’s Nationalist regime, were held in concentration camps.
Cities and towns were bombed by pilots loaned by Adolf Hitler. Thousands were killed in clashes between Nationalists and separatist groups, with blood spilling well past the civil war of the 1930s and into the ’70s when Franco died.
Feasting for 58 years
Since 1958, Basques in Minidoka County have put on the St. Nicholas Basque Festival Dinner, bringing immigrants and Mini-Cassia locals together for traditional meals.
Most of the original cooks are gone, but their children continue the tradition. In the kitchen for this year’s dinner day was Steve Trevino, nephew of John Trevino, whose recipes have made the Basque dinner’s menu for the past 50 or so years.
The menu included roasted American lamb — about 350 pounds — garbanzo soup with beef and chorizo, chicken and rice, and salad. When Trevino’s uncle ran the kitchen 40 years ago, the cooks brought live lambs to the back and slaughtered them. The lamb meat on this day was packaged and came from Rocky Mountain Co-Op.
Today’s kitchen was far less messy — and far less saucy.
“They’d make it festive,” Trevino said, “with a bottle of wine. Mom didn’t want me around too much for that.”
Basques in Idaho
▪ Population: 7,906 (California has 18,413 residents of Basque descent, Nevada 5,092).
▪ Most Basques who came to Idaho in the late 1800s and early 1900s had previously immigrated to the United States, Mexico or South America and relocated here after the discovery of gold and silver. Rather than mine, they became ranchers or farmers to feed the miners.
▪ Basques who arrived from the 1930s on mostly came from Bizkaia , and within that region, from a small triangle between Bakio and Ondarroa on the coast and inland to Durango.
▪ Basques weren’t sheepherders before in Spain. Like most immigrant groups, Basques took low-level jobs that no one else wanted. Sheepherding required little upfront investment, because sheep could be raised and tended on public land, and English was not required.