- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hotdogs and fireworks loom large among many Americans’ plans for the Fourth of July holiday. But for those of Basque descent, Independence Day celebrations might include a little “harry jasotzea” — or stone throwing.

“It’s sort of like if you’ve ever watched on ESPN those Scottish games where they lift a log up in the air. They’re pretty crazy, but they’re very entertaining,” says Mark Bieter, a third generation Basque-American.

Harry jasotzea, among other Basque activities, will be practiced on the Mall as the 50th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival gets underway this weekend. The “Basque Country” — an enclave that spans the border between Spain and France — is one of the featured cultures at this year’s festival.

“You go to the Natural History Museum, and you can see a pot that was made by [an indigenous] person. But at the Folklife Festival, you can meet a person who is still a part of that community,” Smithsonian spokesman James Mayer said.

More than 300 Basques will attend the festival, bringing loads of tolosa beans, Basque peppers and “bakailao,” or salted cod, in Euskara — the Basque language. Mr. Bieter advises tourists to come hungry because Basques have great culinary prowess.

“They have a lot of three-star Michelin restaurants in a place the size of about Rhode Island. [Basques] expect a good meal,” says Mr. Bieter, who has lobbied for years to have Basques’ inclusion in the Folklife Festival. “I’m just excited to sample it all; my mouth is watering just thinking about it right now.”

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Known for their boat-building, Basque men in berets will rebuild a 14th-century boat, recalling what it was like to be a community that ruled the whaling industry.

“They had sort of a monopoly at one time sort of on the level of OPEC in the whaling industry,” Mr. Bieter says.

Participation activities include a tug-of-war and a wood-chopping contest, in which contestants stand on top of a log and swing an ax through it as fast as they can.

The festival also will feature free concerts most evenings. Basque musician/composer Kepa Junkera excels on the trikitixa, a kind of accordion, and will be a featured player during the festival. He won the 2004 Latin Grammy for Best Folk Album for his album “K.”

“He’s very well-known in Europe and in the Basque country, and it will be a very good way to open up the festival,” Mr. Bieter says. “It’s something that people can enjoy, even if they know nothing about the Basque country.”

Dancing and other activities will take place on the “frontoia,” a handball court that is often the centerpiece of a Basque community.

“There’s frontoias in places like Bakersfield, San Francisco Los Angeles,” Mr. Bieter says. “There’s a frontoia in Boise, where I grew up.”

Ultimately, the festival represents the Basque culture present in frontoias all around the globe — including a Basque club in the District.

“We’re showing this culture from across the world, but it’s also a culture of [our] neighbors in the United States,” said Cristina Diaz-Carrera, a Smithsonian museum curator. “I hope the audience comes and sees that.”

A bitter reason lies behind the numbers of Basques in the States. They were not always welcomed in Spain, and Spanish dictator Generalissimo Fransisco Franco tried to erase many of the customs that tourists will experience this weekend. For example, tourists can learn a few words in Euskara, known as the “last indigenous surviving language in Europe.”

Franco “was particularly harsh on Basques,” says Mr. Bieter, who practices law in Washington. “He wanted to do away with minority languages, and it was illegal to speak Basque.”

Mr. Bieter spent two years in the Basque country learning Euskara just after Franco’s dictatorship ended in 1975. Much of his schooling had to be done in secret.

“Almost our whole school day was in Basque, but if we were expecting someone from the superintendent, we would have to stand up and say, ‘Buenos dias, inspector,’” Mr. Bieter says. “It was kind of scary.”

Today, Euskara can be heard in the Pyrenees Mountains of the Basque country.

Ms. Diaz-Carrera expressed amazement that Basque children “are learning Euskara, and that a lot of their parents may not even speak [it] because of the oppression.”

Mr. Bieter has been looking forward to this weekend’s celebration for 20 years. Including Basque culture at the festival was an idea that came to Mr. Bieter in the mid-1990s, when the Smithsonian featured food and culture from the southern United States.

“I can’t remember what the exhibits were, but I remember just getting some crawfish and sitting under the tree and thinking, ‘Wow, this has to be something that happens for Basques,’” he says. “We lobbied very hard to the Basque government to have the festival. Finally, after about 20 years, here we are. I’m very excited to see it happen.”

For a full festival schedule and menu for Friday through Monday, and July 7-10, visit festival.si.edu.

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