- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

RUPERT, Idaho (AP) - 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, the Times-News reported (https://bit.ly/1WPIcpi).

Henry took over Etcheverry Sheep Co. on the very property his father ran. And 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.

But even as Etcheverry and the Magic Valley’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 Old Country, an autonomous area of the Pyrenees Mountains of 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.

They traveled with wagons that served as their living quarters just like 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.

They had next to nothing for entertainment - in the case of Etcheverry’s men, some magazines. The loneliness, he said, comes with the job. In the winter, towns like Rupert were simply places to go to church - typically St. Nicholas Catholic Church - or to pay bills.

“You get used to it,” Etcheverry said. “If you’re inclined to want to be in town and be around a bunch of people all the time, you better not be herding sheep.”

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.

Protests 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 half a 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.

Asun Bedialauneta, former treasurer of the Gooding Basque Association, lived in the Basque Country in the ‘70s during Franco’s rule. Born in Ondarroa in 1947, she recalled the repression of her culture.

“We were not allowed to be in groups of over three or four,” she said. “We were not allowed to speak Basque. We did anyway, but we were not allowed to.”

Bedialauneta remembered the day her stepbrother was imprisoned for nine months without reason. It was a Sunday morning, she said, and a protest for Basque freedom was planned. The town was full of tanks and machine guns. Organizers were intimidated by the military’s presence and called off the protest.

“In the evening we used to go disco dance,” Bedialauneta said. “When we were getting out at 9 o’ clock in the evening, (people) were saying, don’t go downtown. Take a shortcut somewhere else.”

Police were taking people, she said, and her stepbrother was among them. For three days her family didn’t know where he was, but they soon found out he was jailed in Basauri.

While incarcerated, her stepbrother made a tampolina, a tambourine, that the people in jail with him signed. It says “to my loving mother” next to a date, 7-10-68.

Her stepbrother made the tampolina and more to sell for money for food in jail. Bedialauneta said she doesn’t know how she ended up with it.

“When I came here,” she said, “I brought everything I could.”

Bedialauneta’s home in Gooding is decorated with other symbols of the Basque Country. She’s been in Gooding for more than decade. Before that, she came to Wyoming in 1976 to marry her first husband, Santos Castanon, whom she knew from Spain. He was living in the U.S. as a miner and previously was a sheepherder in Gooding. Twenty-four years into their marriage, he died.

“His idea was to come to Gooding because the first time he came here to the United States, he came here as a sheepherder,” Bedialauneta said. “When he passed away, I didn’t want to stay in Wyoming so I said, ‘OK, he didn’t do it, but I will.’”

‘Pase el Pan’

It was just after 1:35 p.m., but Etcheverry, who operates on “old time,” called it 12:35.

Etcheverry and his 18 or so employees met for lunch in a dining room at the ranch’s cookhouse. A long table - a relic from Mini-Cassia’s former Basque life - stretched across the room. The table once stretched across a similar room in a Rupert boardinghouse where Basque sheepherders stayed when they weren’t working.

On it were serving plates full of food for the taking - red bean soup, bread, meatballs, french fries, tuna with onion strands and red Jell-O with fruit - provided by Etcheverry and prepared by a cook.

This is boarding style, Etcheverry said. The workers, mainly Peruvians, put lunch on their plates and handed the rest of the servings down just as the Basque sheepherders once did at this table.

“Pase el pan, por favor,” he said.

Etcheverry, like his father, knows multiple languages. His first 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.

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.

Losing the Mother Tongue

Etcheverry’s kids aren’t alone. Of Bedialauneta’s two daughters, one knows Basque, the other not even Spanish.

The one who knows the mother tongue moved to Ondarroa in the Spanish Basque Country after college to take a break before finding work. She lived there for 13 years and married a local man. After they divorced, she moved back to Idaho. She has since learned Basque dances with a club in Utah and even teaches the language there.

The language barrier for immigrants today, Bedialauneta said, is much easier than when she moved to America in the 1970s. She learned English in a class in Wyoming to be able to do paperwork for her first husband’s mobile home repair business. Bedialauneta took a class with three Mexicans, two Chinese, a Peruvian and a Spaniard. She was the translator for the Spanish speakers.

She said she always speaks English first when she encounters immigrants in Idaho. Stores with signs in both English and Spanish irk her.

“I’m mad about that too,” Bedialauneta said. “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.”

For Basques intending to stay in America, there wasn’t a need to retain the language. On the sheep outfits, Basque may have been spoken between the workers, but in towns such as Rupert, they spoke English.

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.

Basque Life Encapsulated

Etcheverry, however, fully embraced the work of classic Magic Valley Basque life.

“I take great pride in my own outfit and everything,” he said.

Etcheverry’s days begin with breakfast at 5:30 a.m. - by the clock, not on “old time.” From 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., the day is filled with nonstop work. Ewes are fed. Some give birth in the lambing sheds. Some are brought in to be sheared.

On St. Patrick’s Day, the shearing was in full swing by noon. After they were branded, the ewes were separated into groups, paired with their lambs. Around 7,000 ewes were at the ranch, ready for an April trek through the Minidoka desert.

From the desert they’ll be trucked to different areas around Lava Hot Springs and north of Soda Springs. In July, the ewes will be led through the Caribou-Targhee National Forest to feedlots. After 20 days to two months, the sheep will be slaughtered in Greeley, Colorado.

Etcheverry wore a dirty, pale blue jumpsuit, a maroon hat and a red bandanna around his neck. His hands were slightly reddened by the sun. The temperature cruised around 50 degrees, a medium between the spring and summer heat waiting in the desert and the biting cold of fall and winter in the mountains.

St. Nicholas Basque Festival

Later that day at the Rupert Elks Lodge, the smell of garlic and lamb meat filled the kitchen - about 350 pounds of legs of lamb to be roasted for that Saturday’s St. Nicholas Basque Festival Dinner.

Since 1958, Basques in Minidoka County have put on the community dinner, bringing immigrants and Mini-Cassia locals together for traditional meals. It’s always been popular - with turnout so high that organizers in the 1970s moved it from St. Nicholas Catholic Church to the Elks Lodge.

Most of the original cooks are gone, but their children continue the tradition, laboring away in the back of the house.

In the kitchen that day was Steve Irigoyen, whose father, Juan, now retired, was one of the cooks. There were the Goldarazes, Joe and son Michael. There 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, garbanzo soup with beef and chorizo, chicken and rice and salad.

“Uncle John learned through trial and error,” Trevino said.

He placed legs of lamb fat side up on a long metal table. He poked at each with a meat fork so it would absorb the flavors. Trevino and Michael Goldaraz then rubbed lemon pepper, salt and processed garlic on the lamb legs and splashed them with lemon juice.

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.”

On the other side of the kitchen, Joe Goldaraz cut up pieces of beef for the garbanzo soup; the recipe also calls for leeks and carrots. The original cooks would be out of the kitchen as late as 2 a.m., but today’s crew figured they’d be out by 11 p.m. and back on Friday to roast the lamb.

Goldaraz and his sister, Madeline, were born in Rupert to Basque parents but moved to Spain when he was 11. Jesusa, their mother, was a seamstress from Arraiza, Spain. Their father, Jose, was from Beunza but moved to Idaho after the Spanish Civil War to work on farms.

Goldaraz’s first language was Spanish, but he became fluent in English and even picked up a little Basque when he came back to Idaho in the 1970s.

At home, Goldaraz spoke Spanish with his mother and English with his father. Faculty at St. Nicholas Catholic Church, where he went to school, couldn’t keep up.

“The nuns would get mad,” he said, “because it sounded like Spanglish.”

A Cold 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.

Beaus’ outfit had 7,000 to 8,000 sheep with 10 to 15 people working. They’d moved sheep in the summer through the Stanley mountains. Irigoyen had three or four horses with supplies for 10 days. Another guy drove the sheep.

During one trip in the Sun Valley area, they hit a 2,100-acre meadow at Warm Springs and met three guys from California who came to fish. He’d bake bread and give them a loaf, and they’d give him a bucket of fish.

“There were fish all over there, but nobody was around,” Irigoyen said. “Those guys were catching fish any place they wanted.”

On the way back to Challis, they’d go through steep, rocky Lake Creek Pass. With everything well tied onto the horses, they’d turn the horses loose. The animals would lunge up the hill with rocks flying.

“Boy, that’s a cold country,” he said. “I wasn’t used to the cold country like that.”

Irigoyen guessed that temperatures were 20-25 degrees below zero.

The first winter in the mountains, he lost track of time and was low on supplies. He was about to run out of wood, and his water barrel froze. Irigoyen thought he was going to freeze to death, but help arrived with a big dinner.

It must have been one of two holidays.

“I didn’t know what day it was,” he said. “If they’d have told me, I didn’t know Christmas and Thanksgiving here anyways.”

Irigoyen moved on to work at Jean Pierre Etcheverry’s outfit in 1952 and helped with lambing. Then, for 10 years, he herded sheep and farmed for Johnny Basterrechea’s outfit south of Rupert. He spent five years herding sheep through Heglar Canyon before switching to a life of farming cattle.

It gets pretty lonely in the mountains, Irigoyen said, looking at his wife. “And you know, when you’re 20 years old, it’s pretty lonely.”

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.”

Looking Forward

Etcheverry’s ranch, St. Nicholas church’s Basque dinners in Rupert and the Gooding Basque Association are relics of a disappearing culture. Many of the Magic Valley’s 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.

The former club treasurer said the Gooding Basque Association once had more involvement from younger generations. Their events had dancing children, and more people helped cook Basque dinners on the first Friday of each month.

But the work of running the club isn’t something young people are interested in, Bedialauneta said. The Basque identity, she said, lives with the older generation and the activities of clubs like Gooding’s. Rupert’s Basque association phased out from lack of interest.

Bedialauneta 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.”


Information from: The Times-News, https://www.magicvalley.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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