Idaho is home to one of the largest populations of Basque people in the United States. The Basque Country is an autonomous community in the Pyrenees Mountains, on both sides of the border between France and Spain. Ninety percent of the Basques in Idaho come from the Bizkaia (aka Viskaya) region of the Basque Country, from cities such as Bilbao and Guernica. As the oldest living ethnic group on the European continent, they have an amazing culture that has survived assimilation for 20 centuries. Their non-Aryan based language cannot be traced to any other similar tongue and is believed by linguists to possibly be the oldest living European language. likely due to their physical location on the Atlantic Ocean, they were renowned seafarers and ship builders. Some of their most notable contributions include ship armor and the use of steam power. When Columbus recruited his sailing crew, Basques made up the largest ethnic group on board.
Political turmoil in Spain caused some to seek new opportunities elsewhere. Many immigrated to South America and eventually to Argentina where they worked unused rangeland, raising sheep and developing their ranching and herding skills. The Gold Rush in the mid 1800s brought the Basques to America. They first came to Idaho in the 1880s and were unsuccessful at mining but quickly became prosperous sheepherders by employing their knowledge of South American style ranching. When they began to require additional help, many wrote home and invited their families and friends to join them. Their population grew rapidly until strict immigration laws were enacted in 1924.
Although the Basques had moved to America, they still sustained their culture and their traditions: language, dances, costumes, music, folk plays, festivals, food, and wine. Basque food consists of simple peasant dishes made with fresh ingredients, with staples including salt cod (bacalao), beans, tomatoes and peppers in olive oil and garlic. Lamb, spicy sausage (txistorras), chorizo, tuna, anchovies, and sardines are popular as well. Basque dances are very colorful and are rooted in deeper meaning. For example, the “Xemein'go Dantza” symbolizes the struggle between good and evil, the“Kaxarranka” honors St. Peter, the patron saint of fishermen, and the “Euzkadi” is meant to scare away evil spirits. Their biggest holiday is celebrated on the last weekend in July - the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Festivities include a Mass, picnic, dancing, and sports contests as well as an annual Sheepherder's Ball and a Basque Festival. Music plays an important role in their celebrations with Basque musicians playing traditional instruments: flute (txistu), tambourine, violin, and accordion. They also brought to America the unique art form of Bertsolariak, poets who sing songs on any subject in improvisation competitions.
Today, thanks to the rich cultural contributions of our local Basque community, the Basque block in downtown Boise provides a museum, cultural center, and the Basque market. Also, our community hasOinkari Basque Dancers and Basque restaurants - Leku Ona (117 6th St), Bar Gernika (202 Capitol) and Epi's (1115 Main St in Meridian).