Myth debunked: No such thing as “Basque code talkers”

It has been widely reported and assumed that the Basque language played an important role in the US activities in World War II. I even have a page about this here. However, as Pedro Oiarzabal and Guillermo Tabernilla find, this is myth of Basque history.

Myth debunked: No such thing as “Basque code talkers”

By Pedro J. Oiarzabal and Guillermo Tabernilla*

For nearly seven decades, many have believed, and many academic and non-academic publications support the belief, that the Basque language, Euskera, was used during the Battle of Guadalcanal in the summer of 1942 as a coded language to transmit key messages for the landing of the U.S. troops. However, as sad as it can be to lose such a heroic and wonderful contribution to the war effort, the Basque language (in contrast to Native American languages such as the Navajo language) was never used by any of the American military branches during the Pacific Campaign.

After completing extensive research of the National Archives and Records Administration military and intelligence documents, our study deconstructs the story of the use of Euskera by the U.S. Armed Forces during WWII, formerly taken as a real historical event by the official Basque contemporary historiography. Moreover, the paper also provides historical context to explore the myth’s origin and its development, with special emphasis on the close relationship between the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency) and the Basque Intelligence Service, or Organization Airedale. To summarize, we did not find any evidence that corroborates the idea of the use of the Basque language by the American military forces during WWII. It is simply a myth.
Click on the link to download the article (published in the Spanish language) for free: “The myth and history riddle: Basque code talkers in World War Two. The Office of Strategic Services and the Basque Intelligence Service—the Airedale Organization.

* Oiarzabal is a specialist on the Basque diaspora and a researcher at the University of Deusto, Bilbao and is the Jon Bilbao Chair at the University of Nevada, Reno; and Tabernilla is a specialist on Basque military history and a researcher of the Sancho de Beurko Association (for further information see The Fighting Basques Project).

Legends and Popular Tales of the Basque People by Mariana Monteiro

Relatively, as compared to the other peoples of Europe, the Basques converted to Christianity rather late. While Christianity seems to arrived in the region in the 4th or 5th centuries, it didn’t really take hold amongst the population until roughly the 12th or 13th centuries (Wikipedia has a summary of what is known and debated regarding this topic). However, whenever it happened, when the Basque converted, they did so with fervor. As a consequence, there is much that isn’t known about the pre-Christian beliefs and religion of the Basques. Unfortunately, what there is hasn’t made its way into English. Thus, as an English speaker, it is always a pleasure to stumble across gems such as Mariana Monteiro’s Legends and Popular Tales of the Basque People. Originally published in 1887, it has numerous stories that mix pre-Christian beliefs with Christian symbolism and, most interestingly, historical elements.

Some of the stories are familiar. I’ve read similar tales in other books. There is the story of a boy that must overcome certain ordeals to find his love. But, even so, there are unique elements here. In one story, the boy is protected from evil by his dead mother, who comes back in the form of the Arguiduna: “When the ‘Arguiduna appears, the graves are opened, and the corpses show their fleshless faces, and fling to each other this nocturnal moth, like tennis players throw with the racket the ball to one another. It is the sport of the dead during the first hours of the second of November.”

And there are “typical” tales of witches that “help” others with their quests for love. The devil also makes a frequent appearance in these tales, sometimes outwitted by a humble boy. There are stories of love and of revenge, of envy and of betrayal. But, perhaps most interesting to me were the elements of history that were woven throughout these stories.

There are stories of feuds between Basque families and the tragic happenings of crossed lovers from those families, but set in the backdrop of war, of the Basques fighting against a foreign enemy. And, in the course of this story of war and family feud, there are elements of the supernatural, when a soldier is saved by the Maitagarri. These elements of historical context abound throughout the stories, often with little more said, but in some cases, with significant, but tantalizingly insufficient information.

For example, there is the tale of Jaun Zuria, an Irishman, who is banished because, during a hunt, he accidentally kills his father. He is sent away in a boat, and comes across the land of the “Cantabrians, the race of giants which, five centuries earlier, Rome, the mistriss of the world, had been unable to vanquish despite all her power.” He is taken in by Lekobide, the chieftain of the Eskaldunac. “Beyond the hierarchy of virtue and of intelligence and of age, there is but one hierarchy in the land of the Eskaldunac. The Eskaldunac elect a chief who is ever ready to lead them to the combat whenever the stranger invades their free land; and this glories title they bestowed on Lekobide.” Later, in defense of his adopted country, Jaun Zuria becomes the first Lord of Biscay.

Various superstitions also arise in these tales. In one, it is said that the left hand of a child, if severed during sleep and wrapped round with curls of its own hair, became an amulet which would protect against danger. There are also traditional Basque elements such as the irrinzi, the fierce and terrible war-whoop of the Basques.

However, it is these historical elements that most intrigue me. There are many in these tales. A few more include:

  • A reference to Benzozia, the Venus of chaste love of the primitive Basque people.
  • The Kurucificatuaren Canta (The Chant of the Crucified): “During the long and sanguinary war sustained by the Romans against the inhabitants of the Basque mountains, the prisoners who fell into the power of the Romans were crucified on the summit of the mountains with the object of inspiring the dwellers with terror. The heroic Basque people intoned while on the cross a chant of triumph and death, and also insulted their enemies, who witnessed with feelings of awe such manifestations of courage and loft independence of spirit.”
  • This took plate on Kuruceta, “a mountain situated in Guipuzcoa and Navarre, upon which some hundreds of Basque prisoners were crucified during the wars against the Romans.
  • The call to war was made by the chieftains of three tribes, from the heights of Gorbea, Amboto, and Aitzgorri.
  • The bill-zaars, or meetings of the ancients. These were held in three camps: Guernica, Arriaga, and Guerikiz.
  • Cannas. “A celebrated battle gained by Hannibal against the Romans. A vanguard of the Carthaginian army which decided the victory was composed of Basque auxiliaries.
  • Covadonga, Navas, and Salado. “Three famous sanguinary battles, in which the Moors were routed: in these the Basque legions took an active part.
  • Lara, “the famous Guipuzcoan warrior, and more renowned still as a bard.” “A young bard and Basque chief of the period when the wars were raging against the Empire of Rome. The poet, Silio Italico, in the sixteenth book of his Epic Poem, assigned a whole page to describe the personal combat of Lara against Scipio, in which the Basque chief lost his right hand.”
  • Dalmatic. “A very rich robe embroidered with gold spangles, worn over tunics of white wool on great festivals by the ancient Euscaros in olden times.
  • Gara-paita. “The collecting of the brake fern. This is a rustic agricultural work in which all the neighbours and relatives join the landowner. It generally lasts several days, and each evening, when the day’s labour is over, the young people amuse themselves with music, dancing, and love-making; while the old people spend time in games, or recounting tales or ballads.
  • Tejo. “A very common tree of the Basque mountains, the sap of which is poisonous. The Cantabrians used to poison themselves with this sap rather than surrender to the enemy. From this word Tejo was drived the name of Toxicum, or tosigo, which, later on, was applied to all descriptions of poison. Thousands of persons, principally among the aged men and women, took this poison, according to Roman historians, in Medulia and in the Hirnio, to save themselves from slavery and chains.

These are just some of the references to historical events or customs or activities that occur in these tales. I’ve tried to search online for some of them and, so far, have found very little to add. I’m not sure if it’s because the spellings have changed, or there simply isn’t much in English, or maybe these references have since become obscure. 

In any case, if anyone knows where to learn more about these topics, I would be very glad to hear from you!


ETA disarms

The big news out of the Basque Country is that ETA, Euskadi ta Askatasuna, who had declared a ceasefire in 2011, has officially disarmed. 

ETA grew out of the resistance to Franco’s dictatorship and disaffection with the economic and political realities of the late 1950s. They changed the political course of Spain when they assassinated Luis Carrero Blanco. Since then, they have been a constant part of the political discourse in the Basque Country. Over this time, 800 people have been killed at the hand of ETA militants. At the same time, a number of people have been killed by anti-terrorist efforts such as the GAL in Spain. It has been a long and bloody conflict.

During my various visits to the Basque Country, I’ve directly seen the result of just a few actions by ETA. During my first visit, in 1990-91, a bus was burned in San Sebastian’s Parte Vieja, a part of the kale borroka that was part of the bigger efforts of ETA. A few years later, after French authorities had arrested various ETA members in France, the Renault dealership in Ermua was firebombed. The most surreal encounter I even had was in a bar in the Parte Vieja. I was with another Basque-American and, when one of the clearly very drunk patrons learned of our Basque ancestry. He was very excited by the prospect of new people joining the cause in fighting against Spain. We finished our drink and escaped to the next bar as soon as we could.

History has yet to evaluate the final role and impact ETA has had on the history of the Basque Country and Spain. They certainly changed the course of events in Spain. At the same time, the Basque Country has existed under a cloud of violence for many years, a cloud that impacted tourism and development. 

The disarming of ETA is the end of a long chapter in the history of the Basque Country and its relationship with the rest of Spain and France. Over the last 60 or so years, the identity of the Basque Country has been inexorably intwined with its relationship with ETA. In recent years, the Basque Country has done a marvelous job of investing in research and development as well as pushing economic development. The Basque Country has been ready to turn the page on this chapter for quite some time. The future seems bright indeed.

There has been a lot of discussion of both the actual surrender of arms and the place of this event in the broader context of current reality of the Basque Country:

  • The New York Times briefly discusses the historical and political context.
  • The World Weekly and PRI describe the reaction from the other political players.
  • The Local, the New York Times, and the Sydney Morning Herald provide some detail about the actual process of finding the arms cache, including 120 firearms and 3 tons of explosives, and the demonstrations in support of peace and independence.
  • Reuters describes both the revealing of the arms cache as well as the historical context of ETA.

A Song for My Dad

My dad was Basque through and through. He didn’t have the typical trappings — he never did any folk dance and I never saw him wear a txapala. While when he got older he played mus and made chorizo and jamon, he didn’t do these things when I was a kid. However, whenever he got together with his friends, whether at our house, at a Basque festival, or just standing around a pickup truck along some dusty dirt road, the air would be filled with the harsh tx and k sounds of Euskara.

The only times I heard him sing in Basque were when we poked and prodded him to sing something to my daughter. Something in Basque from his childhood. (He didn’t grow up with the modern stuff and, whenever he heard me play Negu Gorriak in the car, he just shook his head.) Almost invariably, the song he would end up singing was Txalopin Txalo

I thought it would be great if my daughter, who is learning to play the piano, could learn to play Txalopin Txalo. I searched for a piano score and, luckily, found a book at the University of Wisconsin that had one. A friend of mine (thanks Izabela!) sent me a scan of the score and my daughter’s piano teacher tweaked it for piano (thanks Kirsten!). So, mission accomplished: I had found the song and now my daughter could learn this song her aitxitxe would sing to her.

Or so I thought. My daughter’s school holds what they call a “Coffee House,” or talent show, every few months where the kids show case all kinds of things they practice, from piano and violin songs to skits they write to martial arts demos. My wife and I brought up the idea to my daughter that it would be great if she played Txalopin Txalo at one of these. And, she enthusiastically agreed, with one condition: I would have to sing with her.

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t sing. I’m embarrassed to sing in front of my wife and daughter (though they might say that is partially because of the music I listen to). I haven’t sung in public since the by-gone days of being an alter boy. Well, minus a few times in a semi-drunken stupor at some fiesta in Euskal Herria, but those don’t count.

In any case, my daughter, with a lot of support and encouragement from my wife, practiced hard and mastered the song. And, on Friday, we performed it in front of her school. My daughter began with a little introduction:

My aitxitxe, or grandfather, was from the Basque Country, in Spain, where they speak a language, Basque, that is not related to any other language in the world.

Whenever we asked him to sing me a song in Basque, he would sing this lullaby, called Txalopin Txalo.

It is about a cat that is playing on a mirror and hiding in shoes.

My aita, or dad, said that if I learned to play it on the piano, he would sing it with me at Coffee House.

This is for you, dad!


A Magical View of the Basque Country

In 2001 or so, the Basque television company ETB aired a series of videos about the Basque Country entitled Lau Haizeetara in Euskara and La Mirada Magica in Spanish. These videos, led by first Iñaki Pangua and later Edu Llorente, explored the land of the Basque Country from helicopter. From what I can tell (my Spanish is not so great), Iñaki and two others died in a helicopter crash during filming and that is when Edu took over.

In any case, these videos explore the Basque Country from a bird’s eye view. The camera follows the coast, zooms through the mountains, and hovers over cities as the narrator delves into the history and beauty of the Basque Country. Narration is in both Spanish and Euskara.

I first discovered these randomly maybe 10-15 years ago. As I mentioned, my Spanish isn’t good enough to really follow the narration in depth, so I haven’t gone through all of them. But simply as a visual feast, these videos are great. That said, I’ve always thought it would be awesome to have these dubbed into English. Given that there are no actors, one isn’t dubbing dialog, but narration, and it seems that wouldn’t be so hard. And these videos would be an excellent introduction to the wonders and majesty of the Basque Country. I can’t imagine I’m alone in wanting an English version of these. 

In the end, there were 10 chapters, each containing 3 episodes, that explored different parts of the Basque Country. Here are Youtube links to them. Enjoy!

1×01 El Hierro Y El Mar: Costa occidental de Bizkaia / The Iron and the Sea: The Western Coast of Bizkaia

1×02 Una Proa Al Mar: Costa norte de Bizkaia / A Bow to the Sea: The Northern Coast of Bizkaia

1×03 Costa oriental de Bizkaia / The Eastern Coast of Bizkaia

2×01 Costa occidental de Gipuzkoa / The Western Coast of Gipuzkoa

2×02 Costa Oriental Gipuzkoa / The Eastern Coast of Gipuzkoa

2×03 Costa Labortana / The Coast of Lapurdi

3×01 Entre El Cielo y La Tierra / Between the Sky and the Earth

3×02 La Ciudad Del Mar, San Sebastián / The City of the Sea, San Sebastián

3×03 La Ciudad De Los Anillos, Vitoria-Gasteiz / The City of the Two Rings, Vitoria-Gasteiz

4×01 Entre El Agua Y El Vino, Ribera Del Ebro / Between the Water and the Wine, the Bank of the Ebro

4×02 La Vieja Ciudad, Pamplona / The Old City, Pamplona

4×03 Campos Y Fortalezas, Navarra Sur / Fields and Fortresses, Southern Nafarroa

5×01 La Montaña Habitada, Pirineo Atlántico / The Inhabited Mountains, the Atlantic Pyrenees

5×02 La Roca Y El Agua, Alto Pirineo / The Rock and the Water, the High Pyrenees

5×03 A Los Pies Del Orhi, Pirineo Central / At the Feet of Orhi, the Central Pyrenees

6×01 Vientos De Invierno / Winds of Winter

6×02 Los Valles Profundos, Elba y El Urola / The Deep Valleys, Elba and El Urola

6×03 Zuberoa, El Paraíso Escondido / Zuberoa, the Hidden Paradise

7×01 Bizkaia, Valles Orientales / The Eastern Valleys of Bizkaia

7×02 Bizkaia, Valles Occidentales / The Western Valleys of Bizkaia

7×03 El Corazón De Bizkaia / The Heart of Bizkaia

8×01 Ría Adentro, El Gran Bilbao / Following the River, the Great Bilbao

8×02 Las Tierras Frías, Álava: Valles Occidentales / The Cold Lands, the Western Valleys of Araba

8×03 De La Llanada A La Montaña: Álava, Valles Orientales / From the Plains to the Mountains: The Eastern Valleys of Araba

9×01 La Navarra verde / Nafarroa the Green

9×02 La Navarra Del Norte / Nafarroa of the North

9×03 La Isla Interior, El Goierri y Sus Cimas / The Interior Island, The Goierri and its Peaks

10×01 Bilbao, la ciudad / Bilbao, the City

10×02 Baiona y Lapurdi / Baiona and Lapurdi

10×03 Viaje a la tierra de los vascos / Trip to the Lands of the Basques

The Changing Taste of Basque-American Cuisine

When I first started this site, one of the first things I added was Charley Shaffer’s list of Basque restaurants in the US. Charley simply loved Basque-American food, particularly the family style dining that was typical of restaurants in the US west. As he describes in his introduction to his list:

Meals are typically served family style. Occasionally you may be seated at a long table with others; this is most likely to occur at the historic hotels. Dinner will be delivered in courses: soup and bread, salad, beans, french fries, and a meat entree. Lamb is popular, but so are beef, pork, and chicken, and occasionally seafood is available. Sometimes you will have a choice among two or three entrees, but everything else will just arrive at your table. A dessert of ice cream will probably be included.

There will be plenty of food; this is not a light meal. 

The family-style Basque restaurant was once a common feature of the American landscape. But, over the years since Charley first sent me his list, I’ve gotten a steady stream of emails notifying me that, one by one, these restaurants have closed. The latest note was about the historic Winnemucca Hotel, which, while having stopped being a Basque restaurant for a number of years, is slated to be torn down. While stalwarts such as Noriega’s and Epi’s are still thriving, as a whole, these restaurants are certainly in decline.

At the same time, my news feed brings a constant stream of reports about new Basque restaurants. These new restaurants, seemingly inspired by the new and internationally recognized cuisine and the pintxo culture in the Basque Country itself, are, in contrast to the family-style restaurants characteristic of the American west, more uniformly spread out across the country. Some recent examples include Anxo Cidery & Pintxos Bar in DC and La Cuchara in Baltimore. These newer restaurants seem to be targeting a different clientele, one the is maybe more metropolitan and less connected to Basque-American roots. 

It doesn’t seem to me that these two changes are necessarily related. The decline in the traditional Basque-American restaurants is, at least in part, due to the aging sheepherding generation. Many of these restaurants were connected to boarding houses and directly served the Basque sheepherding community and, by extension, their families. As those original immigrants have aged, with no one to continue the tradition, their restaurants have closed their doors. At the same time, the culinary reputation of the Basque Country has increased — San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per square meter than any other city in the world except Kyoto, Japan — and that has spurred a wider interest in Basque cuisine. These seem like parallel but independent developments.

I’d love to hear about people’s memories dining in some of these historic places. 

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