Basque Fact of the Week: The Tree of Gernika

The Tree of Gernika is one of the most iconic symbols of the Basque Country, featuring prominently on the coats-of-arms of the province of Bizkaia and thus of Euskal Herria. The fueros of Bizkaia specifically call out the tree as the place where people came to meet and any Bizkaian captured for any crime had to be brought before the tree. The Lords of Bizkaia, as well as the later Kings of Castile, swore their respect to Basque laws under the tree, up until 1839 when the infant Queen Isabella II and her mother the regent Maria Christina were the last. Today, the President — the Lehendakari — of the Basque Autonomous Community takes his or her oath of office under the tree.

Photo of the Tree of Gernika taken by Lisa Van De Graaff.
  • The Oak of Gernika is not the only such sacred tree in Bizkaia. There are many others, including those of Aretxabalagana, Abellaneda, Gerediaga, and Luyando. The tree in Gernika represented all of Bizkaia, except Encartaciones and Duranguesado, which met under the trees of Abellaneda and Gerediaga, respectively, until Bizkaia was united into one province in the 1600s.
  • The first, “father,” tree was planted in the 14th century and lived for about 450 years. The current tree, which is the fifth, was planted in 2015. The third tree, planted in 1860, survived the Nazi bombing of Gernika, but later succumbed to a fungus and was replaced in 2004.
  • The tree is such a powerful symbol of Basque liberty that it has become the object of numerous songs and poems, both within and without Euskal Herria. Perhaps the most famous song is Gernikako Arbol by Jose Maria Iparragirre:

The Tree of Guernica
is blessed
among the Basques;
absolutely loved.
Give and deliver
the fruit unto the world.
We adore you,
holy tree.

Oak of Guernica! Tree of holier power
Than that which in Dodona did enshrine
(So faith too fondly deemed) a voice divine
Heard from the depths of its aerial bower-
How canst thou flourish at this blighting hour?
What hope, what joy can sunshine bring to thee,
Or the soft breezes from the Atlantic sea,
The dews of morn, or April’s tender shower?
Stroke merciful and welcome would that be
Which should extend thy branches on the ground,
If never more within their shady round
Those lofty-minded Lawgivers shall meet,
Peasant and lord, in their appointed seat,
Guardians of Biscay’s ancient liberty.

A Random Basque Encounter in Oak Ridge

I was at Oak Ridge National Laboratory this week, attending a workshop on the Frontiers of Structural Materials (structural materials are all of the things that hold our buildings, power plants, cars, airplanes together and make them perform). I was presenting on our research center FUTURE and how we are developing experimental techniques to understand defects in materials.

Anyways, when I was done speaking, a young guy came up to me and said “Kaixo! Zer moduz?” He had seen my name and, recognizing it is Basque and being Basque himself, decided to introduce himself. A little while ago I wrote about a random encounter in San Antonio where I heard someone speaking Basque and how that is sort of like a secret handshake. Having a Basque name is similar. Most Basque names are so obviously distinct that it is another form of the handshake, of the “secret club.”

Patxi Fernandez-Zelaia is a scientist here at Oak Ridge studying additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing (AM), more popularly knowns as 3D printing, is a way of making parts, not by machining or cutting away material, but by adding material systematically to the part to form the shape you want. At Oak Ridge, they are doing this at much larger scales than what you typically see in videos and at homes, working to push these techniques so that they can be used, for example, to print turbine blades for airplanes.

The other day I highlighted the story of Gregorio Salegui Urain, who, unlike many Basques, didn’t come to the United States to be a sheepherder, but as a baker and ice cream maker. Patxi’s parents are another example of Basques who didn’t come to be sheepherders. Patxi’s dad, Humberto Fernandez Urquiaga, was a professional pilotari, playing in places like Miami and Connecticut. He and his wife are both from Markina, very close to Munitibar where my dad was from and the same town where my dad’s sister-in-law Rosario is from. One interesting story I got from Patxi: because the jai alai courts were associated with gambling, kids weren’t allowed, so he never got to see his dad play professionally. This video on YouTube highlight’s Urquiaga’s playing career.

Basque Fact of the Week: Jordan Valley, the Little Basque Town in Oregon

The American West was a strong draw for many young Basques seeking opportunity. Jordan Valley, Oregon, was one of those areas that provided opportunity for young Basques. Jordan Valley first attracted miners around 1863 when gold was discovered. The first Basques arrived soon after, in 1890, as part of the sheep industry. So many Basques came that Jordan Valley became known as “Home of the Basques.” The Basque influence was so strong that, in the early 1900s, Americans living there said they felt like they lived in the Basque Country.

Basque residents of Jordan Valley, c. 1914
Courtesy Oregon Hist. Soc. Research Lib., 21730, found on the Oregon Encyclopedia.
  • The population of Jordan Valley has always been small, maybe about 300 people during the decades of 1910-1930. More than half of the residents were Basque. The Basques lived separately from the American neighbors, retaining their old customs. They were so isolated that their children often only knew Basque and had trouble when they started school, where teachers forbade speaking the language. Their houses often had a touch of green or blue with red roofs, reminiscent of the baserri back home.
  • While Basques probably passed through the area in the 1860s with the discovery of gold, they didn’t really start settling in the area until 1889, when Antonio Azcuenaga and José Navarro arrived. While they were the first, it only took a few decades for Basques to be the dominant population. Many other Basque families followed, including the Eiguren, Elorriaga, Telleria, Yturri, Elordi, and Madariaga families. By the 1940s, 50% of the local farms were owned by Basques and Basques 90% of the sheep owners, according to a study by Joseph Gaiser.
  • In 1914, in cooperation with the local Irish population, the Basque community built the Catholic Church, Saint Bernard’s. They followed up in 1915 with a fronton, the only fronton in Oregon then, and now. After many years of disuse, the fronton was renovated in 1997, with a grand celebration when the renovation was complete (I was there!). About 1500 people, mostly descendants of the Basques of Jordan Valley, came to the celebration.
  • Because of the strong Basque identity, Jordan Valley was, with maybe the exception of Boise, the only place were certain traditions were still practiced. For example, on New Year’s Day, young men would go from house to house, singing Urte Barri Ekarri (Bringing the New Year), hoping for a drink from each house. Children did something similar on the day of Saint Agueda, hoping for bacon and sausage as their reward.
  • Even as late as 2001, Basque names abounded in local businesses. Aiden Madariaga was the owner of the Sahara Motel and the Chevron gas station. Jim Zatica was the owner of the Basque Station Motel and the Texaco gas station. Robert Telleria (my uncle!) was the owner of the town’s only supermarket, Telleria’s Market (sadly, I can’t find a single photo of the Market, run by my grandpa for many years before my uncle took over, online). Brother and sister Jim and Marcia Elordi were the owners of the bar, J.V. Club and Coffee.

Primary source: Totoricagüena Egurrola, Gloria Pilar. Estados Unidos de América. Oregón. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at:

Basque Fact of the Week: The Basque Ice Cream Maker

We are all familiar with the Basques who, like my dad and his uncles before him, came to the United States on contracts to herd sheep. They all came looking for opportunity and for a better life than what they could make back in the “old country.” But, sheepherding wasn’t the only route to a new life. Take the story of Gregorio Salegui Urain, as told by Koldo San Sebastián and Ana Vega Pérez De Arlucea.

The kitchen at the St. Francis. Gregorio is the second person from the left. Image from The Center for Basque Studies blog.
  • Gregorio was born in Itziar, Gipuzkoa, not far from the border with Bizkaia, on February 14, 1889. He was one of eight children, though two sisters had died not long after being born. He had been sent out to apprentice as a carpenter, but he didn’t take well to his presumed occupation. To escape the military draft, he left to make his fortune in the United States, arriving in New York in 1909.
  • He had traveled to New York with José Uruazabal and his family. José already ran a fruit shop in the city. Gregorio boarded with the Uruazabal family, including José’s brother Frank, who made ice cream. Gregorio soon found work in the same ice cream parlor where Frank worked.
  • Gregorio’s sister, Concepción, and her husband Eufemio Lizarzaburu had found their way to the Pacific Northwest. Gregorio joined them in Oregon, working on a ship.
  • His ice-cream career took a hiatus as he was called into service during World War I. He served as a cook for a few months before being discharged for medical reasons.
  • Back in civilian life, he ultimately found work at the famed St. Francis hotel in San Francisco, working for Victor Hirtzler. The hotel was famous for its cuisine and the celebrities — such as Charlie ChaplinDouglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, Sinclair Lewis, and Isadora Duncan. The famous menu included many ice creams, with flavors such as nectarine, peach, banana, pineapple, vanilla, and coffee that undoubtedly were created or influenced by Gregorio.

Basque Fact of the Week: Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve

Euskal Herria is known for its lush beaches that almost immediately lead to towering mountains that once were thought to be home of the goddess Mari. However, even in this wonderful landscape, there are special regions that stand out and the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve is one of those. Centered around the Oka river and covering about 85 square miles, or 10% of Bizkaia, it boasts wetlands that contain over 200 species of birds.

Image from
  • Created in 1993, the Reserve includes the towns of Gernika and Bermeo. It also includes famous sites such as the Oma Forest, where artist Augustin Ibarrola painted a series of trees, and the Santimamiñe Caves, an important archeological site with cave paintings dating back 13,000 years (incidentally, the caves were accidentally discovered by a pair of kids). The Reserve extends from the island of Izaro south to Mount Oiz.
  • The Urdaibai Bird Center sits in the heart of the Reserve. The Basque Country is a focus point of bird migrations between northern Europe and northern Africa. As a result, a large number of birds not seen in many other parts of Europe pass through Urdaibai. These include the grey heron, the cormorant, the common tern, and the Eurasian spoonbill.
  • The Reserve is also home to some of the Basque Country’s most spectacular beaches. These include Laga and Laida, both belonging to the town Ibarrangelu. And, of course, there is Mundaka, world-famous for its surfing.
  • The Reserve was created with several objectives. These include
    • Ensure the preservation of the unique ecosystems of the coastline.
    • Maintain biological diversity.
    • Protect valuable landscape resources.
    • Promote environmental research and education of naturalistic and environmental heritage.
    • Encourage recreational use and tourism in an orderly manner.
    • Support rural development, improving the quality of life of the local population and the rational use of natural resources.
    • Maintain hydro-geological cycles and fight erosion.

Basque Fact of the Week: Ravel Began, But Never Finished, a Basque-Themed Concerto

Maurice Ravel Deluarte is perhaps one of the best known composers in the world. His most famous work is Boléro, a piece he composed while he was on vacation in Donibane Lohizune/San Juan de Luz/Saint Jean-de-Luz, in Iparralde. Before World War I, Ravel had been working on a piano concerto entitled Zazpiak Bat. “Zazpiak Bat” is, of course, a common motto in the Basque Country, signifying the unity of the seven Basque provinces. Zazpiak Bat is also the nickname of the coat of arms of the Basque Country, which was created in 1897, when Ravel was 22 years old. Thus, as argued in this article, he seemed to strongly identify with the growing Basque identity. Indeed, he spoke Basque fluently.

Image from France Musique.
  • When World War I broke out, Ravel tried to join the French Air Force, but was rejected because of his age and a slight heart issue. He eventually made it into the war effort as a truck driver for an artillery regiment. He delivered munitions in the middle of the night under German bombardment, suffered frost bite, and had to undergo a bowel operations to fix issues related to dysentery.
  • Ravel was born in Iparralde, in Ziburu (Ciboune in French), in the province of Lapurdi. His father, Pierre-Joseph Ravel, was an engineer and inventor. He invented a steam-powered automobile in the 1860s and, with his other son Edouard, built a vehicle that could perform somersaults. Ravel’s mother, María Deluarte, was from the Basque town San Juan de Luz. She was “illegitimate and barely literate” but she was also a free thinking person who passed this trait onto her son.
  • Ravel’s dad’s mechanical mind seemingly influenced his music. Ravel’s friend Igor Stravinsky once said that Ravel had “the somewhat mechanical thoroughness of the Swiss watchmaker.”
  • Ravel’s strong connection to the Basque Country is summed up by words he wrote to Eugène Cools: “A compatriot of mine, because you have to know that we Basques have two homelands, l’abbé Donostia de San Sebastián [Aita Donostia], has visited me to make his works known and ask me advice.”
  • The reason Ravel abandoned Zazpiak Bat seems to be World War I. After he enlisted, he was busy driving trucks and tending to the wounded. Indeed, he wrote his friend Alexis Roland-Manuel “Impossible to continue Zaspiak-Bat, the documents having remained in Paris.” While he never finished Zazpiak Bat, some Basque influences did make it into other works, such as his Piano Trio. In particular, the opening movement was what Ravel called “Basque in coloring.”

Primary sources: Wikipedia and Mazorra Incera, Luis. Ravel Deluarte, Maurice. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at:

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