Returning Home

My dad left the Basque Country for the United States when he was 18. As many others before, including three uncles who were already in the US, he was looking for a better life. After three years of sheepherding, he went back to the Basque Country with enough money to buy an apartment in Gernika. But, the opportunity arose again to return to the US and make some more money. During this second contract, fate took a different turn. He met my mom, got married, had three kids, and stayed the rest of his life in the US.

Though he spent the vast majority of his life in the US, his head and his heart were, it seemed to me, always in the Basque Country. Not necessarily the Basque Country of today, with its punk music, its metropolitan cities, and its graffiti seemingly everywhere, but of the “good old days” of life on the baserri, the dances in the plaza, and the sports in the fronton. That was his gold standard of life, and nothing in the US ever lived up to it. 

So, after he died, I really wanted to take something back to his home, back to the baserri. Something of him to take back home. A couple of weeks ago, we were able to do that.

My wife’s dad made a small wooden box that we filled with both small things of his, such as the belt buckle he often wore, as well as notes and recuerdos from us. My mom, my wife, my daughter, and I all put something in there. My uncle, my dad’s lone remaining brother, dug a hole under the apple tree they planted some 40 years ago, during Christmas, outside the family baserri. My daughter and I, surrounded by my uncle, my aunts, and numerous cousins, then buried the box with a few of our thoughts and memories under that tree. Returning something of my dad back to his home.

My own contribution was a little story about what I remember most about growing up and being with my dad:

Blas Pedro Uberuaga

I pick the rope off the ground, gripping it tightly in my hand.

I climbed a lot of these ropes when I was a kid. They held the haystacks together on dad’s truck. Sometimes, I climbed them just for fun, when his truck, parked on the street, loomed over the house, over the neighborhood. My short legs stretched and searched for the footholes that dad and his partners left in the stack. Reaching over the top was always the scariest bit, but, as I got older, that got easier too. We used to climb up and jump from the stack on one trailer to the other. I remember falling once, but now it seems like it would have been so high off the ground. Maybe it wasn’t me, maybe it was one of my brothers. Or maybe it was a figment of my imagination. I can’t remember.

When I went with dad on his runs, it was my job to climb up and unhook the come-along rope puller. After I freed the ropes, I’d either climb down the front, where I could get my feet on the wall separating the first trailer and the cab, or wait until dad unloaded enough hay for me to climb down.

I wrap the rope around my hand. With the five other men, I lift the coffin off the ground.

When I was a kid, dad and his partners loaded and unloaded the truck by hand, but when I got older, dad got a tractor and was able to load and unload by himself. I would still go with him sometimes, mostly to untie the ropes and give him some company. I no longer needed to climb those ropes, but, once in awhile, I still did. Most of the time, though, I would sit on the end of the hay grapple and he would lift me up to the top of the stack. Once I untied one trailer, he would  carry me over to the other. I’d untie that one and then he would lift me down and I would collect the ropes. Dad taught me how to weave the rope between my arms, in a figure eight, to bundle them up.

Once, during Thanksgiving break, or maybe even on Thanksgiving Day itself, we were driving along the highway when the truck got sluggish. It was a cold morning, somewhere below zero. In later years, dad would say it was minus forty. Anyways, he pulled over and found that the diesel in the lines had gelled up, it was so cold. He got out his lighter and heated the metal diesel line by hand. That was enough to get the diesel flowing and we got going again.

The six of us carry the coffin over to the grave and then gently lower it into the hole.

Going with dad on his hay runs was really the only time we ever had time, just the two of us. We never talked much, we would just drive down the freeway or along some remote dirt road, sitting high off the ground, watching the scenery pass by. Dad could navigate his truck along the narrowest mountain passes. We had our stash of soda and sandwiches. I would drink my Mountain Dew while dad smoked his cigarettes, and we would listen to the chatter on the CB. The only real advice he ever gave me was to make sure that I worked in a place with air conditioning, so I didn’t have to work outside in the baking sun like a “jackass” like he did. Ironically, I can’t turn the air conditioning off in my office and it is always too cold.

Once or twice, he let me drive his truck. I never drove as much as my brothers. I’m not sure if dad didn’t think I was very good at it or didn’t have much interest. The truth was that I really wanted to learn to drive his truck, but I never really let him know.

“Goodbye, dad,” I whisper. I drop the rope and watch as it falls into the grave, hitting the lid of the coffin with a dull thud.

Abertzaleak: Basque Patriots

During the Christmas holiday, which we spent in and around Boise visiting grandparents, we made a stop at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center. After making our yearly pass through the gift shop, we took a stroll through the museum itself and found the newest exhibit on Basques in the military. The goal is to recognize Basques who have served, both in the United States military as well as in those in Europe, in various conflicts around the globe, to honor their service and sacrifice. They already have multiple exhibits and stories highlighting the service of various Basques.

After touring the museum, we stopped next door to see Patty Miller. As we talked more about the exhibit, its origins, and the efforts they have been taking to put it together, she said “hold on a minute” and grabbed a big binder of scanned records. You see, as part of this effort, they have been going around to the various government record centers in the surrounding areas and scanning records pertaining to the project. In this binder was the draft registration card of my great-grandfather, my namesake Blas Telleria! It was pretty awesome seeing his signature on this form — he certainly had better penmanship than I do! 

In one of those nice coincidences, just a few days later I saw a link on Facebook to a calendar of Basque Heroes of World War 2, a collection of 12 soldiers from both the US and Europe, summarizing their accomplishments during the war. The calendar was put together by Memoria Bizia, the Sancho de Beurko Elkartea, and Fighting Basques.

If you are interested in contributing, the Basque Museum and Cultural Center would love to hear from you. Let me turn it over to them for the details on how you can contribute:

Abertzaleak/Patriots: Sacrifice & Honor – A Story of Basques in the Military Near & Far

The Basque Museum & Cultural Center opened its newest exhibit in November, 2017, which features Basques who served or are serving in the United States, Basque, French, and/or Spanish military. Our hope is to recognize all submissions through an interactive portion of the exhibit that will be viewed by literally thousands of visitors and students who tour the Museum each year. The Basque Museum would like to be able to represent as many Basques from as many states, countries and branches of the service as possible.

If you are Basque or of Basque decent and have served or know of a relative who has served in the military, would you please take a few minutes to gather the information to contribute to this project? The Museum currently has information and photos on nearly 400 veterans or active servicemen and women.

Please include the following information:
Basque Veteran Submission: Full name of soldier, branch of military, rank if known, and time-period or conflict served. If you have a photo of the military personnel in uniform, that would be wonderful, or a civilian picture from that time-period.

PLEASE CONTACT Amanda Bielmann (208/343-2671); to include information in this exhibit/project.

We would like to thank our generous sponsors for making this exhibit a reality:


The Good and the Bad about Basque Arboglyphs

A lot of the men that came to the United States were barely more than boys. Suddenly, they found themselves alone in the hills of west, tending herds of sheep with little more company than their dog. It’s no surprise, then, that many of them left their signature behind. Tagging the trees like urban kids do with their paint, they left behind their names, doodles of animals, and even drawings of people, some of them a little risqué. One of the last times my dad was in the hospital, my wife sketched a curvy outline on the white board in his room, asking him if he had ever drawn anything like that when he was out in hills. With a twinkle in his eye, he laughed, and said “Their boobs were bigger.”

Something I should have posted about a while ago, there has been a exhibit about these arboglyphs — or tree carvings — traveling around Nevada. The last day seems to have been yesterday, unfortunately (sometimes, real life gets in the way too much to keep things up to date). The exhibit, entitled “Mountain Picassos” and spearheaded by Jean and Phillip Earl, highlights the history of these carvings and provides history about the herders that carved them, was sponsored by the Nevada Arts Council and the Nevada Historical Society.

Here is a nice video that introduces these arboglyphs:

And, now the bad. 

Trees were never a great medium to preserve art. They die, they get cut down, they get burned down. And, it seems, climate change is exacerbating the problem. Climate-changed induced drought is causing trees to die faster. As detailed in this story by PRI, aspens are being hard hit by climate change, and at least one study says that half of the aspens will be gone by 2060. And, with them, so will go the history of the Basque sheepherder that they capture. This gives an even greater imperative to document these trees and their stories before they are gone forever.

A Basque in the French Revolution

In July, I was on a business trip in Versailles, France, and the hosts took us on a tour of the palace and the Jeu de Paume Room. Jeu de Paume is a game where players played a form of handball and tennis. The court at Versailles is famous because the French deputies of the Commoners met there on June 20, 1789 and made a vow:

“We swear never to separate and to meet wherever circumstances require until the kingdom’s Constitution is established and grounded on solid foundations.” — La Foule

And, thus, the French Revolution was born.

I’ve studied a bit about the French Revolution in various stages of my education. It should have been obvious, but the Basques were part of this tumultuous time. While wandering the Jeu de Paume Room, I saw the list of deputies and noticed an intriguing member:

(47) GARAT Dominique-Joseph (1749-1833)
Député de Bailliage d’USTARITZ

Of course, it only makes sense that there should have been some Basque representation at this meeting, but it isn’t something I’d ever come across. Who was this Dominique and what was role, if any, did he play in the Revolution?

As described by Wikipedia, Garat was born in Baiona in 1749. Both he and his brother, also named Dominique (and called the old) were elected to be representatives of Lapurdi. There were also representatives from Zuberoa (Uhart and Escuret-Laborde). Up to that point, the Basque region of France was still governed by the fueros or foral system that was also prevalent on the Spanish side. However, the French Revolution undid that. While both Garat brothers advocated for a Basque department, they were overwhelmed by the rest of the National Assembly to create a system in which local customs and peoples were ignored. While against this organization of France, Garat voted for it with the hopes of retaining some voice in the assembly. In the end, his efforts proved fruitless. Upon hearing of his and his brother’s votes to support the reorganization, the Biltzar of Lapurdi stripped the two brothers of their office. 

Garat continued to advocate for a Basque department, even lobbying Napoleon, arguing for the special history of the Basque people:

“The French Basques have acquired nor the customs of France, neither their language, while the Spanish Basques have not either acquired the Spanish customs, or their language. Either of them have kept being Basque (…) The Spanish Basques and the French Basques both think they all belong to the nobility, translating that idea to their customs and laws. That fact is astounding, for all the individuals of the seven provinces agree, acquiesce on that notion.” — Dominique Joseph Garat, Report to Napoleon Bonaparte, 1803 (taken from Wikipedia)

Garat rose to his position through several well received éloges on various topics that led to him being crowned by the Académie française multiple times. This led to him becoming a professor at Lycée. He was later named as minister of justice, in 1792, and the minister of the interior in 1793. He thus had an intimate knowledge of the government during one of the most dramatic periods in French history.

There is also more detail about the end of Basque home rule in France in this Wikipedia article.

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!


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