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buber.net > Basque > Features > GuestColumns > A Basque Historian's Dilemma
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A Basque Historian's Dilemma

by Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe

About Joxe: I was born in Munitibar (Bizkaia, Euskadi) studied at Oñati (Gipuzkoa), and in 1964 I landed in New York City. From there I moved closer to the Basques out West, but went to Nebraska for my M.A. in Latin American Colonial History, and back West again for my Ph.D. at the University of Nevada, Reno (1988).

At the Center for Basque Studies (CBS) of Reno, I became interested in arborglyphs carved by Basque and other sheepherders, a research that took me to many beautiful mountain ranges in the West. I cannot say it felt like work, but I did it anyway, and recorded close to 20,000 thousands glyphs, so far. I published a book, SPEAKING THROUGH THE ASPENS (UNR, 2000) on the findings, though reluctantly. Earlier I had published THE POWER OF NOTHING. LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF IGNACIO "IDAHO" URRUTIA, an amazing Bizkaian of Susanville, California. Then I started translating the "bertsoak" that for years I had collected in the American West, and with NABO's funding, I published SHOOTING FROM THE LIP: BERTSOLARIAK IPAR AMERIKAN (2003). Recently (2004) Antonio Zavala of Auspoa Books in Xabier (Nafarroa) published PEDRO JUAN ETCHAMENDY'REN BERTSOAK, with my introduction and comments.

Currently I continue recording tree carvings--I will go to Idaho in the summer of 2004. I teach Nevada History at Truckee Meadows Community College of Reno, while working on several more research and book projects at CBS.

Before I became a historian, I was interested in the Basque language, Euskara. In fact, for a few years in the 1960s I directed two magazines written entirely in Basque. Some of you will remember that those were difficult years under the dictator Franco. I am still more stimulated by Euskara than by pure history, though in the last twenty years I have dedicated myself to Basque history in the Americas.

In the process of being educated, one realizes that history, any history, must be read with a healthy dose of skepticism. They don't teach you that. Rather, you exit the classroom with the impression that history is the result of unbiased, truth-seeking researchers--if only feminists, minority groups, nativists, republicans, and democrats would agree.

It is difficult to be neutral, even when you have a Ph. D., because history is based foremost on written information, and automatically, the cultures that have no literature are utterly disadvantaged. Didn't you hear that history was written by victors and dominant cultures? Of course.

Having said that, you can just imagine the sad situation Basque history is in. They say that “Basques have no history,” and though in theory it is a lie, in practice, it is mostly true. European nations “cemented” their history in the last five hundred years thanks to state-sponsored universities and their “national schools” of thought. Before that, for centuries, the Christian Church claimed to be the sole guardian of the truth. The Basques missed out on both counts, because they lacked most of such institutionalized contraptions.

American Basques don’t realize the pressure that Basque historians are undergoing in Europe. The intellectual environment here in the U.S. is much more bearable for minorities in general. But European Basques studied in Spanish and French universities under Spanish and French professors paid for by a state that often is in conflict with Basque interests. The original sources utilized in their research are not only written in Spanish or French, but from that point of view, as well. Thus, from the start, the hypothetical freedom of Basque historians who may want to write “home grown” history, is severely curtailed.

And God forbid if they should try to deviate from the national “orthodox” history. The burden of proof is always on them, never on national historians, who can always claim to follow well-established schools. It is a no-win situation for the newcomer.

My Research on Biship Zumarraga

A more legitimate Basque history can be written by returning to Euskal Herria and listening to what the people have to say. That is one thing I learned from my Ph. D. dissertation on Juan Zumarraga, the first bishop of Mexico. He was born ca. 1476 in Durango, Bizkaia, and died in Mexico in 1548.

This was an extremely important historical period for the Basques, because autocratic kings on both sides of the Pyrenees were trying hard to consolidate power and to control as much territory as possible. The Kingdom of Nafarroa is a painful example, as it fell victim to the rapacity of king Fernando, the Catholic, in 1512. In a way, it was good that Nafarroa lost its king. As everyone knows, the very notion of a king was a bad idea to begin with.

European nations like Spain and France become childishly defensive when their integrity is attacked. Why? Everyone should be aware that no European king ever became a powerful ruler of a large nation without unprovoked conquest and without crushing minority groups. The trail of those kings is lined up with corpses. There is no denying that, because the royal scribes themselves faithfully recorded those “glorious deeds” of their kings.

As soon as territorial unity was achieved, the kings rushed to proclaim the sanctity of the fatherland as if it were ordained by God himself/herself. Historians were pressured to write national history, thus they began to write about the "Spanish people" rather than the real people composed of Castilians, Catalans, Galicians, Basques, etc. Their research was based primarily on official documentation emanating from the center, the royalty, which you suspect to be one-sided. What's a king going to say, that he was not in control? That his nation was divided?

Apparently few people realize that so much of the history we study and teach is based on this type of slanted fare. It amazes me that so few people are willing to talk about these issues.

In my research I read royal cédulas, but I also read Zumarraga's own writings that reveal the mindset of a fifteenth-sixteenth-century Basque. During his time, the kings of Madrid and Paris still lacked the means of control available to the modern state, and for all practical purposes, Zumarraga's world view is that of a Basque.

To be sure, he was not your typical Basque, “short in words and long in deeds.” He was long in both, thank God. He was a workaholic and “wordaholic.”

To make a long story short, Zumarraga, in his capacity as a bishop, wrote hundreds of letters to kings, high officials in the government and the church, and to other private parties. But being a bishop did not cancel his individuality, and private man Zumarraga also wrote dozens of letters to family members in Durango and Basque friends. About twenty such letters are known to us, though probably he wrote many more.

The totality of his correspondence is invaluable to learn about global Zumarraga, but it is the familiar letters that are most unique and interest us. In them Zumarraga tells us about his homeland, his identity as a person, and his Basque compatriots in Mexico and in various parts of the Spanish empire. For the period in question of Basque history, we have nothing that can match the significance of these letters by Zumarraga.

Zumarraga was a dual man, with one foot in Medieval Bizkaia and the other in the modern Atlantic Basque world (you might add that this one leg reached all the way to America). As a fifteenth-century Bizkaian of Durango, he told us about “Anbotoko sorginak” (the witches of Anboto), that's right. He grew up in a town famous for its heretics--whatever that means--and, in fact, some of his relatives were very probably members of the movement.

Without artifice, candidly, Zumarraga reveals his national identity and his Basque condition. He doesn't do this in private, as if he were hiding something. He tells it openly in his letters, several times, to the emperor Charles V himself. Once he did it to remind the king why his Castilian language was not good, “I am a Basque” (vizcaino), he wrote, and added, “no mamé este romance” (I didn't suckle this Romance language).

A dozen times Zumarraga writes and speaks of his homeland and there is never a hint that he means Spain by it. Interestingly, the words chosen by the bishop are “nuestra nacion” (our nation--no accent in the original). That's the terminology he uses normally, and it reminds me that when Basques refer to their father, mother, or house they do not tend to say “nire” (my) but “gure” (our). Another time he wrote the king that he could order “from my country” some things that he needed in Mexico. In another occasion, speaking of Martin Aranguren, a fellow Bizkaian, he wrote “I do not know another person of the nation quite like him.” Zumarraga did not feel that he needed to explain what he meant by “nation.” He knew that both the king of Spain and Urti Abendaino (the recipient of the last letter) understood.

Zumarraga was a Franciscan friar, who always claimed to be poor, but it is fascinating to find out how many thousands of pesos passed through his hands. Once, he sent 3,000 ducats to his family in Durango. Properly speaking, be tried to smuggle the money, which was being carried by a Basque friend, and in the latter's name. Yet, few biographers hold the money issue against him. Indeed, he did some great things with money.

Zumarraga not only brought the first printing press to America, but he published the first books, and he authored some of them (the first book, by the way, was bilingual). In 1537 Zumarraga also wrote one of the earliest letters in the Basque language to the Lady Kattalin of Muntsaratz in Abadiano, Bizkaia.

He was a realistic man, who understood the exploitative nature of colonization. But he was genuinely interested in the welfare of the Mexican people, and sponsored ideas that centuries later were attributed to European economists. People in Mexico worked hard, yet the fruits of their labor went to Spain. So in a letter to the emperor he decried the sad situation that all the gold and silver was taken out of Mexico. He argued that if some of the mineral wealth be invested in the country, Mexico would prosper and be rich. And he concluded his argument by delivering a punch line that only a Basque could, “rico el pueblo, rico el rey.”

This was revolutionary and the king must have been dismayed when he read it. At a time prevalent literature viewed God, Pope, and King as so indispensable to society that without them nothing good could be accomplished. But Zumarraga could not shake his Basque condition and his homeland, Bizkaia, where everyone was noble and had the same rights under the law. He reminded the incredulous king that it was the people who made the king rich, not vice versa.

Zumarraga has been aptly called “the patriarch of the Basques in Mexico.” He not only imported dozens of compatriots to work for him, but attracted many more, and he tried to help them all. In his trans-oceanic dealings, there was rarely a time when he didn't use the services of a Basque merchant, ship, or shipmaster. He was in communication with Basque leaders in the far-flung empire, which Basque ships and sailors connected and kept humming. Not that they have been given credit.

Bishop Zumarraga lived in a crucial period of the history of Euskal Herria, when Basque collaboration with Spanish kings accelerated and deepened. The excess Basque population found employment in the empire, and that was good news, but eventually home rule and autonomy would be compromised. During this critical juncture the bishop's mindset is that of a Bizkaian who sees himself as a Basque, united to his compatriots by a common language and culture.

In the two centuries in question, there is no other Basque that can measure up to Zumarraga's figure, not even the much-touted Inigo Loiola, founder of the Jesuits. In comparison, Loiola appears decidedly medieval and conservative.

For more information, see J. Mallea-Olaetxe, “Juan Zumarraga, First Bishop of Mexico, and the Basques: The Ethnic Connection” (University of Nevada, 1988).

What? Aspen Carvings?

That used to be the response of many people, and no wonder. Take a look at this:

Lenago neskatan
oin arditan    
beti amesetan    
J. Z. 1915
What do you suppose an average American would think upon seeing that message carved on a lonely aspen? I am not making this up. The tree stands at almost 9,000 feet of elevation in one of the remotest places of the American West in northern Elko County, Nevada. Of course, if you are Basque, you'd be extremely lucky and happy to see it. You couldn't help imagining this sheepherder of long ago sitting there, contemplating the awesome, wild panorama of mountains displayed in front of his eyes. An urbanite would be thrilled to be in his place, but for Juan Zarakondegi, it didn't mean much. This is what he was thinking:
Before, I used to chase girls
now I chase sheep  
[I am] always dreaming
Since I published the book on Basque Aspen Carvings in 2000 I learned that this J. Z. was Juan Zarakondegi, a “bertsolari.” There is a Zarakondegi hamlet in Bizkaia near Ispazter, and he might have been born somewhere near there.

Now-a-days a few more people in the American West know or heard about the arborglyphs extant in their “backyards.” The sheepherders carved tens of thousands of arborglyphs (lertxumarrak) from Montana to California, but 75 percent have disintegrated and disappeared, while thousands more remain unrecorded.

I saw them in 1968 for the first time, but didn't begin researching them until twenty years later. Early on, some of the few adventurous American hikers who saw them didn't really understand them, and regarded them as “doodlings,” while others spoke of them as “pornographic.” There were few exceptions, however.

In the greater scheme of things, in my opinion, the arborglyphs are an uncanny reflection of Basque idiosyncrasy and history in Europe, but on closer inspection, they faithfully document Basque immigration to the United States. They, more than any book ever written, serve to map the movement of sheep and sheepherders on the American rangeland.

No, Zarakondegi's example is not typical, but I couldn't resist including it and giving it a well deserved prominence. In reality, the great majority of the carvings reveal the names of the sheepherders, their origins, and the dates. However, there are thousands of other readable messages on trees, and some of them are real “nuggets.”

You want samples? Let us hike up to Peavine, a small mountain (elevation 8,240 feet) near Reno and see what’s up there. Four major aspen groves are located on its flanks, containing 500+ arborglyphs. At least 105 individuals left their marks on aspen trees, the oldest date being 1901 and the latest 1989. Seventy-two of the carvers are clearly sheepherders, whose origins can be deduced either from the carvings themselves of by their last names. Carving the date and the year was almost as important as one's name, therefore, right there, we have a wealth of information.

But, of course, the arborglyphs on Peavine say much more, from the prosaic “Goxo da itzalian” (It is nice in the shade), to the erotic, “Ez dut berze penik nesca batena” (I have no other pain but that of [lacking] a girl), to the poetic, “Arno onak parerik ez du basonbat baino hobe biga egia ez dea banaski hobe” (The good wine has no equal, two glasses are better than one, however, isn't the truth still better?).

That's just a quick glimpse at what you can find in a small mountain range.

History People Like When I started recording the tree carvings in earnest, I went to the larger groves in Nevada and California, and I made quick progress: In a few years I catalogued over 13,000. But soon I realized that an army of recorders was necessary to make a dent and record even a sample in the ten states of the American West, where carvings are found.

Since the inception of the research I have been working closely with the US National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. These and other federal agencies manage 85 percent of Nevada land, including the carved aspen groves. After some discussion, there emerged a consensus that if we could find volunteers, we might make better progress. We knew that at least one National Forest archaeologist in Oregon had tried it, and with great success.

In 1997 archaeologist Fred Frampton of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest of Elko, Nevada, organized a highly successful Passport-In-Time (PIT) Project for a week-long research effort in the Copper Basin in northeast Nevada. Over twenty-fivevolunteers came, some from as far away as Florida and New York, and in five days we recorded over 1,100 arborglyphs.

The project was much more than about recording tree carvings. It was a total historical experience. To begin with, we camped at an old sheep camp at 8,400 feet of elevation located zero miles from nowhere. The camp was outfitted with two run-down cabins, two bread ovens, and ice-cold spring water.

When the owner of a Basque restaurant in the town of Elko heard we were going to Copper Basin, he remembered his years in there as a sheepherder--he used to say that God hadn't arrived there yet--and he was so touched that he donated enough lamb for one meal for everyone. Another restaurant owner and ex-sheepherder of Elko, whom we met in the nearby ghost-town of Jarbidge, bought wine for all the volunteers.

So, one evening we fired up one of the ovens and cooked a Basque-style meal. To cook the lamb stew, we dug a pit, and after building a fire in it, we buried several Dutch ovens in the coals. All the volunteers chipped in, everyone ate and drank heartily, everyone had an experience of a lifetime.

The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest has been sponsoring highly successful PIT Projects in California, but other National Forest Districts across the West, in Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, and Wyoming, have organized then as well. They are so popular that people are competing to be selected as volunteers. I understand that in 2004 there will a two-week-long project in Idaho and another near Reno, Nevada.

This is truly one history of public lands recorded by the public.

The fact that sheepherder history is becoming almost mainstream is an amazing development. Just think of the decades through which the Basques lived in America like ghosts. Some people did not regard them very well, especially the cattle ranchers, but, actually, they suffered less discrimination than other minority groups. Why? Because they stayed the heck out of towns. Where they lived and worked, nobody else lived and worked, except the coyotes, the bears, the cougars, and...

It is all history now.

For more information, read J. Mallea-Olaetxe, Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada (University of Nevada Press, 2000).

Shooting From the Lip: Bertsolariak

My latest research is on the handful of improvising verse-singers that still exist in the Basque-American community. They are Johnny Kurutxet and Jess Arriada, both of South San Francisco (California), Martin Goikoetxea of Rock Springs (Wyoming), and Jess Goñi of Reno (Nevada). There are additional individuals able to improvise in front of an audience and sing, but these four are the “regular” bards who perform in the U.S. today.

This is not exactly a research project, but a compilation. I collected “bertsoak” (rhymed verses) that “bertsolariak” (the troubadours) improvise and sing during the summer picnics or other special events. This happens primarily throughout California, Nevada, and Wyoming.

I started videotaping their performances in the late 1980s during the annual Kantari Eguna (Basque Singing Day) in Gardnerville Nevada), but at the time I did not plan to publish a book. I did it for personal use and satisfaction. Since childhood I had experienced verse-singing at home and whenever a “bertsolari” would get up in front of an audience and start singing, I would get goose bumps. Videotaping “bertsolari” events was simply a way to record the cultural activities of the Basque community.

Then one day, when I was talking with my bertsolari friend and neighbor Jess Goñi of Reno, he started griping about the lack of support he and his fellow-troubadours were getting from the Basque clubs and the public. He complained about performing without adequate compensation or none at all, but mostly he was upset about the little interest his unusual art generated among the Basques.

His words struck an emotional chord and I promised him that I would try to put together a little book with verses. It would have to be bilingual, so that the Basques who didn't follow their singing, could, at least read and understand their poetry. My plans eventually became a reality, but I didn't do it alone.

In every community there are a few especially-tuned individuals and it is no different among the Basques. When people heard about my intentions, they started sending in “bertsoak” of all kinds. Among the collaborators I have to single out Martxel Tillous of San Francisco, because he became immediately “hooked” and continued to be supportive until the very end.

Immediately I was surprised by the quantity of “bertsoak” extant in California. Perhaps, I should not have, after all in the 1890s, the Californiako Eskual Herria, a Los Angeles weekly, published dozens upon dozens of verses. More recently, in 1960 and again in 1972, the great Xalbador visited California where he sang and delivered stirring verses delighting his compatriots from Iparralde and others. In fact, in 1960, he and Mattin were instrumental for the founding of the San Francisco Basque Club.

When I set out to write the “bertso” book, I started with an introduction containing a short analysis on “bertsolaritza” (the art of improvising verses) in the United States. I translated into English all the verses that appear in the book, the majority of which were improvised by the four troubadours already mentioned.

When the manuscript was well underway, I approached the North American Basque Organization (NABO) and asked if it wanted to be the publisher and owner of the book. Sara Velez--a Managing Editor--and myself would take care of every detail, pro bono. All NABO would have to do was fund the publication and sell it. However, I did ask for one condition: That all the proceeds from the sale of the book be set aside to help “bertsolariak” when they travel performing across the American West. NABO accepted the conditions and Martin Goikoetxea became NABO’s liaison man.

Bertsolariak Receive National Award On September 17, 2003 Arriada, Goikoetxea, Kurutxet, and Goñi were the recipients of a Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington , D.C. This is the country's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, and “bertsolariak” were totally humbled by the award and all the attention that they received in the nation’s capital.

Pedro Juan Etchamendy Some troubadours in the Basque-American community do not improvise and sing verses, they write them. Among the latter, I would like to single out Pedro Juan Etchamendy of Arnegi (Iparralde). He immigrated to California, and lived in Barstow, California, where he died recently. Etchamendy was an inspired poet who, unlike many Basque writers, thought in his native language, so for many readers today his style of composition has certain “old style” quality.

As soon as I read his poems, I became convinced that he was one of the greatest recent Basque poets, and accordingly, I wrote Antonio Zavala, the publisher of Auspoa “Bertso” Books in Xabier, Nafarroa. He asked me to submit a manuscript, which I did, after the Etchamendy Family in California and Martxel Tillous supplied me with the necessary information and materials.

Etchamendy was a poet and a musician, who wrote music, and played several instruments, especially the accordion. The dairy business he owned kept him busy, but never busy enough to refuse support for the Chino Basque Club, of which he was an active member. For decades Etchamendy's music cheered up the Basque gatherings of Southern California.

A. Zavala will publish soon--probably in 2004--a beautiful volume with Etchamendy's poetry, including a few melodies of the hundreds he gathered or re-wrote himself.

For more information, read J. Mallea-Olaetxe, Shooting From the Lip: Bertsolariak Ipar Amerikan: Improvised Basque Verse-Singing (Reno, Nevada: The North American Basque Organization, 2003).

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