Telling the Stories that Need to be Told: An Interview with Richard Etulain

Ever since Robert Laxalt’s Sweet Promised Land told the story of his Basque immigrant father, there has been a growing recognition that the lives and stories of these men and women are not only worth telling, but comprise an integral part of our collective history and experience. Professor Richard Etulain has made it his life’s mission to tell these stories, not only of the Amerikanuak but of the entire American West. He has written books that tell the story of Billy the Kid and Calamity Jane and many other western figures. His most recent book, Boyhood Among the Woolies, is more personal, describing his own childhood growing up on a sheep ranch in eastern Washington state with a Basque immigrant father who, by example, demonstrated a work ethic that has sustained Richard his whole life. You can learn more about Boyhood Among the Woolies and all of Richard’s books at his website. Richard took a few moments to virtually sit down with me to discuss his connection to Basque culture, his interest in the history of the American west, and the need to tell our stories.

Buber’s Basque Page: You mention a few times in your book how, because of various factors, you and your family were not so connected to the Basque culture as you might have been. What elements of Basque culture did you grow up with? Did your dad ever speak Basque with you and your brothers?

Richard Etulain: I have lived most of my adult life realizing how different my early years were from those of my Basque contemporaries. My Basque Dad converted to evangelical Protestantism in his twenties, he married a non-Basque woman, we lived away from any notable Basque group (Yakima was about four hours drive away), and my later pathway as an academic rather than as a rancher or farmer–these were the major reasons for my distance from the livestyles and outlooks of so many other Basques. My Dad was first-rate example of indarra, the resiliency, ambition, and perseverance of many Basques. Other sheepmen saw and realized how much my Dad was a nonstop worker. In his daily labors, his exacting honesty, and his devotion to success Dad defined Basqueness for onlookers—and later for me.

Two other barriers kept me from linking up with Basque culture as a young man. In his incessant work habits, Dad was not a close father to his three sons. He was “too bussy” (Dad’s way of saying “too busy”), as he would state, for small talks.  Plus, my mother had no ties to the Basques or Spanish culture. So, we had no Basque and little Spanish in our home.

The Etulain sheep ranch near Ritzville, Washington, where Richard grew up

BBP: Despite you not having as many elements of Basque culture in your childhood, you are clearly drawn to the Basque history of the American West. What about the Basques do you find particularly interesting?

Richard Etulain: As an undergraduate and graduate student history major, I fell in love with the history and cultures of the American West.  Partly because I felt at home in the rural West and probably because I was drawn to books that depicted a romantic Old West. Gradually, as an advanced graduate student and university professor of history, I became interested in a more wide-angle view of the West. That broader view pushed me to move beyond the popular western topics such as the frontier, cowboys, Indians, and a Wild West. I became interested in new topics: cities, politics, literary history—and the Basques.  Over time, I wanted to know more about my own story, a sheep ranch life, small western towns, and the Basques.  Once that drive surfaced, I began serious research and writing about the Basques.  Spending a year on a NEH grant at the University of Nevada, Reno, Basque Studies program and with mentor William Douglass did much to launch my work on the Basques.

BBP: You spent a year at the University of Nevada, Reno, with William Douglass. What was the most memorable aspect of that year?

Richard W. Etulain, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of New Mexico, is the author or editor of more than 60 books. Best known among his books about the history and cultures of the American West are Conversations with Wallace Stegner (1983), Writing Western History (editor, 1991), Re-imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History, and Art (1996), Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry (1999), Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West (2006), The American West: A Modern History, 1900 to the Present (with Michael P. Malone, 2d ed., 2007), and Lincoln Looks West: From the Mississippi to the Pacific (2010). He has been president of both the Western Literature and Western History associations. He has lectured abroad in several countries, most recently as a Fulbright Lecturer in Ukraine and at the University of the Basque Country in northern Spain. He serves as editor of the Oklahoma Western Biographies series for the University of Oklahoma Press and has been coeditor of the Concise Lincoln Library for the Southern Illinois University Press. He has also submitted a manuscript, “Illuminative Moments: Pacific Northwest Prose, 1800 to the Present,” which the University of Nevada Press will publish in 2023 or early 2024. Finally, he will also self-publish a manuscript entitled “Learning and Faith: A College Memoir,” in 2023. He is currently working on a collection of previously published and newly written essays on the American Basques.

Richard Etulain: My year of studies at the Basque Studies Center at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1973-74, especially with Bill Douglass, was a turning point in my journey toward becoming a diligent student of the Amerikanuak. Previously, I had gathered bits and pieces about the Basques from my family, a trip to the Old Country, and in-and-out readings about the Basques. But at Reno, I learned to be a researcher on the American Basques. I studied side-by-side with Bill Douglass and Jon Bilbao as they were completing their work on Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World (1975), still the most important book written on the American Basques fifty years after it was published. The desire to research and write on the Amerikanuak led to my writing several essays and editing four books on the Basques. More recently, that ongoing drive to write about the American Basques led to Boyhood Among the Woolies: Growing Up on a Basque Sheep Ranch (2023) – and editing a collection of previously published and newly written essays on its way to publication.

BBP: Reno has a vibrant Basque community. Did that proximity allow you to connect to Basque culture in ways that you hadn’t been able to when you were a child?

Richard Etulain: Five stopping places along my journey toward becoming more of a Basque have been centrally important to this pilgrimage. My pre-teen and teen years on a sheep ranch and livestock farm introduced me to sheepmen and their ways of life, especially through the nonstop work ethic of my Basque father—and through the lives of several Basque herders on our sheep ranch. Then, as a college student in 1955-60 in the Boise area, I added more explicit Basque ways in eating at a boardinghouse, visiting a museum, and attending Basque celebrations in which I participated or merely witnessed. Then in the summer of 1967, a trip to the Old Country and a visit to my Dad’s hometown of Eugui, and stops with my Basque relatives were pleasing, eye-opening experiences. My year in Reno at the University of Nevada Basque Studies Center (1973-74), where I succumbed to the itch to become a Basque researcher.  Finally, back to Boise, where I have attended the Jaialdi celebrations with my family and carried out further research. As a boy I was isolated from Basque communities like those developing in Boise and Reno; but as a student and adult I have had my Basque batteries charged in several trips and stays in Boise and Reno.

BBP: As an adult, were there specific things you did to try to connect to your Basque heritage more explicitly? Did you try to bring in elements of Basque culture into your own home?

Richard Etulain: I first introduced myself to a few Basque things when I was in the Boise area as a college student, and later as a teacher. I ate at a Basque boardinghouse and attended a few Basque gatherings. A few years later in my first trip to the Basque Country, I gathered a few books, artworks, and pottery for my reading and house decorations.  Then, through the years, I attended more and more Basque celebrations in Reno, Elko and Winnemucca, San Francisco, and Boise.  Once I began to research and write about the Basques in the mid-1970s, I gathered more publications about the Basques and interviewed Basque family members, and notable Amerikanuak Robert Laxalt.

Richard with his Basque relatives on the border of Spain and France

BBP: How was it, interviewing Robert Laxalt? He is such a titan in Amerikanuak literature! What was it like interviewing him?

Interviewing Robert Laxalt in January 1996 was an unforgettable experience. Conversing with Laxalt and his wife Joyce in Carson City, Nevada, was not only valuable for my later writing about him; so was the chatting about our Basque heritage and the recent trends in western American literature. The interview with Laxalt was just right for a literary historian on my beat. He talked about his Basque family, his work as a journalist, and his ongoing challenges as a storyteller. What I saw in Laxalt – in person – replicated what others saw in his fiction and nonfiction: he was a superb storyteller, much aware of American social and cultural complexities, and able to turn out first-rate work that captured and explained those complexities.

BBP: Sheepherding, though less glamorous than cattle ranching, was just as important a part of the development of the American West. As a historian of the American West, how do you see the role of sheepherding and the sheep industry in the development of the United States?

Richard Etulain: My contacts with sheepherding and sheep ranching were of two kinds: I first experienced all the daily details of sheep ranching in the first sixteen years of my life, near Ritzville and Ellensburg, in the state of Washington.  Later, secondly, as an adult and teacher I began to read about sheep ranching and its impact on the American West.  The books by Edward Norris Wentworth and Archer B. Gilfillan were information-builders in this new area for me.

I was slow to do serious reading and research on the western sheep industry because the mythic American West, that is the John Wayne-Louis L’Amour emphases, had captured me. It focused almost entirely on cowboys, outlaws, and shootouts.  No sheepherders there. But as a history professor I began more encompassing study of the limitations of the mythic West, on the one hand, and commenced examining the overlooked western, diverse subjects such as western urbanization and sheep raising. Once I realized the complexity of western history, rather than the stylized, stereotyped Old West, I studied more carefully and extensively such subjects as sheepmen and sheep-raising. Plus, a year teaching in New Zealand and visiting hundreds of sheep stations there gave me comparative information for understanding sheep raising. These expanded studies helped me to realize, much more, how important sheep matters were to the development of the American West.

BBP: As both a historian of the American West and the son of an immigrant, can you comment on the role that immigrants and immigration have had in the development of the West?

Richard Etulain: We often forget that many westerners are—and have been—immigrants. From the first newcomers to the present, huge numbers of westerners have come from other places.  And many of the immigrants have been initiators of new things in the American West brought from their previous New World and Old World locations; they have also been receptive to the sociocultural traditions already in place in the West when they arrived. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the recent arrivals from Europe, Asia, South and Central America, and Mexico, as well as those coming up the overland trails from other parts of the U. S., were important shapers of the American West.  Think, as examples, of the Asians who came to work on railroads, the South Americans participating in the Gold Rush, the Greeks, Scandinavians, and Scots as miners, herders, and agricultural workers, and the Mormons – all added to the changing identity of western America. Obviously, the Basques are an important part of this immigrant population – from Juan de Oñate and Juan Bautista de Anza up through the numerous Euskaldunak who came to Spanish and Mexican California.  And then the more numerous Basque immigrants that came as sheepherders from Spain and France in the 1890 to 1960 years.  Immigrants have been a notably important ingredient of an ever-evolving western American identity.  We need to keep the Basques in this transitioning story.

BBP: You mentioned your upcoming collection of Basque essays. What can we expect to read in there? What other projects are you working on?

My forthcoming collection of ten essays on the Basques of the American West has been submitted but not yet accepted for publication.  It includes previously published essays on Basques in American literature, early Basques of the Pacific Northwest, Robert Laxalt, my father Sebastian Etulain, and on other topics. The three newly written essays for the collection provide an overview of most historical writings on American Basques during the past half century, a guide to the literary career of Basque writer Frank Bergon, and an overview essay on the Basques of Washington.  In addition to my just-published Boyhood Among the Woolies: Growing Up on a Basque Sheep Ranch (2023), I have also published a new collection of my essays entitled The American West and Its Interpreters: Essays in Literary History and Historiography (2023). Next year, I have a literary history of the Pacific Northwest coming out.

BBP: Have you been to the Basque Country? If so, what is your favorite place?

Richard visiting in the Basque Country with his wife Joyce

Richard Etulain: Reading Robert Laxalt’s Sweet Promised Land planted the seed of taking a trip to the Basque Country.  I have made two trips—with my Dutch wife Joyce—to the Basque Country. The first was part of a three-month trip in the summer of 1967 in which we visited several western European countries, included several days in Spain and France and the Basques.  We visited my Dad’s hometown of Eugui, about 20-30 miles north of Pamplona, and our namesake nearby town of Etulain. We enjoyed visits with several members of the Etulain family and other relatives. Then we took a second trip in 2008; we again visited Eugui and met with family and friends. I also had the delightful experience of teaching a course on the history and literature of the American West at the University of the Basque Country. I have much enjoyed the variety of the Basque County: cities, small towns, farms and landscapes. And historical sites like Guernica. Loved wandering in the country and trying to visualize, in place, what I had studied about Basque culture and society. 

BBP: Any parting words?

Richard Etulain: Well, I guess, it’s an unusual pathway from growing up on an isolated sheep ranch to becoming the author or editor of more than sixty books. But, of more importance, is my hope that readers of books and essays about the American Basques will realize how many stories remain to be told.  Basque communities, Basque individuals, and Basque ideas and cultural experiences await their authors.

BBP: Eskerrik asko Richard!

2 thoughts on “Telling the Stories that Need to be Told: An Interview with Richard Etulain”

  1. Interesting!! It was not a surprise to read that Richard’s father became a Protestant. Henri IV King of France and Navarre was a Protestant. His second wife, Marguerite de Valois supported Protestant efforts. 7 or 8 wars of religion in a short time. Over religion!! Insane but not surprising.

    A good article written by Alex Chisholm, “The Sheepherder: Unsung Hero of the Early West”. New Mexico magazine, November 1982. This issue is dedicated to sheepherding and sheepherder.
    Richard, do you remember the Sheepherder’s cafe across UNM, Yale park It was located on the same street as the Frontier restaurant, on the other side. It was Alex’s restaurant. He closed it and went to law school. He was a sheepherder for several years.
    Alex sent me a lot of papers related to sheep and wool. He researched the Partido system of New Mexico. There was a blank Partido contract, in Spanish–so complicated!! I wonder if the sheepherders knew what they were signing!!! It was not a bad deal to make money–assuming that the patron was honest!!! I donated the Partido contract to UNM Center for Southwest Research–in case anyone is interest, contact the Center.
    Richard –What breed of sheep was on your father’s ranch?
    If reincarnation is true, I want to come back as a shepherdess. The more I see of people, the more like dogs and sheep!

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