What is “Basque”?

There are many attractions around Reno and Northern Nevada that have the term ‘Basque’ intermingled within their names. There are billboards on the long stretches of Nevada highway that advertise for Basque festivals in certain cities. There are also people that claim that they are Basque, and some have horribly weird names that are more than impossible to pronounce.

So, the question is, what is Basque?

A few people were interviewed around the University of Nevada Reno’s campus were challenged to answer the question and the results were:

“I don’t know, is it a type of food?” Rick asked, laughing.

Briana looked confused and asked, “Uhh, is it a new type of clothing?”

“There’s a library on campus that has that word, but I don’t know what it is exactly,” said Miguel.

“I’ve been to a Basque bar, awesome Picons,” said Ryan.

None of those answers are entirely wrong, but there is a lot more depth to being Basque than drinking Picons and having a few places dedicated to the culture.

Basque Block- Boise, ID. Photo Whitney BIlbao


The Basque culture is one of the oldest in Europe. According to the book, Basques, anthropologists have yet to discover where exactly the Basque people originated.

In the Pyranees Mountains, there have been recent findings of Basque remains. The Book of the Basques says theories have developed over many years to try and tie the Basque race to other genetic characteristics in different races, culture, language, etc. The only real conclusion that anthropologists can come up with is that the remains and modern day Basques have similar genetic make-up, and there is no other way of fully explaining this mysterious race.

Along with their bone structure and O type blood, the Basques have created another distinct phenomenon- their language. The Basque language, Euskara, consists of 26 different dialects, and according to A Book of the Basques, it is the oldest language in Europe.

The dialects are so similar that it makes it extremely difficult to learn the language and become fluent. For hundreds of years the Basque language has been threatened of going extinct, but has recently made a comeback as more people have taken the time to learn the ancient language.

This small graph represents the most used dialects when speaking the Basque language today.

The Bascos did not wander too far from where they were originally discovered in the Pyranees Mountains. They created different provinces where they resided in Spain, and still take up the outskirts of towns with their traditions. Their occupations included fishing, sheep-herding and farming. They were a very religious bunch and oriented a lot of their life around superstitions. They believed that wives were the caretakers in the home, and the men would provide for the family.

There are many stereotypes of how the Basque culture and it’s people made their way to America. According to Professor Joseba Zulaika at the University of Nevada, Reno, “The Basque emigration came when Spain discovered the New World.” The Santa Maria ship was owned and operated by the Basque country. The Basque people were also responsible for founding certain mining districts and being the main form of colonization in the New World.

More Basques continued to leave Spain- also referred to as the Motherland. The country and culture was being threatened by terrorists, and the Old World Basque had to find new ways to make ends-meat.

Many people decided to relocate to South America. Shortly after arrival, they had already made a name for themselves. They were very successful at creating their own economy and staying true to their culture. Natives of South America were threatened by their success and deemed the Basque as a lower class in society. Once news broke and the oppression of Basque people began in South America, they decided to move out of the city and begin sheep-herding. It became exceptionally popular throughout parts of South America. Herders were allowed to move their sheep freely and did not have to pay for fencing or rent.

With sheep-herding, Zulaika states that many Basques were able to help out their peers and bring them over from Spain to employ them.

Photo captured by Angela Llop

Migrating to the American West started in New Mexico, where it is rumored that the first sheep-herder from Spain settled. No one was as interested in settling in the West until word got out about the California Gold Rush. Settlers from both South America and Spain rushed to the new opportunity of making money.

Zulaika stated that some Basques did not grow fond of the gold rush and continued to herd sheep on public lands in the California region. They all eventually moved their way into Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and parts of Washington.

As the Basque population moved throughout the West, the motherland began to grow weary. The Old World Basques were skeptical that the culture was being practiced, and did not consider the emigrant Bascos as a part of the culture anymore.

Modern-Day Basques

As the Basque culture and language died off in the Americas to shape to other races and cultures, groups were slowly formed to help the endangered culture come back to life.

In the 60’s, the Oinkari dance group was formed in Boise, ID. Zulaika stated that they traveled to Spain and learned several of the 400 distinct folk dances to bring back over seas for others to learn.

Today, there are many different Basque groups all over world. They celebrate the culture with festivals (usually in the summer) that invite everyone to be Basque for a few days. The negative view of not considering Bascos as a part of the culture for not being born in Spain has been lifted. The new way of looking at ‘being Basque’ is to speak Basque. The Basque Library at the University says, “Basque speakers are called Euskaldunak, possessors of Euskara, and those who learn the language later in life are called Euskaldun berriak, “new Basques.”

Photo by Travel Nevada

Besides speaking the difficult language, there are museums, monuments, and restaurants all dedicated to the Basque culture.

Only a few of the Basque monuments and restaurants were included on this map. If you know of anymore, feel free to comment on the blog and I’ll be sure to add it.

The restaurants are almost all traditional Basque style meals that will provide endless amounts of food: thickly cut meats, paella, seafood, sweet breads, and countless side dishes. They also provide history into the Basque culture as many restaurants used to be or still are boarding houses for old sheep-herders or workers.

The festivals that take place include the same delicious foods featured in restaurants, including chorizos. Special dances are performed for entertainment with beautiful costumes, and anyone is encouraged to learn or join in on certain ones. The Basques are known for their competitive nature and have strength and yelling competitions for anyone who may be interested. There are endless amounts of wine being poured down the front of people’s shirts in bota bags, and celebration being shared with everyone.

Here are a list of the places that the festivals will held this year.

Photo from Flickr

In short, the Basque is a community of people that has gone through a lot of hardships to get where they are today. The Basque culture is still trying to make a name for itself, but is no longer considered endangered. Nevada is one of the prime areas to get a good dosage of Basque culture in your system.

If anyone is ever interested in learning more about the Basque culture, visit any one of the places mentioned on the map or read more about it in the online Basque library, courtesy of the University of Nevada.

Professor Joseba Zulaika of the University of Nevada Reno.
William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno
The Jon Bilbao Basque Library at the University of Nevada, Reno.
The Basques. Roger Collins. 1986.
Book of Basques. Rodney Gallop. 1970.
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