Bertsolaritza: A Basque Homeland Song

Three young women stood on the small stage in Elko, speaking softly to each other in Euskera, the

language of the Basque people. Short dark hair, clear porcelain skin, cheeks a little flushed. Someone from the audience suggested a topic, a question really: Do you party when you come to America? They laughed, spoke back and forth, and one nodded to the others, the agreement sealed between them. She stood for a moment, thoughtful, then sang, a capella, in Basque, a short poem that made everyone who could speak that language laugh out loud. The second singer thought a moment, then sang back, an improvised rejoinder. More laughter. Next the third, and finally all sang together, something that roughly translated into Yes, we do party when we come to America, but if you want to know what kind of wine it is, you will have to party with us.

This round of competitive, improvisational sung poetry, was part of the celebration of “Basques and Buckaroos” at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering (the Gathering). These three women, champion bertsolaris all, compete for national recognition in this difficult medium, and one of their members, Maialen Lujanbo, is the first woman to have been crowned the national champion. They sang back and forth, at the drop of a hat, pairing improvisational rhymes with traditional melodies, a translator attempting to keep up with “at least the idea” of the impromptu sung conversation.

This is an ancient tradition, this bertsolaritza. Everything about the Basque seems to link to an ancient history. The homes of friends and relatives in the Basque country have been in their families for hundreds of years, which seems crazy to a peripatetic American. A closer look reveals that a few hundred years in Bascoland is a mere eye blink.

Driving through the desert after the Gathering, I pondered with my traveling companion the Basque tendency to remain. How long, really, had these families been in place? We have become so accustomed to having any random question answered instantly on our smartphones. Google presented DNA research in the land of the Basques. Interestingly, Basques were right where they are now at the end of the last Glacial Age. 12,000-year-old Basque ancestors exhumed from the soft limestone cave of Santimamine in Guipuzkoa have the same DNA as the folk who live in the nearby village. So, could it have been Basque ancestors who made those eternal cave paintings, who dragged bear skulls and skinned cave lions, and who hunkered down waiting for global warming to make the rest of the country habitable? Basque ancestors, singing the night away in the caves of Altamira? Rolling through the black Nevada night, anything seems possible.

Today, the Basque Country is lush and green; the villages are right where they were when the weather warmed up enough for their ancestors to emerge from the caves. First prosperity and, later, deprivation made for more descendants than the family land could sustain. After thousands of years in place, a great migration to the new continent in the West began.

In the late 1800s, the Basque began to gather in the sheep camps of the Great Basin and the High Sierra in the American West. Remote ranches grew slowly. Enormous stone houses were built in the old way—big enough to house three generations-- and the hired help. Communities crystallized in places like Lakeview, Jordan Valley, Carson City, Elko, Rupert.

One professor called it “The Basque States of America,” this province bounded on the West by the Sierra Nevada, on the North by the lava flows of the Snake River Plain, on the East by the mountains of western Wyoming, “from Reno to Boise, from Alturas to Buffalo, Wyoming.” Here the Basque have hunkered, putting down roots that, if history is to judge, will be here for millennia to come. After all, it’s in their DNA.

An earlier version of this post appeared on Double Down, the blog of the Nevada Humanities. You can see it here:

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