The story of Wyoming’s Basque Shepherds is far from over
Across the American West, little remembrances of historic settlers dot the landscape. Ration tins and rifle shells from trappers and soldiers, medicine bottles and bridle buckles from homesteader families and dredge tailings from riverside gold miners, to name a few.
But, some historical artifacts aren’t foreign objects placed into a landscape — rather they are a part of the landscape itself.
Basque shepherds began roaming the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains more than 90 years ago. Traces of those early families are delibly preserved in arborglyphs, or aspen tree carvings, and mysterious rock piles known as harri mutilak, or “stone boys.”
While arborglyphs usually conveyed messages between shepherds in Euskara, the Basque language, the purpose of harri mutilak is not well understood.
“They built them while they tended to their flocks. Some were to tell where and how far to find water,” Bighorn Basque Club president Trinity Rodriguez explained.
But aspen scars and stone pillars are not the only remnants of Basque culture in the West. While many Americans have lost connection with their ancestral culture over generations of separation and conflicting identities, Basque culture is alive and well where Basque people have settled.
Clubs dedicated to passing on Basque history, music, dance, food and, most of all, pride, are united across America under the
North American Basque Organizations (NABO) federation. The Big Horn Basque Club, run partially out of the back of Rodriguez’s coffee shop, The Fix, is one such branch.
“If you’ve ever met basque people, you know that they are very persistent and set in their ways,” Rodriguez said.
In a normal year, the club would host monthly classes on traditional cooking, mythology, history, music and dance. In the summer months, the younger generation would travel to regional basque music camps, and an annual celebration, featuring a sheep hooking contest and a full band, would be held at a local park.
“Because of COVID we’ve barely met all year,” said Rodriguez. “We had our annual meetings in January and that was it.”
One tradition slipped by in February before the pandemic arrived on U.S. shores. Every year club members compete for the top spot in mus, a traditional basque card game. This year, Rodriquez’s husband, Michael, and father in law, Antonio, took the top place.
“They didn’t get to go to nationals unfortunately,” Rodriguez lamented.
Following the sheep
While games, food and art are an important element of any culture, Basque traditions extend beyond leisure activities. Early Basque settlers in the West adopted nomadic shepherding practices that were then passed down from generation to generation. Each family would wander with their flock through the summer months. A domed wagon served as an itinerant home and a special breed of guard dog kept the animals safe from wolves and mountain lions.
While wool was a much-needed local commodity to the gold-prospectors and trappers of the late 1800s, shepherding isn’t quite as profitable as it once was. Many of the descendants of those Basque shepherds have gone on to diverse professions, while still keeping the traditions alive.
The Rodriguez family hasn’t given up on shepherding, but they have modernized. Antonio Rodriguez, who moved to the U.S. from Spain at the age of 19, still runs sheep on a vast tract of leased land in the mountains outside of Buffalo. Two of his sons keep run sheep alongside, and Michael and Trinity graze cows on the same property.
But, modern responsibilities and day jobs keep Rodriguez from spending the entire season with the flock.
“We go up at least once a week and check on everything. We might stay over for the weekend and enjoy the mountain, but then we have to come back down for work,” Trinity Rodriguez said.
Through community, lifestyle and education, northwestern Wyoming’s Basques are keeping their culture vibrant. Once the pandemic subsides, they will be glad to resume their celebrations.