In 1901 the renowned philosopher Miguel de Unamuno remarked before a crowd gathered to celebrate traditional Basque culture: “[T]hat language you speak, Basque people, that Euskara, will disappear with you, and this is of no importance as you too must disappear. Hurry up and kill it, bury it with honor, and speak Spanish.”
Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) in 1912. Although he was a Basque-speaker and wrote his dissertation on the language, he later rejected Basque as a “serious obstacle to extending European culture in my country.” Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Unamuno’s words, which centered on the language but which were also clearly aimed at Basque culture as a whole, have become synonymous in the Basque Country with a mindset that, at best, views Basque culture as anachronistic in–and at worst antithetical to–the so-called modern world. Indeed, such views, as Juan Madariaga Orbea demonstrates candidly in his prodigious Anthology of Apologists and Detractors of the Basque Language, were hardly new at the time and represented in many ways the culmination of a centuries-long tradition of claiming that Basque culture was in demise and would soon disappear.
Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). Philosopher, linguist, educator, and diplomat, Humboldt visited the Basque Country and wrote at length about its culture and language. On the latter he wrote in 1801, a full one hundred years prior to Unamuno’s declaration above: “Basque will possibly have vanished from the list of living languages in less than a century.” Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
If anything, Unamuno’s views marked the beginning of a new era, namely that coinciding with the threshold of the contemporary world as it crashed into the twentieth century, in which the Basque language and Basque culture more generally would come under the critical spotlight from supposedly more educated, erudite, and urbane elites. By the late twentieth century, so this view went, Basques were part of a disappearing world and their antiquated ways had no place in contemporary society. And this mantra–which to be clear is embraced by many Basques themselves, as well as outsiders sympathetic to Basque culture like Wilhelm von Humboldt (see his Selected Basque Writings)–has been applied to questioning anything from the potential for such a small language as Basque to actually survive in the modern world to the “parochial” selection policy of soccer club Athletic Bilbao and “outmoded” sports like Jai Alaia or zesta punta (on the latter see this report from a few years ago).
Which brings me in a slightly roundabout sort of way to an interesting report published recently in the Idaho Statesman about Basque-American identity. Eric Quitugua’s “Cultural identity fades among Idaho’s second-generation Basque immigrants,” is a thought-provoking article that I would encourage anyone with an interest in Basque-American culture to read. It charts the decline of the Basque sheep industry in Idaho and a waning interest on the part of new generations of Basque-Americans to maintain the Basque language.
This all got me to wondering whether this was another example, albeit transplanted across the Atlantic, of the glass-is-half-empty view of Basque culture. After all, the changing nature of the sheep industry and the loosening of specifically Basque ethnic ties to this lifestyle have been long recorded. Indeed, Peruvian herders are mentioned in the classic Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World by William A. Douglass and Jon Bilbao, published for the first time in 1975. And isn’t it typical of such immigrant communities to relinquish their ties to the hard and grueling niche industries that brought them to the US in the first place, once they are more settled, have enjoyed greater educational possibilities, and are socially mobile? Don’t get me wrong, I fully acknowledge many of the sentiments expressed in the report, and it should come as no surprise to anyone with an interest in Basque-American identity to note that the same general theme has been explored on multiple occasions by by Bill Douglass.* Indeed, he also critically questions the staying power of Basque identity within the changing social and cultural framework of the American West.
But I think it is also worth noting the historical evidence for Basque cultural endurance. After all, this is a country of just 3 million people, less than a third of whom actually speak Basque, and it still exists and people still speak Basque today. Such resilience is expressed in the US today by numerous initiatives to promote Basque culture and maintain a sense of Basque-American identity on the part of both institutions and private individuals and groups, many of which you yourselves out there, possibly even reading this, are largely responsible for.
I’m thinking here obviously about our own Center and its special commitment to research and publishing, but also the great work being done in Basque Studies at Boise State University and the remarkable Boiseko Ikstola preschool. I’m also thinking about the tireless efforts of NABO, the North American Basque Organizations, and the Basque Museum and Cultural Center in Boise to perpetuate Basque culture and identity. I’m thinking of the global network of Basque Clubs as well as the university network of Basque language and culture readers and chairs in the US and beyond developed by the Etxepare Basque Institute, both sponsored by the Basque Government. And I’m thinking of other initiatives at a more private, even personal level, like Buber’s Basque Page (surely a historic institution in itself by now?) and the National Basque Festival in Elko, Nevada, celebrating 53 years this year! This year, too, is particularly special because as I’m sure you’ll all know by now, Basque culture will be front and center at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. And of course there are many, many more people, places, and events I could mention. My point is that, in the great scheme of things, it would seem to me that serious conscious efforts have and are being made to not only maintain Basque-American identity but also adapt it to the context of an ever-changing world. And by way of a counterpoint to the abovementioned report, check out the following article: “‘Ni Boisekoa naiz’: Keeping Basque alive in Idaho.”
One of the great benefits of being a small culture is that you typically know a lot more about your bigger and more powerful neighbors than they will ever know about you; and smaller cultures are sometimes much better adapted to withstanding the bad times and responding to changes in their circumstances creatively, having had to do so constantly throughout their history just to survive. Bigger cultures, in contrast, having enjoyed the reins of power, find it awfully difficult to cope when things don’t quite go their way and if they didn’t already know, they should take heed from Shelley’s warning, in his timeless “Ozymandias,” that even they may be susceptible to disappearing without trace.
So here’s to speaking Basque, Athletic Bilbao’s recruitment policy, zesta punta, and every other expression of Basque cultural identity! If I started with some words by Unamuno, a Basque, who believed that Basque culture would eventually die out, I’ll end with a thought by Mark Kurlansky, a New Yorker, who thinks quite the opposite. Perhaps, he speculates, in a thousand years, “relative newcomers” like the French and Spanish, won’t be around,.
But the Basques will still be there, playing strange sports, speaking a language of ks and xs that no one else understands, naming their houses and facing them toward the eastern sunrise in a land of legends, on steep green mountains by a cobalt sea–still surviving, enduring by the grace of what Juan San Martin called Euskaldun bizi nahia, the will to live like a Basque.
*See in particular “Basque Ethnic Resurgence: Consolidation or Crisis of Heritage,” paper presented to the American Association of Anthropology. San Francisco (1992); “Basque-American Identity: Past Perspectives and Future Prospects,” in Change in the American West: Exploring the Human Dimension, ed. Stephen Tchudi (Reno: Nevada Humanities Committee and University of Nevada Press, 1996); and “Creating the New Basque Diaspora,” in Basque Politics and Nationalism on the Eve of the Millennium, ed. William A. Douglass, Carmelo Urza, Linda White, and Joseba Zulaika (Reno: Basque Studies Program, University of Nevada, Reno, 1999).