A Life Among the Basque

Jacqueline Thursby shared her experiences studying the traditions of the Basque people at the Wilson Folklore Archives Founders Lecture.

9170426435_20dcfdb0a3_oPROVO, Utah (December 3, 2015)—Professor of English Jacqueline Thursby was a young graduate student driving to work in Caribou County, Idaho, when the way was blocked by an enormous flock of sheep, numbering nearly 2,000. A city girl herself, she watched, fascinated, as the herd was moved along by men on horseback, calling out orders to the sheep and dogs.

Once she arrived at work and shared her experience, she learned that the men were Basque shepherds, moving their flocks for the oncoming winter. Already searching for a thesis topic, she found a wealth of writing on the Basque men – but only a single article on the women.

As speaker for the annual Wilson Folklore Archives Founders Lecture, Thursby, now nearing retirement, shared how her work with the Basque people grew from a graduate thesis to a lifelong pursuit.

The Basque Country straddles the French-Spanish border, but has a culture and language all its own; in fact, the Basque language (called Basque or Euskara) is a genetic language isolate, meaning that it shares nothing in common with any other language on earth. A popular Basque story says that the devil attempted to learn Basque, but the tongue proved too difficult, so to this day he is unable to tempt the Basque people.

Over the centuries, large groups of Basque people have emigrated from their homeland, often forming communities and finding work abroad as shepherds, like the men who first sparked Thursby’s interest. Today they are spread out across North and South America.

In 1999, Thursby published a book, Mother’s Table, Father’s Chair: Cultural Narratives of Basque American Women detailing her interactions with Basque Americans. “I learned quickly that I had wandered into a population of Americans who strongly valued their ancient homeland, but who were full participants in the American culture,” Thursby said. The people she worked with had found many ways to preserve their cultural identity, including foods, games, dances, celebrations, clubs, summer camps and more.

Though she started out working one-on-one with women in their homes, Thursby’s work quickly caught the attention of Basque communities across the United States and abroad, who invited her to hear their stories and learn their traditions. She was even hosted in the Basque Country itself, staying in a monastery while participating in the homeland’s culture.

Thursby remarked on the in incredible hospitality the Basque people showed her during her time studying them both in the homeland and in the U.S. “They don’t want you as an outside observer,” she explained. “They want you to really understand the undercurrent and the ancient beliefs of the Basque people.” She studied the language and took active part in their celebrations; for their part, the people gave her personal cooking lessons and private tutoring in their customs. They introduced her to their relatives and invited her to weddings and other special occasions. She was treated as though a member of the family.

Despite their diaspora, the Basque people maintain a strong connection with their homeland and with one another. It is common for Basque Americans to send money back to Europe to maintain important cultural sites, and at one time, many Basque hotels existed in the American West for the herders to congregate and speak their own language; many were able to survive in the U.S. without ever having to learn English. There are regular festivals that attract Basque people from wide regions to associate with one another, and summer camps where children learn traditional instruments and games.

“The story of the Basque Americans is rich with interesting history and wonderful events,” Thursby concluded, and invited her audience to learn more. “If you find a Basque restaurant in Idaho, Nevada, California, Oregon or Wyoming, enjoy. . . . You’ll be warmly welcomed.”

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)


Samuel covers events for the English Department for the College of Humanities. He is a senior pursuing a degree in American studies with a minor in editing.



Basque Dancers by Joseph