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ETHNONYMS: Bascos, Eskualdunak, Euskaldunak, Vascos


Identification. The European Basque homeland is in the western Pyrenees and straddles the French-Spanish border. Although frequently designated as either French or Spanish Basques, the Basque people constitute one of Europe's most distinctive ethnic groups in their own right. The seven traditional regions within the Basque country, further distinguished by dialectical differences in spoken Basque, provide subethnic distinctions within the Basque population. Basques entered North America as either Spanish or French nationals, but Basque-Americans invoke Basqueness as their primary ethnic identity.

Location. There are small numbers of Basques in British Columbia, Quebec, and the eastern seaboard in Canada. Basques are present in every state of the United States but are concentrated in California, Idaho, and Nevada. Basques are particularly noted for an identification with sheepherding and are therefore present to some degree in the open-range livestock districts of all thirteen states of the American West. Florida, New York, and Connecticut have significant Basque populations as well.

Demography. The Basque-Canadian population as such has not been enumerated, but probably numbers no more than 2,000 to 3,000 individuals. The 1980 U.S. census estimated the Basque-American population at slightly more than 40,000. The three largest concentrations by state include California (15,530), Idaho (4,332), and Nevada (3,378). The Basques of North America are primarily rural and smalltown dwellers, although there are urban concentrations in New York City (port of entry), Miami, Greater San Francisco, Greater Los Angeles, Stockton, Fresno, Bakersfield, Boise, and Reno.

Linguistic Affiliation. First-generation Basque Immigrants are usually fluent in Basque (Euskera), an agglutinative language employing the Roman alphabet but with no known affinity with any other tongue. Basque immigrants are also fluent in Spanish and/or French. Basque-Canadians and Basque-Americans are more likely to be bilingual in Basque and English (French in the case of Quebec) than to retain their parents' fluency in Spanish or French. It is rare for the second generation of New World-born individuals to retain fluency in a second language. Rather, they are fully assimilated linguistically into the American mainstream.

History and Cultural Relations

Basques, as Europe's earliest and most efficient whalers, may have entered North America prior to the voyages of Columbus. There is documentation of Basque whaling and codfishing activity along the Labrador coast by the early sixteenth century and evidence of Basque loan words in some of the Atlantic coastal Canadian Native American languages. Canadian archivists and archaeologists have discovered a sixteenth-century Basque whaling station (used seasonally) and sunken whaling ship at Red Bay, Labrador. Place names such as Port-aux-Basques, Placentia, and Biscay Bay also testify to a Basque presence in Canadian coastal waters. This activity remained intense through the eighteenth century and lasted well into the nineteenth. With the exception of this maritime involvement, the Basque presence in Canada remains virtually unstudied. Some French Basques became established in Quebec as part of that area's overall French Immigration. In recent years there has been a Basque festival in the town of Trois Pistoles. In the twentieth century, a small colony of Basques (associated with the timber industry) has emerged in western British Columbia, and several of its Families have relocated to the Vancouver area.

Basques entered the western United States as part of the Spanish colonial endeavor. Several administrators, soldiers, explorers, and missionaries in the American Southwest and Spanish California were Basques. After Mexican Independence and subsequent American annexation of the area, there was a renewal of Basque immigration as part of the California gold rush. Many of the prospectors came from Southern South America, where Basques were the established sheepmen on the pampas. Some saw an opportunity to repeat in California a sheep-raising pattern under frontier conditions. By 1860, there were established Basque sheep outfits roaming the public lands in southern California. In the 1870s they spread throughout California's central valleys and had expanded into parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and western Nevada. By the first decade of the twentieth century, Basques were present in the open-range districts of all thirteen western states. The Basque sheepherder was the preferred employee in Basque- and non-Basque-owned sheep outfits alike.

Restrictive immigration legislation in the 1920s, with its anti-southern-European bias, severely limited Basque Immigration into the United States, and by the 1940s, the Basque-American community was evolving away from its Old World cultural roots. But a labor shortage during World War II and the unwillingness of Americans to endure the privations of the sheepherding way of life prompted the U.S. government to exempt prospective Basque sheepherders from immigration quotas. Between 1950 and 1975, several thousand Basques entered the United States on three-year contracts. The general decline of the sheep industry over the past fifteen years, coupled with full recovery of the Spanish and French economies, has all but interdicted the immigration of Basques into the American West. Today there are fewer than one hundred Basques herding sheep in the United States.

A secondary source of twentieth-century Basque Immigration derived from the Basque game of jai alai. Nuclei of professional players who have married U.S. citizens or otherwise gained permanent residency have formed around the legalized jai alai frontons in Florida, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Political refugees form a third modern, if modest, stream of Basque immigration in North America, as some individuals rejected Franco's Spain and others fled Castro's Cuba.


Basque involvement in sheepherding is limited to the arid and semiarid open-range districts of the American West, where sheep husbandry entails transhumancethat is, the herds are wintered on the valley floors and then trailed into adjacent or distant mountain ranges for summer pasturage. The annual trek might involve covering as much as five hundred miles on foot, although today the animals are more likely to be trucked if the distance between the summer and winter ranges is considerable. For the herder, while on the winter range, home is a sheep wagon containing little more than a bunk, table, and stove. The wagon is moved about the desert winter range with either horses or a four-wheel drive vehicle. In the summer months the herder lives in a tipi camped along streambeds in high mountain canyons. He is visited every several days by a camptender who brings him supplies on muleback or by pickup truck. The herder's life is characterized by extreme isolation, the loneliness being relieved only by the camptender's brief visit, the portable radio, a few magazines and books, and the occasional letter from a fiancée or family. Some former sheepherders acquired their own ranch properties. These were established holdings and therefore have no architectural features that might be regarded as uniquely Basque. Most small towns of the open-range districts have one or more Basque hotels, which are likely located within sight of the railroad station (to facilitate the travel of newly arrived herders from Europe). Again, they tend to be Purchased rather than constructed by their proprietors and are therefore largely consonant with western American smalltown architecture, although some of the hotels have added a fronton or handball court. The typical hotel contains a bar; a dining room where meals are served family-style at long tables to boarders and casual guests alike; and a second floor of sleeping rooms usually reserved for permanent boarders, sheepherders in town for a brief visit, vacation, or employment layoff, and herders in transit to an employer.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Basque fishermen in Canada were seasonal sojourners, who crossed the Atlantic to hunt whales and fish for cod. The former were rendered into oil and the latter were salted for transport back to Europe. In the United States, Basques, as much as any and more than most immigrant groups, have been identified with a single industrysheep husbandry. By the beginning of the present century, they were present in all phases of it, dominating the ranks of the sheepherders and nomadic outfits that moved about the public lands throughout the year. Some Basques also acquired their own ranch properties; others worked as camptenders and ranch foremen. Still others became involved as wool and lamb buyers and in livestock transportation. In recent years, open-range sheep husbandry in the United States has declined owing to increased labor costs and herder shortages, the abolition of certain predator control measures, the success of environmentalists in limiting livestock numbers on public lands, declining demand for wool versus synthetic fabrics, and foreign competition for meat products. Consequently, the Basque involvement in sheep husbandry is now more historic than actual. Many former herders and owners returned to Europe; others converted sheep ranches to cattle; and still others moved to nearby small towns to engage in construction work or establish small businesses (bars, bakeries, motels, gasoline stations, and so on). In San Francisco, Basques work as gardeners, specializing in caring for dozens of urban, postage-stamp-sized yards. They wrested this occupational niche from Japanese-Americans when the latter were interned during World War II. In the Greater Los Angeles area, several Basques work as milkers in large commercial dairies. Wherever jai alai (words that mean "happy festival" in Basque) is legalized, Basque players are recruited from Europe. They tend to be true sojourners, playing part of the year in the Basque country and the remainder in the United States. Basque-Americans are assimilated into the wider culture and therefore display the full range of American occupations and professions. There are Basque attorneys, medical doctors, and university professors, as well as a few owners and chief executive officers of major businesses and financial institutions. It is also true, however, that Basque-Americans have tended to cluster in small businesses, trades, and unskilled occupations. In part, this is a reflection of the Old World rural origins of their forebears and their own upbringing in rural and/or small-town America.

Trade. In the American West there is a Basque ethnic network that, if far from absolute, provides a certain Basque clientele to Basque-owned businesses and tradespeople. The Basque hotels are particularly patronized by Basque-Americans, although all depend upon their wider American clientele as well. In this regard, they trade on the excellent reputation of Basque cuisine and their fame for providing a unique ethnic atmosphere.

Division of Labor. In both Old World and Basque-American society there is considerable egalitarianism Between the sexes. Although domestic tasks remain largely the purview of women, they are not regarded as demeaning for men. Conversely, whether running a ranching operation, a Basque hotel, or a town business, women work alongside their menfolk performing virtually any task.

Land Tenure. In Old World Basque society, farm or business ownership is a point of personal pride and social prestige, an attitude discernible among Basque-Americans. Practically none entered the United States with the intention of remaining salaried sheepherders. Rather, the occupation was seen as a stepping-stone providing savings either to return to Europe and purchase land or to acquire a ranch or town business in the United States. Those Basques who remain salaried employees manifest an extremely high level of home ownership.


Kin Groups and Descent. The Basque-American Community is stitched together by extended consanguineal (reckoned bilaterally) and affinal ties. Recruitment of herders from Europe typically involved sending for or receiving a request from a brother or cousin willing to come to the United States. Therefore, each Basque-American colony is more likely to be made up of family clusters rather than unrelated families and individuals. The degree of interrelatedness is enhanced by local endogamy involving an Old World-born ex-herder and a Basque-American spouse or two first-generation Basque-Americans. Extended Basque-American families tend to maintain close ties, gathering for baptisms, graduations, weddings, and funerals, and is further integrated by godparental ties.

Kinship Terminology. Basque kinship terms are of the Eskimo variety. Sibling terms differ according to whether the speaker is male or female. Basque kinship reckoning is quite consonant with that in the wider North American mainstream.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Few Basques entered the United States with the intention of staying. Also, the immigrants were mainly young males. The sheepherding occupation was inimical to family life, and the only married herders were sojourners who had left their spouses and children in Europe. Gradually, some Basques became oriented to an American future and either sent back or went back to Europe for brides (few married non-Basques) . Many of the brides were of the "mail-order" variety, the sister or cousin of an acquaintance made in the United States. As Basque hotels proliferated they became a source of spouses. The hotel keepers sent back to Europe for women willing to come to America as domestics, and few remained single for long. In this fashion, the basis of Basque-American family life and community was established.

Domestic Unit. Most Basque-American households are of the nuclear family variety and are largely indistinguishable from their American counterparts. For those Basques engaged in ranching, the notion of family, or at least of family privacy, is stretched to include ranch employees. The latter sleep in a bunkhouse, but they are likely to take their meals in the kitchen of the main house. If the outfit includes Old World-born herders with limited or no English skills, they are likely to be afforded special attention by the family. For families engaged in the hotel business, home is the entire establishment, which is truly a family enterprise. Special attention is likely to be accorded to the permanent boardersretired herders with no interest in returning to Europe.

Inheritance. In Europe, farm property is transmitted to a single heir in each generation. This is less noticeable among Basque-Americans. Few Basque-American businesses or ranches remain in the same family for two or more generations.

Socialization. Child rearing among Basque-Americans is similar to that in mainstream American society. The exception is that first-generation American-born children are imbued with an urgency to excel in academics and athletics through the secondary school level. This has been interpreted as the need to prove oneself in American terms as a counter-measure to anti-immigrant and, at times, specifically anti-Basque prejudice.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. After the family, the most important social institution is the hotel or boarding house. For the Old World-born herder it is a town address, a bank, an employment agency, an ethnic haven, a source of advice and translation assistance when dealing with the wider society, a place to leave one's city clothes while on the range and one's saddle, rifle, and bedroll when on a return visit to Europe, a possible source of a bride, and a potential retirement home. For the Basque-American, it is a place to recharge one's ethnic batteries, practice one's rusty Basque, learn something about Old World Basque culture, dance to Basque music, eat Basque cuisine, hire help, possibly board one's children during the school year, and hold baptism and wedding receptions as well as wakes. Over the past four decades, Basque social clubs have emerged in many small towns and cities of the American West. There is now a Basque festival cycle in the region, lasting from late May through early September, with many of the social clubs sponsoring a local event. Several of the clubs have their own folk-dance group. In Bakersfield, Boise, and San Francisco, the Basque club has its own physical plant for meetings, dances, and banquets.

Political Organization. Basque-Americans tend to reflect the conservative politics of rural western America, usually registering as Republicans. The most notable Basque politicians include Nevada's former governor and U. S. senator Paul Laxalt and Idaho's Secretary of State Peter Cenarrusa. Basque-Americans have minimal interest in and knowledge of political developments in the European Basque homeland. In the 1980s, representatives of the government of Euskadi (Eusko Jaurlaritza), including its president, several parliamentarians, and ministers have visited the Basque settlements of the United States. The Basque government has provided some financial aid to Basque-American organizations and cultural endeavors and currently publishes an English-language newsletter regarding events in the Basque Homeland. In 1974, the Basque clubs of the United States formed NABO, or North American Basque Organizations, Inc. Each of the nineteen member clubs elects a NABO delegate. The Organization meets periodically to coordinate the Basque festival cycle and to promote special events. These include sponsorship of national handball and mus (a Basque card game) championships, the U. S. tours of Old World Basque performing artists, and an annual summer music camp for Basque-American children at which they learn Basque folk music and are instructed in the txistu (a flutelike instrument played simultaneously with the drum).

Social Control. Peer pressure among Basque-Americans is pronounced. Basques have a group reputation for honesty (one's word is deemed to be as good as a written contract) and hard work. Anyone jeopardizing this perception through scandalous or frivolous behavior is likely to be both criticized and ostracized.

Conflict. Basques have experienced a degree of discrimination in the United States. They are sometimes perceived to be Latins or Hispanics by persons ignorant of the subtleties of southern European ethnic differentiation. The close identification of Basques with sheepherding, a denigrated occupation in the American West, and the activities of the nomadic ("tramp" to their detractors) sheep bands in competing with settled livestock interests for access to the range were additional sources of anti-Basque sentiment and even legislation. More recently, the sensationalized newspaper coverage of conflict in the Basque country, and particularly the activities of the ETA organization, have made Basque-Americans sensitive to the possible charge of being terrorist sympathizers.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Basques are Roman Catholics, with strong Jansenist overtones. On occasion, the church has assigned a Basque chaplain to minister to the Basques of the American West. In Old World Basque society there was a belief in witchcraft and supernatural dwellers in mountain caverns and forest fastnesses. There is little carryover of this tradition to the Basque-American context.

Religious Practitioners. With some exceptions, Basque-Americans are not particularly devout. The isolation of sheep camp and ranch life precluded regular church attendance. Basque-American demographics in which a small population is scattered over an enormous geographic expanse militated against the development of a Basque ethnic church. Conversely, few Basques have converted to other religions and a number of Basque-Americans attend parochial schools and Catholic universities.

Arts. There are several Basque folk-dance groups and txistu players in the American West. There are also a few bertsolariak, or versifiers, who spontaneously comment on any subject in sung verse. The literary spokesman of the Basque-American experience is Robert P. Laxalt, whose book, Sweet Promised Land, described his father's life as a sheepman in the American West and his return visit to his natal village. The Basque festival incorporates several Old and New World features including a mass, folk dancing, Social dancing, barbecue, athletic events (woodchopping, stone lifting, weight carrying, tugs-of-war) and possibly sheep hooking and sheepdog trials. In 1989, the National Monument to the Basque Sheepherder was dedicated in a public park in Reno, Nevada. It contains a seven-meter-high contemporary sculpture by the noted European Basque sculptor Nestor Bastarretxea.

Medicine. There is nothing distinctively Basque about their New World medical beliefs or practices.

Death and Afterlife. Standard Christian beliefs in heaven, purgatory, and hell obtain. Funerals are taken seriously and mobilize the widest range of kinship and friendship ties. Basque-Americans will travel hundreds of miles to attend the funeral of a family member, fellow villager, or former companion.


Douglass, William A., and Jon Bilbao (1975). Amerikanuak: Basques in the New World, Reno: University of Nevada Press.

Douglass, William A., and Beltran Paris (1979). Beltran: Basque Sheepman of the American West. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

Laxalt, Robert P. (1986). Sweet Promised Land. Reno: University of Nevada Press.


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Basque Families

Basque Families

Any discussion of the Basque family must begin by acknowledging that Basque families can and do exist outside the Basque country. They differ even within the Basque country because sociological and political definitions are framed by the influence of two different states, Spain and France. The region known as the Basque country comprises an area of a hundred square miles (about the size of the state of Rhode Island) historically divided into seven provinces. Three of the provinces are in France (Behe-Nafarroa, Lapurdi, and Zuberoa), and four are in Spain (Araba, Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, and Navarra). The provinces in France are contained within the official Département des Pyrenées-Atlantiques.

Political changes in Spain since the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 have affected the names used to refer to the provinces there. With the Spanish Constitution of 1978, Araba, Bizkaia, and Gipuzkoa became the Autonomous Community of Euskadi, and Navarra became the Autonomous Community of Navarra. In the Basque language, Euskara, the provinces on the French side of the border are called Iparralde "the north side," and those in Spain are Hegoalde, "the south side." Many Basques refer to the Basque country as a whole (the traditional seven provinces) as Euskal Herria, the Basque Country. The variation in the spelling of Navarra (the Spanish spelling) and Nafarroa (the Basque spelling in Behe-Nafarroa) is representative of political differences of opinion that have long existed between Navarra and the provinces now known as Euskadi.

Euskara has played an important role in many aspects of Basque life and politics, but the language had no standardized spelling for many centuries. During the mid-twentieth century, the process of standardization began in earnest. As a result, any search for information about the Basque provinces must take into account the variable spellings for each: Araba (Alava); Behe-Nafarroa (Basse-Navarre); Bizkaia (Vizcaya, Biscay); Gipuzkoa (Guipúzcoa); Lapurdi (Laburdi, Labourd); Navarra (Nafarroa, Navarre); and Zuberoa (Xiberoa, Soule).

The Basque history of migration means that there are also populations in the Americas, the Philippines, Australia, and other parts of the world who identify themselves as Basque. However, after the second generation, many of the family traits of these groups are strongly influenced by the culture in which they are living. The Basque provinces in rural agricultural Iparralde are very small, and the population is about one-tenth that of the provinces in Spain. For that reason, the Basque family described here is assumed to dwell in Hegoalde, unless otherwise noted.

Family Size

Basque families are predominantly Catholic, and because of this many people are surprised to learn that the Basque country has the lowest birth rate in Spain, which in turn has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world (Reher 1997). During the regime of Francisco Franco, several laws were passed that affected families in many ways. The 1938 Labor Charter prohibited married women from working outside the home, so couples got in the habit of postponing marriage so that the woman might continue to earn an income. The right to work outside the home was restored in 1961 (Jones 1997), but the tendency to marry late remained. At the same time, social pressures strongly discouraged having children out of wedlock.

Educational practices were also changing throughout the twentieth century, and as people became more educated, the birth rate experienced a significant decline. The level of illiteracy in Spain was cut by more than one-half between 1970 and 1992 (Reher 1997; Boyd 1997). Perhaps the biggest impact of education on Basque families at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the decision about which schools the children should attend, a question that often revolves around whether the parents want the children educated in Spanish or in Euskara.

Although families have few children, rural households are still multigenerational, including grandparents, parents, and children. Often, unmarried siblings remain at home until they either marry or seek work elsewhere. This rural model has become less common since the end of the twentieth century, when the majority of the Basque population shifted to urban centers. However, the rural model has great cultural significance in the Basque country and has not lost all of its influence on the modern family.

Gender Roles

During the 1940s, Franco's Falangist ideology was transformed into laws that denied women the right to work outside the home, did away with divorce, established severe penalties for female adultery, and discriminated against children unfortunate enough to be born out of wedlock (Astelarra 1995). Changes to these laws emerged slowly from the 1960s through the 1980s. Women's right to work was restored in 1961, access to an abortion if the health of the mother is at risk was granted in 1985, and divorce became legal in 1981 (Jones 1997), although separation is much more popular than divorce. Gender roles in Basque families are slowly being transformed by these legal changes and by the impact of globalization on regional cultures. However, these changes are difficult to measure and vary from family to family.

Traditional gender roles continued to predominate throughout the 1990s, so much so that the Women's Municipal Service of Bilbao launched a program in 1994 to cross-train women and men in certain elementary tasks that were considered the domain of the opposite sex. Women were trained to replace washers, change light bulbs, paint a wall, and fix a flat tire, while men were taught to sew on a button, prepare a simple meal, and do the laundry (Ostolaza 1997).

Gender roles are a facet of Basque family life that appear highly resistant to change. The overall impression is still one of traditional gender roles, with women responsible for housework and childcare while men work outside the home. If a woman takes advantage of the opportunity to earn extra income outside the home, she is still expected to fulfill her duties at home. Studies assert that Basque women continue to feel responsible for domestic tasks and teach their daughters to feel the same way, while men continue to distance themselves from housework and childcare (Pérez de Lara 1995; Rodríguez 1996). Girls are expected to help their mothers, while boys are generally free from such obligations.

Daily Life

The school day for Basque children allows for a lengthy midday break during which the students are bused home for lunch, then bused back to school for the rest of the afternoon. The elementary schedule can vary from school to school, but two examples from the Bilbao area are typical. On one schedule, students are in class from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., followed by a two-hour break, then back to school from 2:30 p.m. until 4:30 p.m. Another schedule from the same area has children in class from 10:15 a.m. until 1:15 p.m., followed by a two-hour break, and then back to class from 3:15 p.m. until 5:15 p.m.

This traditional custom of a long midday break for what historically was the main meal of the day is slowly giving way in the business world to a schedule more typical of the United States because of the influx and influence of international corporations such as IBM, but such changes have not yet taken effect in the schools. Although some schools offer lunch programs, most children still go home for lunch. Women are expected to prepare the midday meal. Many small shops in the Basque country still maintain business hours from eight to one and four to eight in the evening (with some variations), making shopping a challenge for working women whose breaks in the day coincide with the closing of the shops.

Basque families watch less television than do North American families. Prime time begins at 10:00 p.m. and extends to 1:00 a.m. The hours after work, weather permitting, are more likely to be spent strolling along the avenues with family and friends. Parents with children are a common sight in parks and town squares, where they visit or read or take in the air while the little ones play. Older children spend long hours in the company of their cuadrillas, a Spanish term referring to one's closest friends. Adults often move from tavern to tavern, sipping a single small beverage at each one before moving on. The crowds in these taverns are predominantly male, but with each new generation, more and more women take part.

Language in the Family

Not all Basque families speak Euskara, and in many families, some members speak it, while others do not. In these cases, families conduct conversations in the language understood by all. Situations are common where one parent speaks Euskara, and the other speaks only Spanish. Since monolingual speakers of Euskara have disappeared, those who speak the Basque language are also bilingual in either Spanish or French. As a result, a household with linguistically mixed parents will generally communicate in Spanish. Even in homes where Euskara is spoken, Spanish is so prevalent in the surrounding society and in the media that the children will pick it up from their friends and by watching television. By the end of the twentieth century, there were several Basque-language radio stations and one Basque-language television channel, but channels that broadcast in Spanish and French far outnumbered them.

Some Basques feel that Euskara defines who they are. They believe that the only true Basque is one who speaks the language. This point of view has its basis in the preeminent role that language played in the definition of Basque nationalism generated by the founders of ETA (Euzkadi ta Askatasuna, "Basque Country and Freedom") in 1959 (Tejerina 1992). Other Basques feel that it is more important to be born and raised in the Basque country, whether one speaks the language or not. From this point of view, a family can be completely Basque and speak nothing but Spanish.

The language question has great importance in the Basque country. Many families quit speaking Euskara when Francisco Franco came to power after the Spanish Civil War. Franco made it illegal to speak any language but Spanish. Since the Basque country was on the losing side of the Civil War conflict, Basques felt particularly targeted and threatened by these prohibitions against minority languages. To protect their children, many parents insisted that only Spanish be spoken in the home. In these families, Euskara was lost.

After Franco's death, the establishment of a new Spanish constitution (in 1978) allowed Euskadi and Navarra (and the other autonomous communities of Spain) to have control over their own school systems. It then became necessary for Basque parents to decide whether their children would be educated in Spanish or in Euskara. Since fluency in Euskara is often required to obtain employment, especially for government jobs and teaching positions, many parents choose the Euskara option for schooling their children. Sometimes even parents who speak no Euskara choose to send their children to an ikastola, a school were all the subjects are taught in Euskara. Many others choose schools that teach half the day in Euskara and half in Spanish. The least favorite option in the Basque country is that of education in the Spanish language with Euskara treated as just another subject.

In Iparralde, Basque parents have four educational options. The most popular, with 85.5 percent of elementary school children enrolled, is the all-French option. Until the late 1970s, this was the only option available. Since 1983, students have been offered four options: the original all-French option; all-French with the exception of a class for learning Euskara; half of the instruction in French, the other half in Euskara; and all-Euskara in pre-school with the introduction of French in elementary school, increasing the amount of French to nine hours out of twenty-eight (Jauréguiberry 1993).

At the end of the twentieth century, despite a quarter century of efforts to reclaim Euskara, in Hegoalde three out of four residents over the age of fifteen indicated that Spanish was their first language, and in Iparralde, three out of four claimed French (Euskal Herriko 1996). Whether a family speaks Euskara or not, there has been a widespread movement during the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century to give children Basque names on their official papers. As a result, there is now an entire generation of sonorous first names such as: Gorka, "George"; Gotzon, "Angel"; Iker, "Visitation"; Koldo, "Louis;" and Unai, "Shepherd"; for boys; and Edurne, "Snow"; Maite, "Darling" or "Darlene"; Nere, "Mine" or "Mia"; Nekane, "Dolores"; and Itxaso, "Sea" for girls.

Families and Political Prisoners

For more than a century, tension has existed between the Basque country and the central government of Spain. As a result of the radical Basque nationalist activities of the middle and late twentieth centuries, most families in the Basque country either know someone who is in prison or have had a family member incarcerated. These prisoners are often housed far from the Basque country, and families must make special efforts to stay in touch. A simple visit may require a lengthy trip across Spain or north to Paris. Even if they have no personal experience of the situation of political prisoners, Basques write much graffiti and put up many posters declaring support for these individuals, especially in the cities. Even in a family-oriented event such as the Korrika, a long-distance walk/run fundraiser for Basque-language literacy efforts, the absent prisoners are represented by participants who carry their photographs on posters as they run their leg of the course (del Valle 1994). The question of whether or not to become involved in activities that support the movement to free these prisoners, or to take part in political activities that could result in such imprisonment, has the potential to tear a family apart. To make matters more complex, not all Basques see these prisoners as different from criminals. The question of the Basque prisoners is one of the issues that affect Basque families every day.

Although living in the Basque country ensures that a Basque family must think about the issue of nationalism and what it means to their lives, not all Basques are nationalists, and even among those who demonstrate pronationalist sentiment, there exists a sliding scale that extends from lip service to radical activism. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a conservative political movement began gaining strength in Euskadi, and in the Basque context "conservative" usually translates as antinationalist.

Basque Families in North America

For American Basques, especially those in the United States, Euskara is peripheral to Basque identity (Urla 1987; Urla 2000). Close-knit family groups are an important part of Basque-American culture. Basqueness is very much a family issue, and in families where only one parent is of Basque descent, the children are often raised with a high consciousness of their Basque ancestry. The families most actively involved in maintaining their ethnic heritage belong to Basque clubs where they meet regularly with other Basques in their community to enjoy traditional foods, encourage their children to learn Basque dancing, and celebrate their ethnicity. The North American Basque Organizations, Inc. (NABO) is a federation of the Basque clubs of North America and a group with liaisons to similar federations elsewhere and to the Basque government. Children can attend the NABO-sponsored Udaleku summer camp to improve their dance skills, study Euskara, learn to play traditional musical instruments, participate in Basque games and sports (such as the card game mus or the handball relative pelota), and sing Basque songs. These families consider Basqueness something to be worked at and sought after.

Outside the Basque country, European politics and issues such as the state of political prisoners are generally not a family concern. Catholicism remains the predominant religion among Basque emigrant families and their descendants. Gender roles in these families tend to resemble those of the surrounding majority culture.

Not all emigrant Basques have maintained the link to their ethnicity. Many descendants of early settlers in Latin America and some descendants of more recent emigrants to other parts of the world no longer identify themselves as Basque. Conversely, there are also many families who still consider themselves Basque although their children may only be one-half, one-fourth, or even one-eighth Basque.

See also:Spain


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escario, p. (1992). "el ama de casa, consumidora y prescriptora del consumo" (the housewife, consumer and prescriber of consumption). in el ama de casa, hoy (the housewife, today). elorrio: eroski.

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jauréguiberry, f. (1993). le basque à l'école maternelle et elémentaire (basque in pre-school and elementary school). pau: université de pau et des pays de l'adour.

jones, a. b. (1997). women in spain. manchester and new york: manchester university.

mackinnon, k. (1997). "minority languages in an integrating europe: prospects for viability and maintenance." in language minorities and minority languages in the changing europe, ed. b. synak and t. wicherkiewicz. gdansk, poland: widawnictwo uniwersytetu gdanskiego.

mar-molinero, c. (1995). "the politics of language: spain's minority languages." in spanish cultural studies: an introduction: the struggle for modernity. oxford and new york: oxford university press.

morcillo gómez, a. (1999). "shaping true catholic womanhood: francoist educational discourse on women." in constructing spanish womanhood: female identity in modern spain, ed. v. l. enders and p. b. radcliff. albany: state university of new york press.

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pérez de lara, n. (1995). "la situación de las mujeres universitarias y los cambios sociales" (the situation of university women and social changes). in as mulleres e os cambios sociais e económicos, ed. r. r. philipp and m. carme garcía negro. santiago de compostela: universidade de santiago de compostela.

reher, d. s. (1997). perspectives on the family in spain, past and present. oxford: clarendon press.

rodríguez, a. (1996). "las mujeres cambian los tiempos" (women change the times) hika 52–53.

tejerina montaña, b. (1992). nacionalismo y lengua: los procesos de cambio lingüístico en el país vasco (nationalism and language: the processes of linguistic change in the basque country). madrid: centro de investigaciones sociológicas.

tovar, a. (1957). the basque language, trans. h. p. houghton. originally published as la lengua vasca. philadelphia: university of pennsylvania.

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zulaika, j., and douglass, w. a. (1996). terror and taboo: the follies, fables, and faces of terrorism. new york and london: routledge.

other resource

north american basque organizations, inc. (2002). available from

linda white

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ETHNONYMS: Eskualdunak, Euskaldunak, Vascos


Identification. Basques inhabit the area of southwestern Europe where the western spur of the Pyrenees meets the Cantabrian seacoast. Their territory straddles the French-Spanish frontier, providing a distinction between Spanish Basques and French Basques. There are four traditional Regions (Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa, Nafarroa, Araba) on the Spanish side and three (Lapurdi, Behe-Nafarroa, and Zuberoa) on the French side. Basques refer to their homeland as "Euskal-Herria" (land of the Basques) or "Euskadi" (country of the Basques). While the seven regions have not been unified for nearly a millennium, the Basques remain one of Europe's most distinctive ethnic groups.

Location. The Basque country is located between 41° to 43° N and 0° to 3° W. It contains 20,747 square kilometers, of which 17,682 square kilometers are on the Spanish side of the frontier. The Basque country contains three ecological zones. The northern zone is comprised of the Cantabrian seacoast and interior foothills. It has a maritime climate and is one of the wettest regions in Europe. The ridges of the Pyrenees constitute a central zone with an alpine climate. The southern zone, or about two-thirds of the Basque country, is in the rain shadow of the Pyrenees and has a continental climate.

Demography. In 1975 the population was 2,871,717, of which only 229,383 persons resided on the French side. Population density varies greatly by region. Highly urbanized Biz-kaia has 533 persons per square kilometer, while rural Behe-Nafarroa has only 22. There are an estimated 828,000 Basque speakers. Basque language proficiency is distributed unevenly, being concentrated primarily in the northern and central ecological zones. It is also more pronounced in rural and fishing communities than in the urban centers. In recent years there has been a vigorous campaign by Basque nationalists to encourage Basque language acquisition. It has met with considerable (though not total) success. AU Basques are fluent in either French or Spanish (some in both), depending on which side of the border they inhabit. Use of the Basque language has declined over the centuries in places where it was spoken previously, and use of French and Spanish has increased because of the influx of non-Basque speakers into the area.

Linguistic Affiliation. Basque is an agglutinative language and employs the Roman alphabet. It is the sole representative of its own language family. Scholars have tried to demonstrate affinities between Basque and languages from disparate parts of the world, particularly languages in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia. Another possibility is that Basque is linked to Ibero, a language spoken throughout the Iberian Peninsula in pre-Roman times.

History and Cultural Relations

The uniqueness of the language underscores the mystery of the origins of the Basques. Some scholars have suggested that they may even be the direct descendants of Cro-Magnons and the Upper Paleolithic cave painters active in Southwestern Europe about 15,000 years ago. Until the Middle Ages Basques were an enclaved, pastoralist people, fierce in resisting the intrusions of outsiders and regarded as barbarians by them. Romans, Goths, Franks, and Moors all controlled parts of the Basque Country without ever quite subjugating it. It was a Basque force that attacked Charlemagne's rear guard as it traversed the Pass of Roncesvalles, killing Roland and giving rise to the famous epic The Song of Roland. After a.d. 1000 the several Basque regions came increasingly under the influence of emerging European kingdoms and duchies. Subsequently the embryonic states of England, France, and Spain fought for control over the regions, which frequently became pawns in larger power plays. Sovereignty over the various Basque regions shifted according to the fortunes of battle or the whims of marital alliances among Europe's royalty. Basques retained, however, a considerable degree of autonomy in their own affairs, codified in written fueros or charters. This relative autonomy was reflected in the custom whereby the monarchs of Castille, upon ascending the throne, were required to travel to the town of Guernica to swear beneath a sacred oak to respect Basque laws. Coastal Basques were Europe's earliest whalers. Their shipbuilding and navigational skills made them Iberia's most noted seafarers. By the early fifteenth century (and possibly earlier) Basques were crossing the Atlantic for whaling and cod fishing off the Labrador coast. Basques crewed the ships of Columbus and Magellan. (The Basque Elcano was the first to circumnavigate the globe.) Basque mariners, mercenaries, merchants, and missionaries swelled the ranks of Spain's colonial elite, providing much of the shipping in the American trade and capital for development of the colonies and becoming major figures in both the civil and ecclesiastical administrations. The French Revolution, with its strong centralist tendencies, destroyed the political autonomy of Lapurdi, Behe-Nafarroa, and Zuberoa. Many of their residents resisted and were sent to the guillotine or to concentration camps. In the nineteenth century Basques fought on the losing side of Spain's two Carlist Wars, relinquishing much of their political autonomy in defeat. This, coupled with the late nineteenth-century influx of Spanish workers to Basque industries, which threatened to make Basques a minority in their homeland, caused concern. By 1900 a modern Basque nationalist movement had emerged to confront Madrid's policies in the Basque country. The nationalists contested elections when allowed to do so, gaining control of many municipalities and the provincial assemblies of Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, those two provinces remained loyal to the republic, fielded an army, and elected an autonomous government that issued passports and coined its own currency. Within nine months the Basques were defeated by Franco, many were executed or imprisoned, thousands were exiled, and the Basque government had been removed to Paris. During the Franco years there was systematic repression of Basque culture. Consequently, in the late 1950s disaffected Basque youths founded an organization known as "ETA" (Euskadi ta Azkatasuna, or "Basque Country and Freedom") with the goal of complete independence from Spain. Its opposition to Franco escalated into violence, providing Europe with one of its most virulent terrorist movements. Franco's death in 1975 ushered in an era of democracy in Spain. Mainline Basque nationalists collaborated in the framing of a new constitution that accorded considerable autonomy to the regions.


In the northern ecological zone there are major cities such as Bilbo (Bilbao), Donastia (San Sebastian), and Baiona (Bayonne), as well as regional manufacturing centers of considerable importance (Eibar, Mondragon, Irun). There are many coastal fishing villages with 5,000-10,000 inhabitants. The interior foothills have peasant villages ranging from 500 to 3,000 inhabitants. The village usually encompasses a river valley and the surrounding hillsides. The nucleus, with church, school, taverns, town hall, handball court or fronton (jai alai arena), general stores, and offices of a few professionals (doctor, veterinarian, pharmacist, postmaster) is located on the valley floor. The surrounding hillsides contain baserriak, or farmsteads (sing., baserria ), either isolated from one another or clustered into hamlets of ten or twelve dwellings surrounded by their collective landholdings. The dwellings are massive stone structures, often three stories tall. The ground floor is for animal stables, the second floor is living space, while the third is used to store hay and other crops.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Only about 20 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture. In Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa more than 50 percent of the active labor force is employed in industry. Until recently the Basque baserria was a mixed-farming enterprise in which the emphasis was upon self-sufficiency. The farm family grew its own wheat, corn, vegetables, fruits, and nuts and raised poultry, rabbits, pigs, cows, and sheep. Land held in common by the village was an important source of animal pasturage, ferns for animal bedding, limestone for fertilizer, and wood for fuel and building materials. Over the past fifty years there has been increasing commercialization of agriculture. Cropland has been converted either to intensive vegetable growing or fodder Production for dairy farming, both to supply urban markets. Agriculture is mechanized, though on a small scale because of the steep terrain. In the central ecological zone there is little permanent settlement. In the summer months shepherds ascend with their flocks and loggers cut hardwood species (oak and beech). In the southern ecological zone agriculture is of the large-estate variety with widely dispersed "agrotowns" surrounded by large holdings. The main crops are the Mediterranean trilogy of wheat, olives, and grapes. Near the Ebro River there is extensive irrigation that permits vegetable growing on a large commercial scale. Basque coastal fishing villages today send their fleets into the Cantabrian and Irish seas for hake, anchovies, and sea bream, and as far as the coasts of western Africa in search of tuna. Some of the vessels are state-of-theart with mechanical nets, refrigeration, and sonic depth finders and helicopters for finding their quarry.

Industrial Arts. The Basque country is one of Iberia's most industrialized regions. The city of Bilbo (Bilbao) houses many heavy industries, including steel plants and shipbuilding facilities. It is also one of western Europe's major ports for off-loading petroleum from supertankers. Smaller industrial towns specialize in modern consumer goods ranging from plastics to sewing machines. There is also an arms industry. Industrial pollution is a major problem in the Basque Country, causing poor air quality in the cities, which is exacerbated by traffic congestion. Most of the rivers are notably polluted.

Trade. While some farmers and fishermen market their products directly in nearby towns and cities, the Basque country now has an efficient network of commercial outlets including supermarkets and department stores.

Division of Labor. There is considerable equality between the sexes. In agriculture women frequently work alongside men at the same tasks. In urban areas women are increasingly employed in industry and services. Domestic chores remain, however, largely the purview of women.

Land Tenure. To be the owner of a farm was socially prestigious and represented economic security in a society in which arable land was at a premium. However, developments over the past fifty years have produced both a glut and a scarcity of land. On the one hand, the inability of peasant agriculture to generate sufficient income to support a twentieth-century life-style has prompted many families simply to abandon agriculture, departing for a city and either letting their baserria fall into disuse or planting it with pines for eventual sale to the paper-pulp industry. On the other hand, many urbanites are now buying or renting baserriak and converting them into chaletsweekend refuges from urban ills.


Kin Groups and Descent. The urban Basque family is of the nuclear variety, maintaining its own apartment. In the southern ecological zone the nuclear family also predominates in rural districts. On the baserriak the stem family is the basic social form. Kinship is reckoned bilaterally; there is an Ego-centrically defined kindred but it is important only at the marriage or death of the defining member. Neighbors, usually unrelated, play a key role in rural Basque society. One's lenbizikoatia, or "first of the neighborhood," is the household of first recourse in a crisis. The larger auzoa, or neighborhood, is the source of social intimacy and support.

Kinship Terminology. Eskimo-type terms are used. Sibling terms differ according to whether the speaker is male or female.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Basques are monogamous and exercise considerable personal choice in selecting spouses. However, people regard the marriage of the designated male or female heir to the baserria as a household affair. The parents transfer ownership of the farm to the newlyweds as part of the marital arrangements. Small villages tend to be endogamous and cousin marriage is not infrequent, including some unions Between first cousins.

Domestic Unit. The heir to the baserria and spouse form a stem-family household with his or her parents. Unmarried siblings of the heir may remain in residence in their natal households until death, but they are subject to the authority of the active male and female heads. The family works the baserria together, with children and the elderly contributing to the lighter tasks as well. In the urban areas the apartment-dwelling nuclear family, possibly with a live-in servant for the affluent, is the domestic unit. It may also contain a spinster aunt or aging parent.

Inheritance. Ownership of the baserria is transferred to a single heir in each generation. In parts of the Basque country custom dictates male primogeniture unless the candidate is blatantly unsuitable. Out-marrying siblings of the heir are provided with dowries. They also share equally in the "Personal" wealth of their deceased parents (e.g., money, jewelry, etc.). In urban areas the offspring usually share equally in the estate of the deceased, although the national legal codes favor one recipient with a maximum of one-third of the total.

Socialization. Children are raised by everyone in the household. In the case of affluent urbanites the household may also include a female domestic servant who doubles as a nanny. On the baserriak families emphasize subordination of individual interests to the well-being of the domestic unit. One child is socialized as the heir, and his or her siblings are raised with the understanding that they should leave. This system has made the rural Basque country a seedbed of emigrants.

Sociopolitical Organization

The Basque country is a part of Spain and France, both constitutional democracies.

Social Organization. Basque society is suffused with an egalitarian ethos. The owner of a baserria is extolled as an etxekojaun (lord of the household) and his spouse as etxekoandria (lady of the household). Basque fishermen are similarly proud and independent. The Basque country was largely untouched by western European feudalism, and there is a common belief that every Basque is a noble. There is considerable social mobility, and wealth differences do not automatically determine social status. However, there is an urban Basque plutocracy of factory owners, bankers, and wealthy professionals who relate more to the Spanish and French national elites than to their fellow Basque peasants, shopkeepers, etc. There is a near castelike division between Basques and non-Basques, with the latter constituting much of the lower-class, urban proletariat. Non-Basques are the frequent targets of resentment and discrimination.

Political Organization. At the municipal level Communities are governed by an elected mayor and town council. The three regions in France form, with Bearn, the "Département des Pyrénées Atlantiques" with its seat of government in Pau. Each of the four provinces in Spain has its own popularly elected assembly or diputación. Nafarroa now constitutes its own autonomous region within the Spanish state. Gipuzkoa, Bizkaia, and Araba together form the Autonomous Community of Euskadi. This regional government is funded largely by the participating diputaciónes. With its capital in Vitoria (Gasteiz), it has its own popularly elected president, parliament, and ministries. It controls some mass media, the educational system, economic development, and cultural affairs. All foreign relations are handled by Madrid. Basques elect representatives to the Spanish and French parliaments as well.

Social Control. Social control at the local level is largely through peer pressure. The parish priest exercises moral influence beyond the strictly religious sphere.

Conflict. The Basque area is heavily policed, particularly on the Spanish side. The Spanish "Guardia Civil" is an Omnipresent, largely despised factor in local life. Even political moderates tend to regard their homeland as "occupied," and removal of this force is one of the main demands of Basque nationalists of all persuasions. Clashes between the guardias and the ETA have produced more than 600 deaths over the past three decades.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. With very few exceptions Basques are Roman Catholic. Even the smallest village has its own church. There are several major monasteries. Basque Catholicism has strong Jansenistic overtones.

Religious Practitioners. While possibly the last people in western Europe to convert to Christianity, the Basques have produced such titans of the Catholic church as Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Francis Xavier. There is strong Marist devotion focused on icons of the Virgin Mary housed in several churches. Until recently there were so many religious vocations that Basque priests and nuns regularly staffed Catholic missions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Since the Second Vatican Council church attendance and religious vocations have plummeted, prompting the closure of some churches. Formerly Basques believed in witches and legendary supernatural dwellers of mountain caverns and forest fastnesses.

Arts. Practically every village has its folk-dance group. The txistu (flute) and drum, played simultaneously by a single performer, are the distinctive musical instruments. There are bertsolariak, or versifiers, capable of spontaneously composing and singing rhymes on any subject. Such performances are a part of every village festival, and regional and national championships are held periodically. In the fine arts Basques have produced several composers of note (Arriaga, Guridi, Ravel), writers (Baroja, Unamuno), painters, and sculptors (including the world-famous Eduardo Chillida).

Medicine. Even the most remote villages have access to modern medical care. Nevertheless, beliefs in the efficacy of certain folk treatments (usually herbal) persist. Some of the older generation still fear the evil eye.

Death and the Afterlife. A funeral is the most important life ritual in Basque society, triggering a year-long series of ceremonies involving the deceased's household, neighborhood, kindred, and village. Failure to conduct them is felt to compromise the deceased's smooth transition to the afterlife. Otherwise standard Christian beliefs in heaven, purgatory, and hell obtain.


Douglass, William A. (1969). Death in Murelaga: Funerary Ritual in a Spanish Basque Village. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Douglass, William A. (1975). Echalar and Murelaga: Opportunity and Rural Exodus in Two Spanish Basque Villages. London: C. Hurst.

Greenwood, Davydd J. (1976). Unrewarding Wealth: The Commercialization and Collapse of Agriculture in a Spanish Basque Town. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ott, Sandra (1981). The Circle of Mountains: A Basque shepherding Community. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Zulaika, Joseba (1988). Basque Violence: Metaphor and Sacrament. Reno: University of Nevada Press.


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LOCATION: Northwest Spain and southwest France

POPULATION: 3 million(2.5 million in Spain)

LANGUAGE: Euskera (Basque language); Spanish; French

RELIGION: Roman Catholicism


The Basques are a single people who live in two countriesnorthwest Spain and southwest France. The Basques may be the oldest ethnic group in Europe. They are thought to have inhabited the southwestern corner of the continent since before Indo-European peoples came to the area approximately 5,000 years ago. Surviving invasions by the Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, French, and Spanish, they resisted domination by outsiders until the Middle Ages (AD 4761450). At that time, much of their territory was seized by Spaniards, Gascons, and Catalans. In 1516, the Basques on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees Mountains agreed to Castilian rule but won the right to keep a degree of self-government. By 1876, all Basque lands were divided between France and Spain.

During the regime of General Francisco Franco (193975) the Basque language and culture in the Spanish provinces were ruthlessly suppressed (prohibited). By the 1950s, resistance groups had formed, most notably the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA)Basque Homeland and Liberty. The ETA committed terrorist acts throughout the 1970s and 1980s, even after Spanish rule over the Basques was liberalized following Franco's death in 1975.

Three of the four Spanish Basque provincesVizcaya, Guipúzcoa, and Navarrawere unified in 1980 as the Basque Autonomous Community. Its inhabitants were granted limited autonomy, recognition of their language and culture, and control over their schools and police force. However, the ETAalthough representative of only a small minorityhas continued to fight for full Basque independence. There has been little or no comparable activity among the French Basques, who have not been subjected to the same type of repression as those in Spain. However, separatist sympathizers on the French side have provided the ETA with material assistance and safe havens.


Basque country consists of four regions on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees (Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Navarra, and Alava) and three on the French side (Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule). Basques call these territories collectively, Euskal-Herria (Land of the Basques) or Euskadi. It has been nearly a thousand years since these regions were unified politically. The area is geographically varied, containing the ridges and foothills of the Pyrenees and a short coastal plain along the Bay of Biscay (an inlet along the Atlantic Ocean), as well as steep, narrow valleys and mountain streams.

With some 3 million inhabitants (2.5 million in Spain and half 0.5 million in France), the land of the Basques is a densely populated area. Blood types and other genetic information suggest that they are an ancient people who inhabited the region long before the arrival of other European groups. According to a Basque saying, "Before God was God and boulders were boulders, the Basques were already Basques."


The Basque language, also known as Euskera, is Europe's oldest living language. It is unrelated to Spanish, French, or any other Romance language and belongs to no other known language family. It was the universal language of rural Basques until the end of the nineteenth century. At that time it had no written literary tradition. During Franco's regime in the mid-twentieth century, all Spanish regionalism (devotion to the uniqueness of one's own region) was suppressed. This caused the number of Basque speakers in Spain to decline sharply (as opposed to France, where the figures are higher). In recent years, Basques in both Spain and France have promotedwith some successthe use of their traditional language. Every province and town in Spain's Basque country has two official namesa Spanish one and a Basque one. Both appear on all road signs.

The Basque language is extremely difficult and complex. (Regional folklore has it that the Devil tried to learn Basque for seven years and gave up.) In addition, there are a number of different dialects. Basque is also rather exotic when contrasted with other Western tongues. For example, intensity may be expressed by repeating a word twice ("very hot" is bero-bero ). This language feature is unknown among European languages but common among Polynesian ones. The language also lacks generic terms for "tree" and "animal": there are names for specific trees (oak, maple, etc.), but not for trees in general.

English Basque
welcome ongi-etorri
beach hondartza
yes bai
no ez
see you later gero arte
hello, how are you? kaixo, zer moduz?

A common Basque proverb is "Happiness is the only thing we can give without having" (Izan gabe eman dezakegun gauza bakarra da zoriona).


Through centuries of storytelling, the Basques have evolved a rich and colorful mythology. In ancient times their land was supposed to have been peopled by a race of giants called jentillak. These giants lived side by side with human inhabitants until the coming of Christ. At that time they disappeared, leaving behind only one of their number named Olentzero. Today, Olentzero is a sort of folk icon or mascot who appears in the form of dolls and straw figures in processions, homes, and sometimes even churches. The laminak were female sprites, similar to leprechauns, who could wield either a helpful or harmful influence.

Basque folklore also encompasses various rituals and dances. The Katcha-Ranka is a dance performed in fishing villages. A person representing St. Peter is carried in a coffin through the village and to the water-front. Dancers then symbolically beat him as a threat to ensure a good catch when they go out fishing.


Almost all Basques are Roman Catholic. Traditionally, an unusually high percentage chose to become priests or nuns. However, this number has fallen since the Second Vatican Council (1962), as has church attendance in general. Two of the Church's most renowned theologians, St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius Loyola (founder of the Jesuit order) were of Basque origin. Basque Catholicism, like that in many other areas of Spain, is characterized by a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary.


As elsewhere in Spain, most Basque holidays are those found in the Christian calendar. Special religious observances include St. Joseph the Workman's Day in May, and St. John of Compostela Day in August. In addition, villages celebrate their own festivals with performances by folk musicians, dancers, and bertsolariak, traditional singer/storytellers who can improvise and sing rhymes on any topic.

The famous running of the bulls in celebration of San Fermín takes place every year in the Basque town of Pamplona. Every day for a week, six bulls are let loose in the streets to run to the bullfighting stadium. Crowds of white-clad young men dare fate by running ahead of the bulls and swatting them with rolled-up newspapers.


Besides baptism, First Communion, and marriage, military service could be considered a rite of passage for Basques as it is for most Spaniards. The first three of these events are the occasion, in most cases, for big and expensive social gatherings in which the family shows its generosity and economic status. Quintos, the young men from the same town or village going into the military in the same year, form a closely knit group that collects money from their neighbors to organize parties and serenade girls. In the mid-1990s, the period of required military service had been greatly reduced, and the government planned to replace required military service with a voluntary Army.


A special relationship developed in rural communities where families often lived on individual farms in relative isolation. This was especially true with the nearest neighbor, called the lehen auzo, or "first neighbor." The role played by first neighbors sometimes even goes beyond that of blood relatives. The best man and chief bridesmaid at weddings are chosen from the household of the lehen auzo. In addition, its members are informed of a serious illness or impending death before the family's closest relatives are told. In an emergency, the lehen auzo temporarily takes over the running of the neighbor's farm. When there is a death in the family, custom traditionally requires that the lehen auzo be informed before the village bell tolls. The wider neighborhood, or auzoa, is also an important source of social support.


People in the rural regions of Basque country live in large, stone farm houses called baserriak (the plural of baserria ). They are often as high as three stories. Animals are kept on the ground floor, the family lives on the second floor, and hay and other crops are stored on the third. Baserriak may either be built at a distance from one another or located in clusters of about ten or twelve. In cities and towns, the Basques, like other Spanish urban dwellers, generally live in apartment buildings.


In rural areas, Basque households generally include either the maternal or paternal grandparents, as well as unmarried aunts or uncles. It is not uncommon for cousins, even first cousins, to marry. The most important concern for rural dwellers is the continuation of the family farm, or basseria. In every family, one son or daughter is designated from childhood as heir to the farm. When he or she gets married, ownership of the farm is transferred to the new couple as part of the wedding arrangements. All adults in the household participate in child-rearing. The whole family helps with the farm work, including children and grandparents, who assist with easier tasks.

In urban areas, the nuclear family (parents and children) is the norm, sometimes joined by an elderly grandparent or unmarried aunt. Families who can afford it may have a live-in nanny or servant.


Basques wear modern Western-style clothing for both casual and formal occasions. The single most distinctive item of traditional Basque clothingstill worn throughout the countryis the flat, wide, black beret worn by Basque men. It is customary to dress in white and red during the Festival of San Fermín, which is the occasion for the traditional running of the bulls in Pamplona.


The Basques are known for their excellent cuisine, much of which involves seafood. The Basque version of bouillabaisse, or fish stew, is called ttoro and includes mussels, crayfish, congers (eels), the head of a codfish, and three other kinds of fish. Other specialties include fresh tuna with tomatoes, garlic, and spices; txangurro (spider crab); and kokotchas, made with hake (merluza a type of fish), garlic, and parsley. Gazpacho, a cold soup made with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and olive oil, is common fare in all of Spain. Red peppers are a dietary staple and find their way into seafood sauces, chicken recipes, and omelettes. They are even strung across the walls of Basque houses as a decoration. Gateau Basque (Basque cake) is made from eggs, flour, sugar, and rum. A favorite national beverage is txakoli (also called txakolina ), a fruity, white wine produced in coastal areas, often in small family cellars.


School for the Basques, as for other Spanish children, is free and required between the ages of six and fourteen. Many students then begin the three-year bachillerato (baccalaureate) course of study. They may then opt for either one year of college preparatory study or vocational training. About one-third of Spain's children are educated at private schools, many of them run by the Catholic Church.


Traditional Basque plays known as pastorales, which possibly related to medieval mystery plays, are still performed at festivals. In the fine arts, well-known Basques include writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, composer Maurice Ravel, and sculptor Eduardo Chillida.


About 20 percent of the Basque population is engaged in agriculture. The traditional farm holding, or basseria, is a family enterprise in which each household raises its own crops (corn, wheat, and vegetables) and livestock (chickens, pigs, cows, and sheep). However, certain resources, including pasture lands and fuel wood, are held in common by each village. Basque herders still follow the seasonal patterns of their ancestors. They move herds of sheep, cows, and goats up to mountain pasture lands from June to October while their wives take charge of the family farm. Fishing, a significant Basque industry, is undergoing modernization. However, one can still see women on the docks of fishing villages repairing nets with needles and thread.

The Basque country has long been known as a center of Spanish industry, especially the city of Bilbao. The region's history as the nation's iron and steel capital has led to the development of automobile and machine tool manufacturing. Shipbuilding is another profitable industry.


The Basque national game is pelote, a game like handball or squash played at very high speeds. The game has been played for centuries in an outdoor court called a frontón, which often shares a wall with the village church. Today, it is also played in indoor courts as well. The fastest form of pelote, called cesta punta, is played on an outdoor court with a second wall called a jai-alai (a term that has come to designate the game itself in countries throughout the world as its popularity has grown).

Another competitive sport popular among the Basques is rowing. Every fishing village has a thirteen-member team, and thousands attend the annual rowing championship at San Sebastián.

One of the most prized attributes among the Basques has historically been physical strength. This is displayed in the traditional Basque sports of stone-lifting (harrijasotzaileak) and log-chopping (aizkolariak).


Like other people throughout Spain, the Basques spend many leisure hours socializing with friends at tapas bars, which serve light food and drinks. They also enjoy each other's company at the more than 1,500 gourmet societies, or txokos, in their region. These are private dining clubs that were formerly male-only but now welcome women (although men still tend to do the cooking). Television is a popular form of relaxation. Spain has a private television station (TV Vasca) that broadcasts in the Basque language. El mus is a popular Basque card game.


The traditional Basque decorative arts consist primarily of woodcarving and engraving on stone. Both are practiced mainly on door lintels (upper frames) and tombstones. The Basques have a well-developed tradition of oral storytelling, which was one of their main forms of entertainment before urbanization (and television). Basques would often invite their neighbors over for an evening of tale-spinning. Basque folk music is sung and played on traditional instruments including the txistu, a three-holed flute, and the bagpipe-like dultzaina. Dozens of folk dances have been preserved, and many villages have folk-dance groups that perform regularly. Two especially spirited dances are the Bolant Dantza (flying dance) and La Espata Dantza (sword dance).


The iron, steel, chemical, and paper industries of the Basque region have created a serious pollution problem in its cities. Motor vehicle emissions have made the situation even worse. There is considerable river pollution as well. Bilbao's metals industries must deal with outmoded facilities and increased competition from the European Community (EC). In 1994, the city's unemployment rate climbed to 27 percent. Clashes between ETA separatists and Spanish forces have left more than 600 dead in the past three decades.


Collins, Roger. Basques. London, England: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Facaros, Dana, and Michael Pauls. Northern Spain. London, England: Cadogan Books, 1996.

Westwood, Webster. Basque Legends. New York: AMS Press, 1977.


Tourist Office of Spain. [Online] Available, 1998.

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Basques (băsks), people of N Spain and SW France. There are about 2 million Basques in the three Basque provs. and Navarre, Spain; some 250,000 in Labourd, Soule, and Lower Navarre, France; and communities of various sizes in Central and South America and other parts of the world. Many preserve their ancient language, which is unrelated to any other tongue. They have guarded their ancient customs and traditions, although they have played a prominent role in the history of Spain and France.

The origin of the Basques, almost certainly the oldest surviving ethnic group in Europe, has not yet been determined, but they antedate the ancient Iberian tribes of Spain, with which they have been erroneously identified. Genetically and culturally, the Basque population has been relatively isolated and distinct, perhaps since Paleolithic times. Primarily free peasants, shepherds, fishermen, navigators, miners, and metalworkers, the Basques also produced such figures as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, and Francisco de Vitoria.


Before Roman times, the Basque tribes, little organized politically, extended farther to the north and south than at present. But the core of the Basque Country resisted Romanization and was only nominally subject to Roman rule. Christianity was slow in penetrating (3d–5th cent.). Once converted, the Basques remained fervent Roman Catholics, but they have retained a certain tradition of independence from the hierarchies of Spain and France.

The Basques withstood domination by the Visigoths and Franks. Late in the 6th cent. they took advantage of the anarchy prevailing in the Frankish kingdom and expanded northward, occupying present-day Gascony (Lat. Vasconia), to which they gave their name. The duchy of Vasconia, formed in 601 and chronically at war with the Franks, Visigoths, and Moors, was closely associated with, and at times dominated by, Aquitaine. In 778 the Basques, who had just been reduced to nominal vassalage by Charlemagne, destroyed the Frankish rear guard at Roncesvalles, but they subsequently recognized Louis the Pious, king of Aquitaine, as their suzerain.

The duchy of Gascony continued, but the Basques early in the 9th cent. concentrated in their present habitat and in 824 founded, at Pamplona, the kingdom of Navarre, which under Sancho III (1000–1035) united almost all the Basques. Although Castile acquired Guipúzcoa (1200), Álava (1332), and Vizcaya (1370), the Castilian kings recognized the wide democratic rights enjoyed by the Basques. Guernica was the traditional location of Basque assemblies.

With the conquest (1512) of Navarre by Ferdinand the Catholic, the Basques lost their last independent stronghold. After the 16th cent., Basque prosperity declined and emigration became common, especially in the 19th cent. Basque privileges remained in force under the Spanish monarchy, but in 1873 they were abolished because of the Basques' pro-Carlist stand in the Carlist Wars. To regain autonomy, the Basques supported nearly every political movement directed against the central authority.

In the civil war of 1936–39, the Basque provs., not including Navarre, defended the republican government, under which they had autonomous status; the Basques of Navarre supported the Franco forces. The Franco government, once in power, for the most part discouraged Basque political and cultural autonomy, but Basque nationalism retained its appeal to the Basques, and they continued to wage their fight for self-determination.

Following Spain's return to democracy, limited autonomy was granted to the region, and in 1980 the first Basque parliament was elected. Nonetheless, terrorist activities by the Basque separatist organization, Basque Homeland and Freedom (Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna; ETA), which had begun in 1968, continued, ultimately killing about 800 people by the end of the 1990s, many of them police officers and soldiers. From 1983 to 1987 a secret government-sponsored death squad killed 27 and wounded about 30, most members of the ETA.

Basque nationalism, often involving unrest and violence by and against the ETA, has continued, but Basque terrorists and a separatist party lost some popular support in the 1990s. In 1996, Spanish and French officials agreed on joint measures to crack down on the terrorist group; a cease-fire (1998–99) by the ETA failed to lead to a peace accord. In 2001, Basque nationalist candidates won more than 50% of the vote in the regional parliamentary elections, but only about 10% supported the party aligned with the ETA. In 2002 that political party, then called Batasuna, was accused of collaborating with the ETA and suspended for three years; it was permanently banned the following year, and its leaders arrested in 2007. The ETA announced a "permanent" cease-fire in Mar., 2006, and the government subsequently agreed to talks. Few talks and no progress had occurred when a Dec., 2006, bombing in Madrid ended the talks, and six months later the ETA officially ended its ceasefire. A new cease-fire by the ETA, announced in Sept., 2010, after requests from Basque nationalist parties, was regarded skeptically by the Spanish government, which called on the ETA to disarm and disband. In Oct., 2011, the ETA declared an end to its armed campaign.

Moderate Spanish Basque nationalists have sought increased autonomy for the region. The Basque parliament approved a plan for "free association" with Spain in 2004, but it failed to win the approval of the Spanish Cortes. In 2009 Basque nationalists failed to win a majority in parliament, and the Socialist and Popular parties formed the regional government, but in 2012 the nationalists won a plurality. There is also strong support among French Basques for political automony.


See R. Gallop, A Book of the Basques (1930, repr. 1970).

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Basque Country


BASQUE COUNTRY. The lands inhabited by Basque speakers extended between the Adouritz River in southwestern France and the Nervion River in northeastern Spain, comprising most of the western flanks of the Pyrenees Mountains. The Ebro River functioned as a traditional boundary between Basque lands and the kingdom of Castile.

On the Spanish side, Basque provinces included Araba (Alava), Biskaia (Vizcaya), Gipuzkoa (Guipúzcoa), and Nafarroa (Navarre in French, Navarra in Spanish). The provinces under French rule were Lapurdi (Labourd), Soule (Zuberoa), and Benafarroa (Basse-Navarre).

After the final annexation of Navarre to the Spanish crown in the 1510s, the Basque settlements consolidated their loyalty to either Castile or France, with the Bidasoa River as the natural border between the two monarchies. The borders between France and Spain, however, remained particularly blurry in the Basque lands, where jurisdictional disputes arose at the ecclesiastic, provincial, and municipal levels.

Basque common law and political autonomy were traditionally recognized on both sides of the Bidasoa River. In 1452 and 1526 Bizkaian customary laws were recognized in the Fuero Viejo and Fuero Nuevo.

Each town or village had full autonomy and elected its own representatives every year in the churchyard or anteiglesia, with wide jurisdiction in economic, political, and military affairs. Rivalries between bordering villages were not unusual, especially regarding access to natural resources (stone, wood, coal, salt, water) and rights of use and exploitation in grazing lands.

The farmstead (baserri or caserío) was the most important institution in the Basque lands and functioned with economic and political autonomy. Farmsteads (baserriak) were small units of land farmed by men and women to produce and harvest corn, apples, fodder, wheat, milk, honey, poultry, and nuts. Outside the baserri boundaries, each unit normally raised sheep and goats and had the right to exploit municipal resources. Baserriak were deemed indivisible and therefore inherited by only one member of the family the following generation, according to traditional rules that varied across villages and regions.

The most important cities in the Basque area were the ports, given the mercantile and maritime character of Basque enterprises. Shipbuilding and trade with northern Europe and Spanish America were vital economic activities. From the sixteenth century on, Basque merchants traded silver, iron, sugar, and manufactured goods in a transatlantic circuit that extended from Belgium and France to Spanish America and the Philippines. Large-scale fishing, in particular whale and cod, comprised another important activity and required major investments, planning, and management. Bilbo (Bilbao), Donostia (San Sebastián), and Bayonne were the most important towns, and each developed strong local elites based upon a wide range of activities, from shipbuilding to colonial trade and whale fisheries.

Significant emigration to the Americas was a permanent feature in the Basque lands after 1492. Basques were prominent colonial merchants, soldiers, miners, royal officers, ecclesiastical authorities, scribes, lawyers, and doctors. They were also involved in rural enterprises, especially sugar and cacao production.

Basques also played a prominent role in the Spanish monarchy's European affairs, especially in the church, royal bureaucracy, and military. Prominent Basques in the early modern era could be found on all continents, starting with Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits in Rome, Saint Francis Xavier, missionary in the Far East, Juan de Oñate and Francisco de Urdinola, colonizers of Northern Mexico and what became the southwestern United States, and Juan de Garay, refounder of Buenos Aires.

See also Ignatius of Loyola ; Jesuits ; Spain .


Caro Baroja, Julio. Los vascos. Madrid, 1973.

Douglass, William A., and Jon Bilbao. Amerikanuak: Basques in The New World. Reno, Nev., 1975.

Lefebvre, Thomas. Les modes de vie dans les Pyrenees atlantiques orientales. Paris, 1933.

Orella, Jose Luis, ed. Los vascos a traves de la historia. comportamientos: Mentalidades y vida cotidiana. Donostia-San Sebastian, 1989.

Juan Javier Pescador

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Basque Country

Basque Country (băsk, bäsk), Basque Euzkadi, Span. País Vasco, comprising the provinces of Álava, Guipúzcoa, and Vizcaya (1990 pop. 2,159,701), N Spain, S of the Bay of Biscay and bordering on France in the northeast. The region includes the W Pyrenees and is bounded in the southwest by the Ebro River. It is crossed by the Cantabrian Mts. (In a wider sense the name also applies to other territories largely inhabited by Basques: Spanish Navarre and Basses-Pyrénées dept. in France.) Bilbao, capital of Vizcaya prov., is the largest Basque city and one of the chief industrial centers of Spain. Other cities include San Sebastián, capital of Guipúzcoa prov.; Vitoria, capital of Álava prov.; and historic Guernica. Although Basque was recognized as the official language of the region in 1978, most Basques speak French or Spanish. In the densely populated coastal provinces of Vizcaya and Guipúzcoa the chief occupations are mining of iron, lead, copper, and zinc and metalworking, shipbuilding, and fishing. Álava is primarily agricultural; corn and sugar beets are grown, and wine and apple cider are made. Tourism is also important. Traditional Basque farming culture has given way to industrial development and emigration to France and the Americas.

For the history of the three provinces up to 1936, see Basques. Shortly after the outbreak of civil war in 1936 the Spanish government granted the three provinces autonomy. The Basque nationalist leader, José Antonio de Aguirre, was elected president of the autonomous government, but a large part of its territory was soon in insurgent hands. The fighting was over by Sept., 1937, and the new Franco regime abolished Basque autonomy. Basque nationalism remained strong, however, and the region achieved autonomy again in 1979, electing its first parliament the following year. In their campaign for Basque self-determination, the militant Basque Homeland and Freedom (Euzkadi Ta Azkatasuna; ETA) has been responsible for much terrorism; a 1998–99 cease-fire by the ETA ended without a negotiated settlement. Political parties linked to the ETA have been repeatedly banned. In recent years the regional government has sought even greater autonomy. A plan for "free association" with Spain was passed by the region's parliament in 2004, but the plan was not approved by the Spanish Cortes. In Mar., 2006, the ETA announced a "permanent" cease-fire, and called for negotiations; the Spanish government agreed to talks three months later. A bombing in Dec., 2006, however, ended the chance for talks, and in June, 2007, the ETA ended its cease-fire. In Oct., 2007, the entire leadership of Batasuna, a party linked to the ETA, was arrested. In May, 2009, a regional government led by the Socialists took office; it was the first time since autonomy was restored that Basque Nationalists had not led the government. The ETA, under pressure from Basque separatist parties, announced a new truce in 2010, and then in 2011 said it had ended its armed campaign. The Basque Nationalists won a plurality in the 2012 regional elections.

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Basques Indigenous people of the w Pyrenees in n Spain and sw France, numbering c.3,900,000. Their language is not related to any other European tongue. Throughout history they have tenaciously maintained their cultural identity. The kingdom of Navarre, which existed for 350 years, was home to most of the Basques. After its dissolution in 1512, most Spanish Basques enjoyed a degree of political autonomy. This autonomy was revoked in 1873, and Basque unrest followed. Some local autonomy was restored in 1978–79 Basque separatists (ETA) continued to agitate for an independent state. In 1998 ETA announced a cease-fire and opened negotiations with the Spanish government.

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Basque Country

Basque Country Region of the w Pyrenees in both Spain and France, consisting of the provinces of Alava, Guipúzcoa, and parts of Navarra and Vizcaya in Spain, and Basse-Navarre, Labourd and Soule in France. The main towns are Bilbao and San Sebastian. The region is populated by the Basques. It lost its autonomy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and separatist movements were formed in response.;

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Basques. Various Basque dances. Pas de Basque (Fr.) is sometimes a general term with the same meaning, but it may indicate a particular dance of the Basque peasantry—one with very varied rhythms.

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