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Column: A bit of basque history

Jacques Etchegoyhen

Today marks the 90th year of the traditional celebration marking the arrival of summer in Douglas County. The last big party, history tells us, before the grueling work of summer and commensurate “putting up hay” begins. Of course, few of us have schedules that mimic those common to the few dozen agriculturalists who derive a living from our pastoral surroundings.

Nonetheless, historic tradition is good for a community, and we’ve more history to celebrate than much of the rest of Nevada combined.

Interestingly, the theme of today’s celebration is “A Tribute to our Basque Heritage.” I guess after 90 years it is possible to run short of themes.

I’m sure to no one’s surprise, the task of writing this “Commissioners’ Corner” article has been delegated to me. So in a few paragraphs I will convey to you a little about the Basques.

Nothing but conjecture exists concerning early Basque culture. There is an adage commonly referenced which says, “Before stone was stone, the Basques were already Basques.” The language itself has no commonalities with nearby European languages, or anywhere else for that matter. The ability of science to track and map gene patterns likely provides the most logical explanation of early history of the culture. Basques have the highest incidence of type “O” blood in the world. Moreover, they have the highest rate of Rh negative blood of any culture. A book published just a year ago raises the question, “Are Basques the first modern people to oust the Neanderthals and spread into Eurasia?” The author goes on to surmise “the suggestion that Basques are survivors of the pre-neolithic peoples of Europe begins to seem plausible.” We may well be direct descendants of Cro-Magnons who lived 40,000 years ago, and the artists of the oldest cave paintings in Europe at Lascaux, France.

More recently, research has shown that all three ships used by Columbus in 1492 were owned by Basque mariners, and were predominantly manned by Basque sailors. In fact, Magellan was not the first captain to have circumvented the globe, as he was killed before completing the voyage. His first mate, Sebastian Elcano, a Basque, led until the conclusion of the feat. Between 1520 and 1580, 80 percent of the New World ship traffic was Basque-owned.

Most of us, myself included, thought immigration into the Americas by Basques was predominantly in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Again, the names of prominent geographic locations around the Americas show Basque influence long before 1600. For example, Bodega Bay, Durango (Mexico and United States), Key Biscayne, Viscaya Castle (Florida), Santa Fe (New Mexico), Buenos Aires (Argentina) were all named and/or founded by Basques. Recently, a publication pointed out that in Latin America 108 of the recent presidents in 16 countries were of Basque heritage, including Simon Bolivar from what is now Bolivia. In California until 1848 when it became part of the United States, the vast majority of Spanish/Mexican governors were of Basque decent, beginning in the late 1500s.

Of course, the indigenous Americans chuckle at all of us recent arrivals. I am proud of my Basque heritage, but more proud of my citizenship in these United States, and frightfully proud of being from this little place we all now call home.

(Jacques Etchegoyhen is chairman of the Douglas County Commission, representing district 2.)