Boise CultureCulture

Reflecting on the local and historical importance of Basque culture

Photo courtesy of Juan Kokeman

When talking about being a speaker of many languages, Dr. Nere Lete, professor and director of Basque Studies at Boise State, joked about speaking to her children in Basque. “I just want them to understand whatever language,” she said with a laugh. Dr. Ziortza Gandarias Beldarrain and Dr. Xabier Irujo (with the addition of Dr. Irujo’s wife) laughed along with shared understanding. 

While being interviewed, the three Basque professors laughed and joked together a lot, but they spoke with seriousness and respect about their work, identities and culture. 

“The word we use to talk about a Basque person, euskalduna, [means] ‘the one who speaks Basque.’ I don’t think that definition applies in the Basque diaspora,” Lete stated with seriousness and clarity. “‘Basque’ is not necessarily what makes you Basque in the Basque diaspora.”

Basque studies are about the classes and academics, but it is also about the Basque language and identity. It is about the relationship between people in the Basque diaspora and people in the Basque country. Although small and sometimes overlooked, Basque studies are relevant for people of all backgrounds. 

basque studies professors
[UNR Basque studies professor Dr. Xabier Irujo gives a lecture at a Boise State collaboration event.]
Photo by Claire Keener | The Arbiter

Boise State currently offers a Basque studies minor program and three different certificates. The classes are open to all students. 

Boise State professor Dr. Ziortza Gandarias Beldarrain, brought on in 2018, said that the Basque language and culture is applicable in many ways, not only to students of Basque studies. 

“We try to highlight in our classes that… what is happening here is happening in the Basque country. We have different culture, maybe different realities, but at the same time we are part of the global world,” Gandarias Beldarrain said. 

Lete recounted how one student joined a Basque language class because they felt it was an important part of the Boise “mosaic.”

Although the Basque identity is not always tied to the Basque language, students are encouraged to take classes in it. 

“[The Basque language] is not related to any other European language, or any other language in the world, which makes it a unique case of study. Teaching the language is one of the things we have done in different programs,” said Dr. Xabier Irujo, director of the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR).

Lete described the Basque studies program at Boise State as a “sister” program to UNR’s program. 

Basque studies examine the culture and language, and also pay special attention to Basque history. Basque culture and identity suffered from near-genocide during the early 20th century because of the Spanish civil war. Irujo is also a professor of genocide studies. 

“Genocide studies is the destruction of identity. [Transnational identity is] the opposite to genocide studies… how identities develop and flourish and merge in a natural way,” Irujo said. 

Because of the diaspora and its history, the question of identity has become a major part of Basque studies. Two anthropologists described how the significance of Basque history in social and cultural spheres informs Basque identity in the present. 

Gandarias Beldarrain spoke about how the Basque professors all “embrace [their] transnational identity.” Many people are a part of the Basque diaspora because they or their families were exiled, as Irujo’s family was. 

“My family has suffered six exiles in five generations. They were a part of political parties that supported independence,” Irujo said. “It is a constant in the history of the country. In 1937, 20% percent of the country was exiled. More than 150,000 people were exiled, including 32,000 children in 1936.”

The current population of Basques inside the Basque country is around 3 million, but the Basque diaspora has upwards of 4.5 million people.

Despite the relatively small population, Basque people have endured these struggles and found ways to sustain their identity inside and outside of Basque country. At Boise State, there is a unique opportunity to study this small, but culturally important language and culture.

“There are many ways of being Basque here. It’s very eclectic. There is not one Basque identity. There are many Basque identities and here in the diaspora they work together very well,” Lete said.

Basque flag
[Photo of the Basque flag.]
Photo courtesy of Juan Kokeman
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