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Some say the true West was built on the backs of the Basque sheepmen. They came to a hard country that was still making up its mind about what it was going to be, still defining itself. They chipped out some kind of life from the dirt and mountains and desert. They left tracks in our sand.

Idaho Public Television brings you West of the Basque, a one-hour documentary on the Basque in Idaho. We trace the lines of history through the generations, from the early days as herders to the prominent spot the descendants of Basque immigrants hold in Idaho today.

basque countrysideThe Basque country is connected to the West, and especially, to Idaho. Separated by thousands of miles, they are united in history. Idaho meant untamed, open country for the Basque who wanted--who needed--something better. They left a homeland where war was always either a reality or a lingering echo. They will always be linked because those Basque were here when this territory was becoming the State of Idaho.

John Bieter, a professor at Boise State University and director of the Cenarrusa Center for Basque Studies says, "The Basques, I think, add an element that is particularly unique due to the Basque story in general that separated Idaho or gave it a little flavor that other states in other areas didn't have."

And it's not just the Basque that keep the culture alive. John Bieter and his brother Dave, who was elected Mayor of Boise in 2003, are only half Basque. And yet they have embraced that half of their roots.

nun walking on street"Ethnicity in the late 20th and 21st Century becomes a choice, which seems odd. It would seem especially odd to those immigrants that couldn't have imagined or even thought of that word. It's really a post-modern idea, but it's one that says, I get to choose, somewhat, who I will become," says John.

Today that relationship to heritage means things like a sister city in Gernika and a Basque block in Boise. For Dave Bieter the tale is worth telling. "I think the basic story is a good one to tell because, by and large, it's a successful one."

When you talk about the success of the Basque people in Idaho you have to talk about Pete Cenarrusa. He's an Idaho icon, serving nine terms in the House of Representatives and was Secretary of State from 1967 until he retired in 2002. He never lost an election in more than 50 years of service. He was born in Carey, Idaho in 1917 and moved to Bellevue where his was the only Basque family.

man gathering hayPete says, "I understood that we were different, that there was something different about us. We were Basque."

He grew up in the sheep camps, listening to the stories the herders told. He has kept his ties to the Basque country strong as he has risen in American society. We headed back to the Basque country with Pete and his wife Freda. For them, returning is a celebration with lots of food and wine and laughing. It was an emotional trip to his mother's family home in Gernika.

"She was reared here as a child," Pete says smiling, "and she remembered this so much and she longed to come back and visit, and it was many, many years before she could come back to visit. And she talked about Gernika. What a great place Gernika was."

window overlooking basque townDave Bieter is the grandson of a Basque immigrant. He was elected Mayor of Boise in 2003. As a member of the Idaho Legislature he worked with Pete Cenarrusa to pass a memorial, a declaration in support of an independent Basque country and a call for peace in a troubled area. This marked a dramatic break from the state's tradition of not taking a stand on international affairs. He saw it as an opportunity to give the Basque a stronger voice.

"They want an opportunity to tell their story," Dave says. "And I think they see, in the Basque communities around the world, and in this community in particular, an opportunity to tell their story and to tell their side of events. Because I think it's a very compelling one."

The history of the Basque in the West lives across the generations. From Pete Cenarrusa, through the Bieters and into the future through the children. Watch West of the Basque, see how the arrival of these immigrants helped bring a vibrant layer to the rich tapestry of Idaho.

Producer Jim Peck and Director Alan Austin visited the Basque country in 2004 for "West of the Basque." While there, Jim wrote a series of pieces for the Idaho Statesman and Idahoptv. View his Journal entries.

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