Commemoration of Nevada’s rich Basque heritage
Studies, one of the largest collections in the world of documents relating to Basque, over 55,000 volumes, itself a reflection of the large Basque diaspora in Nevada. September 8e, the Center for Basque Studies William A. Douglass will host, on the day of the Basque diaspora, the official reception of the statue of the Basque shepherd which was recently offered to our university.
Today, I am speaking with Michonne Ascuaga, former CEO of John Ascuaga’s Nugget and member of the advisory board of the Center for Basque Studies, and Kate Camino, administrative assistant at the Center for Basque Studies, both of whom are the main organizers of this event. important event to learn more about the celebration, the statue, but also Basque history, the Diaspora and long-standing interconnections with Nevada.
For at least the summer months, anyone walking past the Knowledge Center has been pleasantly surprised to come across an imposing and impressive statue of a shepherd. What can you tell us about this work of art: who commissioned it, and how and why did the University obtain this donation?
- Michonne: My father, John Ascuaga, commissioned sculptor Doug Van Howd in early 1998 to create and install a statue of a Basque shepherd to commemorate the opening of Nugget’s new “Restaurante Orozko”. With this new restaurant, dad paid tribute to his parents and other Basque immigrants. Both the decor and the menu reflected the flavors and traditions of the Basque country. The name comes from the village in northern Spain where my father’s father came from. Shortly after the sale of the Nugget, we started conversations with members of the Center d’études basques around the idea of moving “Le Berger” to the campus, a permanent residence close to the Center. In 2017, Bill Douglass, founder of the Center, met with Anthony Marnell, the new owner of the Nugget, to discuss the donation of the statue. Many people and companies came together to move the piece, build the foundation, and place it in its new location. All the time and materials were donated.
It is often surprising to those who are still new to Nevada’s history to learn just how diverse our state really is – almost more diverse for most racial / ethnic groups than the national averages. Even knowing this fact, it is still, I would say, an unexpected discovery for many to grasp the important and long history of the Basque diaspora and its presence in the state of Nevada. What can you tell us about this story, how were these socio-geographic links created, why and how are they experienced in the present?
- Kate: Many Basques came to Nevada during the Gold Rush, but realized that feeding the men in the mining camps could be more lucrative than panning for gold. Nevada was also a free range state, which allowed cattle to graze freely. It started a tradition of chain migration, where one family member sponsored another, resulting in a strong Basque presence in the northern part of the state. In addition to raising livestock, many Basques at the start of immigration also established guesthouses, which provided a place to stay for shepherds during their stay in the city. Importantly, these pensions have also become a lifeline for newcomers, providing advice on needs such as banking and medical services, as well as English translation services if needed. These pensions were often located near train stations, and many of them still exist today in the form of Basque restaurants. In Reno, these include Louis’ basque corner and the Santa Fe; in Gardnerville, there is the Restaurant JT Basque, as good as By the road.
Pensions have evolved in the same way, as has Basque culture. The Basques are very proud of their heritage and have worked hard to preserve it in the United States. In 1959, a group of first generation Basques, including John Ascuaga, organizes the first Basque National Festival. This group included several prominent Basque names from the region, including John and Robert Laxalt, rock Supera, Joe Michéo, Martin Esain, Dominica Gascue, Paul Parraguirre, John Ascuaga and Pierre Echeverria. The event attracted Basques from all over the country, as well as officials from France and Spain. This festival still serves as a model for the Basque festivals that take place today throughout the American West.
Before the 1959 festival, many Basque communities also held annual Basque picnics, which further sparked the desire to have more organized outlets. Basque communities began to establish their own Basque clubs and entities, and in 1973 Basques from several communities came together in Reno to create what would become the North American Basque organizations Where NABO. Today, NABO comprises 42 clubs and entities across the United States and Canada, as well as its most recent member club in Saint Pierre and Miquelon. NABO groups meet three times a year, including a convention that rotates between host clubs in the summer, making it the biggest gathering of the year. The organization also welcomes Udaleku, a two-week children’s camp where children are exposed to Basque music, culture, dance, sports and gastronomy; a national mus tournament (Basque card game), and Kantari Eguna, or the Basque Song Day. It is important to note that NABO also serves as a liaison with the Basque government and other Basque federations around the world.
Can you share some memories and thoughts on notions such as immigration, diversity and inclusion, as it relates to the Basque community.
- Michonne: Two memories come to mind. First of all, about fifteen years ago, a Victrola and a handful of vinyl records surfaced in my father’s twin sister’s basement. The player and the records belonged to my grandparents. During the Great Depression, they often opened their homes to other immigrants and Basque shepherds. My grandmother cooked and they ended the evening playing Basque music. They all wanted to connect with what was familiar to them. Decades later, my dad would play Victrola over and over to everyone who walked into his office, and he still got emotional.
Fast forward ten years, we drive through farmland around Notus, Idaho, to the Ascuaga farm. We’re there for his twin sister’s funeral, and as we come less than a mile from the farm, he shows us the neighbors’ homes and the families who lived there – Shelps, Marshbanks, etc. They weren’t Basque, but they were my grandparents’ “lifelong friends”, their support system. They helped each other through good and bad times, and there were a lot of tough times.
Because the Basque presence is indeed so ubiquitous in the state of Nevada, it is also clearly present in our university, as evidenced, among other things, by the many Basque surnames that we meet throughout the university – in the professors, students, staff. What can you say to these Basque descendants and anyone like me who might want to attend September 8?e activity, what to expect from the celebrations? (I know there will be music, dancing, food and drink, so be sure to let us know!)
- Kate: The event will be an opportunity to thank all those who made the moving of the statue possible, but also the opportunity to pay tribute not only to the Ascuaga family, but to all Basque immigrants and their families in the diaspora. The event will feature Basque music provided by renowned Basque-American musicians, Jean Flesher and Jean Pierre Etchechury, as well as a tribute dance performed by local Basque dancer, Enrike Corcostegui. There will be presentations by the College of Liberal Arts, Dean Debra Moddelmog, Michonne and Stephen Ascuaga, Dr Xabier Irujo, Director of the Center, as well as other members of our Advisory Board. And of course, like any good Basque event, there will also be food and drink.
- Michonne: Absolutely, Kate! September 8e, we will celebrate our heritage, our history and those who came before us. We are all connected in one way or another. It will be a lively event – music, food, drink and a chance to reconnect! Everyone is welcome!
Register for the Basque Statue Festival, September 8, 2021 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Michonne Ascuaga was CEO of John Ascuaga’s Nugget Hotel and Casino, Sparks, Nevada, for many years. She graduated from the University of Santa Clara in Santa Clara, California, and received an MBA from Stanford University. She sits on several boards, including the University of Santa Clara Board of Trustees, the Sierra Arts Foundation, the Nevada Women’s Fund, and the Forum for a Common Agenda.
Kate camino was born in Buffalo, Wyoming, to Basque parents. His father arrived in the United States in 1938, while his mother was the first of his family to be born in the United States. Thanks to the USAC (University Studies Abroad Consortium) program in 1983, she was able to spend time as a student in the Basque Country which allowed her to learn Basque and improve her Spanish. Kate has been the administrative assistant at the William A. Douglass Center for Basque Studies since 1998, where she has also taught the Basque language. She was president of the Basque club of Reno Zazpiak Bat for two terms and was director of their dance group. In 2011, Kate was awarded the Bizi Emankorra, NABO (North American Basque Organizations, Inc.), Lifetime Achievement Award for which she is currently secretary and facilitator. In 2018, Udaleku, the NABO Basque summer camp for children was held in Reno under the direction of Kate.