Basques and Buckaroos… and Sheep???... at the 34th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

by Katie Aiken

No doubt you’ve heard by now that there are sheep on the 2018 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering poster. Sheep! On a cowboy event! Is it true???

Well…yes. The poster artwork depicts sheep – creamy shapes amidst a burst of saturated colors and living textures that call up the deep, shifting palette of our big Western skies and the hazy boundaries of what we define as our Western landscape. 

The artist, Theodore Waddell, creates non-stereotypical depictions of the American West, which would be meaningless without stereotypes to buck in the first place. Working in the world of cowboy arts means navigating stereotypes at almost every turnsome preposterous, some truthful, some romanticized, some useful, some made up by people with no clue, some cherished by people in-the-know. But, the Gathering and the Gathering community can’t be boiled down so easily. 

Here’s the thing about those sheep. Besides spurring a lot of lively conversationand opening the door to some unshakeable jokesthose sheep are giving us an opportunity to talk about what the Gathering is and what this year’s Gathering holds in store.

In 2018, we honor part of the fabric of this wonderful community that hosts the Gathering every year. Because, nothing says Elko like Basques and buckaroos. Many Basques came to the American West to work on cattle and sheep ranches as herders and buckaroos. Today’s Basque communities worldwide carry stories of immigration and dynamic traditions of music, poetry, dance, art, foodways and more. These intersect with buckaroo traditions, as Basques and buckaroos are neighbors, friends, family, coworkers, and often, one and the same. We look forward to celebrating the expressive arts of Basques and buckaroos from Elko, the Great Basin and Basque country overseas.

Here are some glimpses into what will happen at the Gathering this year, as we’re joined by participants from the American West and from the Basque Country:

Bertsolaritza at the National Basque Festival, Elko, Nevada. Photo by Meg Glaser

Bertsolaritza at the National Basque Festival, Elko, Nevada. Photo by Meg Glaser

There will be poetry! Cowboys have cowboy poetry and Basques have bertsolaritza. Bertsolaritza is an improvised poetic artform, where two bertsolariak improvise and exchange poetic verses while trying to cleverly one-up each other. These verses are sung to melodies and created on the spot in response to a given theme. In Basque Country, this is a highly formalized, competitive “sport” that captivates stadium-size audiences for hours. Champions are well-known and renowned. The world of bertsolaritza is big. And, we’re excited to have both a pair of female bertsolariak joining us from the Basque Country as well as a pair of male bertsolariak joining us from Nevada and Wyoming. Though this artform is grounded in the Basque language, all four of these poets will be interpreted and speak in English as well.

Photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland

Photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland

There will be food! Because if poetry comes out of our mouths, something eventually needs to go back in, right? Cooking workshops are one way that we’ll explore a vast culinary world influenced by Basques and buckaroos. From the necessity and ingenuity of sheep-camp cooking with Dutch ovens, to the needs and styles of ranch cooking (which crosses over to Basque boarding house meals and family-style Basque American restaurants), to contemporary takes on traditional snack-size pintxos, we’re excited to be joined by Basque chefs and ranch cooks. 

And, there will be more! We’ll have real people sharing real stories from the Spanish Ranch and other outfits, giving you a glimpse into the histories, characters and lives of Basques and buckaroos from the Great Basin region. There will be opportunities to watch (and learn) Basque dancing, to hear (and play) Basque instruments like the pandero (tambourine), to try your hand at carving Basque makila (walking sticks), to play the card game mus, to drink a kalimotxo (you’ll find out), to bring the family to all-ages events, to share a two-step, and to enjoy the delightful company of our guests. As the Basque saying goes, “Gure etxera datorrena, bere etxean dago!” (“Who come to our home are at their home!” or, roughly, make yourself at home!)

As you listen to the poetry of Bruce Kiskaddon one moment, and hear the melodies of the trikitixa the next…perhaps while eating a tri-tip sandwich and having a conversation with a fellow Gathering-goer that covers range management challenges, the key markers of good rawhide braiding and the songwriting craft of Ian Tyson…you’ll start to get a sense of what the Gathering is about. Basques and buckaroos (and Basque buckaroos!) may define themselves by the land they work or the land they come from, but these lands and the people on them, are connected through generations that reach beyond geographic boundaries. They are sustained by complex and creative relationships. And through words, through music, through food, through shared experience, through moments…the kind of moments that happen at the Gathering. 

Our hope is to explore contemporary ranch country, which happens to coexist with “sheep country” and with Basque Country. It is a messy, exciting, wonderful, hazy reality, in which cowboys do what they do best (besides work cows)they express and they share life from the land. And they refuse to be boiled down.