National Basque Festival

WHEN we get together and have good food and singing, and maybe some Basque dances . . . then a man who knows he can do it might shout out the irrintzi, and I can tell you the ancestral blood pounds and the Basque heart beats loud.'' The irrintzi is the blood-chilling yell that originated in the Pyr'en'ees thousands of years ago, rising from a hundred throats as Basque warriors leaped from crags, terrorizing invaders.

An irrintzi contest is just one of the amazing events that take place at the National Basque Festival every Independence Day weekend when Basques take over Elko, Nev., for three or four days of games, dancing, and traditional contests unique to the Basques. It's a festival that began in Elko 20 years ago and has been an annual event every Fourth of July weekend since. This year the festival will be held on the weekend after Independence Day, July 6-7.

The origins of the Basques remain a mystery. Their homeland straddles the mountains between Spain and France, yet they are like neither nation. Their language is not similar to any other. They have endured invasions and hardships and are the oldest surviving culture in Europe.

That may explain why the Basque people value strength and endurance so dearly. When they engage in their traditional contests, they are testing values deep in their culture.

Instead of the 100-yard dash or marksmanship contests, the festival at Elko (and smaller festivals throughout the West) features competitions centered on events like stone dragging, weight lifting, wood chopping, or weight carrying. There are other demonstrations of their skill with sheep, but the contests they would most like to win are the feats of strength.

In one contest, called the rock lift, a great tube of steel (it was a boulder in other times) weighing 250 pounds must be hoisted. The big men peel down to their old-fashioned armless shirts and wrap a protecting length of black sash around their waists and padded vests. Then, berets firmly in place, they tug the weight to knee, stomach, and onto the shoulder, then release it. They throw it forward after each hoist as easily as though it were a bundle of camp kindling.

And then, again and again, it is the knee-stomach-shoulder throw for the most weight lifted in two 3-minute periods. The 1984 winner, Chock Zaga, picked up the 250-pound steel weight 47 times during his turns.

A weight-lifting contest that has had few takers in recent years is rolling a 225-pound granite ball around the neck. Benito Goitiandia has been the only one to come forward, and instead of a contest it has become a demonstration of the unbelievable strength and stamina of a man who is built like a giant bull.

Next the woodchoppers have the spotlight. Each contestant is given seven logs of 55-inch circumference. Standing over a log with a hand ax, he is expected to chop his way through the middle. A champion can get through all seven in less than 25 minutes.

Between events, lively Basque dancers execute some intricate footwork, their gay costumes a bright splotch against the tan desert backdrop. These are the Oinkari dancers, an elite corps of young people chosen from the many Basques in Boise, Idaho, trained in the traditional folk dances, who travel all over the West. Their dances tell of mountains and shepherds' lives, and of sailors who do not return. In the warriors' dance the irrintzi pierces the air, the feet blur with speed, and then two youths are lifted above the heads of the dancers, their bodies flat out, representing the fallen.

The music now is most often from accordions and tambourines, though it was once a player who had the ability to make a rolling beat with a single stick on a small drum while the other hand fingered a long txiustu, a pipe of flute sweetness.

Traditionally the Basques have been sheepherders. They're brought to America on three-year contracts to herd sheep and paid something like $250 a month, plus room, board, and expenses. Many speak only Basque, and that's the only language understood by their dogs.

The combination of strength and gentleness necessary in their work is reflected in the sheep-hooking contest. Entrants are required to catch a ewe with a long hook and tie it by one leg to a post. For the sheepherder, it's all in a day's work. In camp it's done during lambing in the spring, when a ewe goes wild and the herder has to catch her with his long crook, tie her to a clump of sagebrush, and hold her while he delivers the lamb.

There is a great spirit of conviviality at these Basque festivals, with a good deal of shouting back and forth across the stands and cracking of jokes. From the stands below there's the fragrance of chorizo sausages sizzling in long ropes over the grills. They're eaten in a thin roll of French bread; the flavor of the pimento and the spices spreads into the bread, lightly oily and steaming.

The Basques will sing and dance through most of the night. The next day the festival continues, with jai alai (the game they call pelota), an irrintzi contest, and judging of the baking of sheepherder's bread.

By noon everyone will be in the park waiting for the picnic. Charcoal braziers are staffed by patient men turning the lamb with long hooked poles. Paper plates are handed out to lines of laughing people, young dancers, and pelota players.

Then the festival of the Euzkadi, the Basque nation, will end. The sheepherders will return to the desert and the hills for another year, tending flocks and helping lambs get born.

Practical information: There are other Nevada festivals on a smaller scale -- late July in Ely, mid-August in Reno. In California there's a festival in Fresno in April, and both Los Gatos and Los Banos have large Basque picnics in their largest parks. For specific information, contact the Elko Basque Club, PO Box 1321, Elko, Nev. 89801.

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