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  • Far from the Pastoral MythBasque Sheepherders in Contemporary Western American Fiction
  • David Rio (bio)

No shepherd, no pastoral.

—Leo Marx

The central fiction of pastoral … is not the Golden Age or idyllic landscapes, but herdsmen and their lives.

—Paul Alpers

Sheep and sheepherders have been traditionally neglected in mainstream western US culture, often due to a long-established emphasis on cattle ranching and cowboy values and images. Despite the efforts of several authors to vindicate the role of woollies, with Mary Austin’s The Flock (1906) a leading example, and to stress the contribution of the sheepherders to the history of the American West, as epitomized, for instance, by Robert Laxalt’s Sweet Promised Land (1957), western stories have confined sheep and sheepmen to a minor role and often attributed to them negative connotations. We may remember John Muir’s well-known depiction of the sheep and their herders in his 1894 book The Mountains of California—“the arch destroyers are the shepherds, with their flocks of hoofed locusts” (349)—or popular Westerns where the sheepmen are portrayed as villains in conflict with cattlemen.1 For example, in the film The Ballad of Josie (1967), when Josie Minick (Doris Day), after having accidentally killed her violent husband, decides to herd sheep, she is told by Jason Meredith (Peter Graves), one of the local cattle barons, that “it takes money, capital, brains and sweat to raise cattle, but any idiot with a two-bit dog and a Winchester can raise sheep.” As historian Richard W. Etulain has stated, “Our myths about the West exploit the cowboy and other matters of the [End Page 239] cattle country. In this mythic domain, the sheeprancher and herder are foes; they are pictured as villains or at least as opponents” (“Basques” 15).

Another ingredient in the counter-sheepman story is the ethnic origin of the sheepherders, which often added ethnic and national animosity to the fight for water and pasture. More than a few of them were Native Americans, Hispanos, or immigrants from Europe. One group of such strangers arrived from a region that spans parts of north-central Spain and southwestern France along the western end of the Pyrenees on the coast of the Bay of Biscay. They were the Basques, or Euskaldunak in the Basque language, a relatively small ethnic group. The Basques were protagonists in the early Spanish exploration and administration of the North American West, including such well-known conquistadors as Juan de Oñate and Sebastián Vizcaíno. Their presence in the area increased noticeably after the California gold rush in 1849, with newcomers arriving to the United States first from South America (above all, from Argentina), where the Basques had already established themselves as sheepherders. Soon Basque immigrants in the West also found their distinctive occupation in sheepherding, often tending itinerant bands of sheep in the high desert. By the 1860s most of the Basque sheepherders in California came directly from Europe (Douglass and Bilbao 227–28). Curiously, few of these immigrants were used to working specifically as sheepherders in the Basque Country, a job that in their homeland did not include nomadic patterns. For the immigrant Basques sheepherding offered an opportunity to improve their economic situation in a job that required no knowledge of English and little formal education. As anthropologist William A. Douglass has noted, “what young Basque males brought to America was a rural upbringing that gave them some skill in caring for livestock, a propensity for hard work, and a willingness to undergo extreme hardship in order to advance financially” (“Basque Sheepherding” 8).

The nomadic Basque sheep bands largely ended with the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act (1934), which regulated grazing on public lands. But Basque sheepmen increased their activities in the livestock industry in the West and often gained access to permanent residence in the United States because of the labor crisis in the [End Page 240] sheep industry and their solid reputation as herders. In the second half of the twentieth century new generations of Basque Americans often moved beyond the sheep camp and found employment in other rural activities and in a variety of businesses, industries, and public services...


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pp. 239-265
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