Tag Archives: sheepherders

The Flag

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Johnson County, Wyoming - encompassing the rolling plains of the Old West and the towering peaks of the Bighorn Mountains. It’s a land rich in both history and scenery. A place of sheep herders and cattle barons, renegades and rustlers. Where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid holed up after their outlaw exploits. Where miners consumed with gold rush fever passed through on the Bozeman Trail. Where some of the most famous Indian battles in American history occurred. And where the Johnson County Cattle War, a rangeland dispute which historians often deem one of the most notorious events in our history, left its mark here in the late 1880s…and that Owen Wister wrote about in his epic American novel, The Virginian.”

(Johnson County, 2012)

Within this grand introduction to the singular history of the Johnson County in the State of Wyoming, surrounded by wild beauty and its frontier origins, lie the story of the Espondas from Baigorri; the Harriets, the Etchemendys, the Urrizagas, and the Caminos from Arnegi; the Iberlins from Banca; the Ansolabeheres, the Iriberrys, and many others. All these Basque pioneers came from the tiny province of Nafarroa Beherea (approximately 511 square mile), in the Department of the Atlantic Pyrenees in France, and with a current population of 28,000 people. On the other hand, Johnson County, established in 1879, and its main city Buffalo, has a population of over 8,500 people on an area of 4,175 square mile.

The history of the Basque presence in the Johnson County begins with the arrival of Jean Esponda in 1902 as reported by Dollie Iberlin and David Romtvedt in their book “Buffalotarrak”. Most Buffalo Basques originated in the village of Baigorri, because Jean Esponda, a successful immigrant from Baigorri, settled in that area of Wyoming. Esponda immigrated into California in 1886 and then moved to Wyoming in 1902, where he set up a thriving sheepherding operation, claiming many Basques from his own natal village and neighboring villages for nearly two decades. Esponda became known as the “King of the Basques”. He passed away in 1936. By the end of the 1960s, Basque sheepmen owned over 250,000 acres (approximately 390 square mile) of Johnson County land, which was about 76% of the land of the entire province of Nafarroa Beherea. According to the United States Census, in 2000 there were only 869 Basque people in Wyoming, being the smallest, but nonetheless vibrant, Basque community in the American West.

basq04111Basque group photograph at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church, in Buffalo, Wyoming, in the late 1960s. (Photograph courtesy of the Center for Basque Studies Library, University of Nevada, Reno)

110 years have passed since Jean Esponda set foot in Wyoming, and much of the Basque heritage is still flourishing. It has become part of the social and cultural fabric of Wyoming. In this regard, Johnson County designed a flag to commemorate the State Fair’s 100th anniversary, which depicts the Ikurriña or Basque flag (originally designed in 1894 in Bilbao, Bizkaia) with the county’s seal in the center, as a way to honor the county’s Basque origins. The Johnson County’s “Basque” flag is the first official Basque flag outside the Basque Country, and the first in the nation. Its symbolism will definitely help to preserve and assure the continuity of the Basque history in the State of Wyoming. It will be publicly displayed, for the first time, at the State Fair that is going to be held on August 11-18 in Douglass.

Do you know similar stories to this one?

jo_co_flag The Johnson County, Wyoming “Basque” flag

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connected…lertxun marrak, the “Republic of Letters,” and the dabbawala‏s

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“Think on the last 24 hours of your life. And now ask yourself what percentage of that time you have devoted to think on social issues. You will discover that it has been 99% of the time. How is your wife? And your child? And the person who works with you?”

(Michael Gazzaniga, 2011)

Leading neuroscientists such as Gazzaniga argue that humans are inherently social creatures. According to them, being social is one of the characteristics that make us unique from other species. That is to say, the more intelligent we are, the more social we are. Then, the more social we are, the more experienced we are, which, in turn, facilitates what we are and what we achieve. Undeniably, the fact that we have developed a complex language has provided us with the ability to express ourselves, communicate, and transfer knowledge. Our desire for being social is at the core of the development of an increasing array of tools and resources, which have helped us to be in contact with each other (e.g., lertxun marrak); to create networks and communities of knowledge regardless of time and space (e.g., the “Republic of Letters”); and to establish low-tech supply businesses such as the one of the dabbawalas, and which may seem anachronic in a world increasingly determined by technology.

Tree carvings (arborglyphs) or lertxun marrak (in the Basque language) have been part of the American West landscape since the massive influx of Basque migrants from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. The majority of the young Basque men from France and Spain who came to America worked in the sheep industry as sheepherders and camp tenders. Their jobs required to work in the sierras for extended periods of time and demanded physical and mental strength. The feelings of isolation and loneliness experienced by Basque sheepherders provoked on some of them mental illnesses and drove some others to commit suicide. Names, dates, human and animal figures, phrases, poems, warnings for other sheepherders, were carved on the bark of thousands and thousands of aspen trees, thereby recording the historical presence of Basques in the most remote areas of the American West. The tree carvings are not only “banal” expressions of Basques’ identities, dreams, nightmares, and artistic ability, but they are also a “primitive” information and communication system, which desperately attempted to break down the barriers of the physical and mental isolation imposed on them.

Joseph C. R. Licklider and Robert Taylor, pioneers in promoting the development of the Internet in the early 1960s, had begun to conceive of the computer as a communication device more than a calculating machine. That is, they forecast computers as machines able to create communities, bounded by common interests and not by space or time. This idea echoes the “Republic of Letters” that described the exchange of private correspondence between philosophers and other influential intellectuals from the 15th century to the 19th century in Europe and America. The development of various “Republic of Letters” was linked to the invention and further improvement of the printing press, which meant a technological revolution in terms of dissemination of information and ideas. Similar to the carvings on the bark of trees, the ink on the paper draws maps of social connections, which, in this case, transcended the thinkers’ immediate communities. This proves that there was a great need for sharing ideas and experiences across borders. The “Republic of Letters” constituted informal social networks based on scholarly, literary, and artistic correspondence, which facilitated the circulation of information and exchange of ideas.  The “Republic of Letters” became the foundation of today’s scientific knowledge communities in the Western world.

The dabbawalas (literally, “one who carries the box”) are self-employed workers associated to the Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association, and whose main job is to deliver lunches in tin boxes from the homes of their customers to their work places on a daily basis and for a very low monthly fee. The origin of the business dates back to the late 19th century when India was under British rule. A system was set up to distribute British-style (home cooked) meals to British workers in Mumbai. Soon, Indians became the primary customers of the dabbawalas. The impossibility for workers to go back to their homes during lunch time makes the work of the dabbawalas essential to establish the connection between individuals and their families’ home cooking. Often, the lunch boxes also include messages between home and the family member. In a city with nearly 14 million people, the dabbawalas rely on local trains and bicycles to carry out their deliveries in an area from 60 to 70 kilometers. Around 5,000 dabbawalas deliver approximately 200,000 lunches every day. Most of the dabbawalas are male, have a low level of formal education, and do not rely in modern technology to manage the logistics of the business. They do not use any electronic barcode system or tracking device. However, their distribution system is extremely accurate. (Just recently, the Mumbai Tiffin Box Supplier’s Association has set up a website and a text messaging system to take orders.) The tin boxes are color-coded with small series of letters painted by hand that identify the destination and the recipient as well as the railway stations to be used to deliver them efficiently. The boxes can change hands three to four times until it reaches the customer. After lunchtime, the empty boxes are collected and returned to the respective houses. In 2002, Forbes Magazine awarded the dabbawala supply-chain business a Six Sigma performance rating on the basis that only 1 in 16 million tins get lost (i.e., 1 tin gets lost every 2 months). Its reliability rivals with the best global logistic businesses in the market.

The previous examples are all attempts to connect. We all have the need to express ourselves and to establish communication with others, particularly when facing acute isolation. There is a further need to transfer information and ideas across continents as well as to establish connections between people in the most populous metropolitan areas of the planet.

Are you socially connected?

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