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Basques in America: They got far on foot

Elko is gearing up for its annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering — the highlight of the year for the city. This is one of the biggest cultural festivals in the American West that celebrates its extensive ranching heritage. Festival visitors may partake in a series of events that feature cowboy poetry, storytelling, and western music.

This year’s theme pays tribute to the sheepherders of the West and particularly to the Basque immigrants who worked in the western sheep industry. In this way, Basque sheepherders will be getting recognition from the cowboy culture, many years after the end of the range wars between cattle and sheep interests that marked life in the West.

By the late 1880s, though their numbers were relatively few, a handful of Basque immigrant families, such as the Altubes, had created an ethnic economic niche based largely on the open-range sheep industry. Taking advantage of the free and open range, these Basque pioneers built up quickly thriving sheep operations which opened a floodgate for further Basque immigration. This resulted in an expanding process of chain migration, which channelled Basque newcomers into the bottom ranks of the sheep industry and promoted the development of kindred networks. Thereof, an occupational concentration process occurred with the arrival of more Basque immigrants who settled near and worked as sheepherders along with their countrymen in the American West.

But they came late to the party.

Basque immigrants in the late 19th century were newcomers to an already established grazing empire based largely on cattle. In the 1890s, when an increasing number of Basque immigrants arrived in the West to work as sheepherders, their presence in the public ranges began to disturb the economic interests of the older cattle ranchers. The 1890s witnessed a remarkable boom in the sheep business of the Great Basin, especially after the disastrous winter of 1889-90. After such an extreme-weather event, the economics of sheep grazing seemed to fare better than cattle. Consequently, the number of sheep outfits multiplied and rangelands became more fully stocked. Then, competition between cattle owners and sheep graziers for the forage resources intensified, oftentimes flaring into violence. Contracted sheepherders, such as the Basques, bore the brunt of the resulting range conflicts.

By the turn of the century, just as the Basques began to become settled on the Interior West and some of them built prosperous sheep-dealing businesses, an anti-Basque movement began by cattle ranchers, conservationists, and some politicians. Basque immigrant sheepherders, with their flocks coming onto public grazing lands, were perceived as a serious threat to the cattle economic interests, sustainable agricultural development, and public interest in general. They were blamed for the number of interrelated economic and environmental problems affecting the public grazing lands. The increasing presence of Basque sheepherders in the public rangelands drew derision amidst a cowboy culture in the West.

This crusade against the sheepherders created the most pernicious image of Basque immigrants in the West, as the antithesis of the nationally venerated image of cowboys. While cowboys were viewed as the embodiment of the American frontier spirit through self-reliance and hard work who rode horses, sheepherders were denigrated as despicable and inferior class of laborers who walked long distances allowing sheep to roam at will across the wide-open range.

Somehow, the elevation of the venerable cowboy rested on the downgrading of the humble sheepherder. For a long time, there was a popular saying in Texas: “Raise cattle if you are looking for prestige, but raise sheep if you are looking for profit.” The social stigma carried by the sheepherding job was compounded by racial prejudice and discrimination too, that Basques could not escape. But despite everything, they got far on foot.

By the 1920s, the range wars began to draw to an end. Although these bloody conflicts eventually disappeared, raising meat on the hoof on the public ranges continued to be potentially troublesome. At the same time, while American cowboys became legendary heroes, sheepherders remained on the cultural margins.

But just as sheepherding was increasingly associated with a Basque immigrant culture, the sheepherder imagery improved progressively in Western thinking. Various factors and elements within the Basque-American community helped to shape the imagery of the sheepherders in a positive way.

My own preferred event in this process is the popularization of Basque-American cuisine in the West. And now, at this year’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, the Basque sheepherder will be recognized as a colorful Western figure by the cowboy culture: a gesture that reconciles their longtime differences on the public-domain lands.

For a long time, there was a popular saying in Texas: “Raise cattle if you are looking for prestige, but raise sheep if you are looking for profit.”

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Utah man found guilty of kicking West Wendover officer

ELKO – A Utah man was found guilty of kicking an officer when he was placed under arrest at a West Wendover casino in May.

Jason Vialpando, 29, appeared in Elko District Court before Judge Al Kacin, pleading not guilty to one count of battery by a prisoner, three counts of battery on an officer, two counts of intimidating a public officer, and two counts of assault on an officer while in custody.

On Friday, the jury found Vialpando guilty of battery on an officer, a misdemeanor; and intimidating a public officer and assault on a public officer, both gross misdemeanors. 

For the battery and assault on an officer charges, Vialpando could receive up to 364 days in jail and be fined up to $2,000 on each count; and receive 6 months in jail and be fined up to $1,000 on the other charge. 

The charges stemmed from an incident May 14 at the Wendover Nugget Hotel and Casino where Vialpando was taken into custody by West Wendover police.

Body camera footage presented to the jury by District Attorney Mark Mills showed the handcuffed defendant arguing with officers as they tried to place him in a patrol car and visibly kicking Sgt. Jason Abrams.

Vialpando was also shown arguing and uttering threatening statements to the officers on the scene, Tomas Ramirez and Cutter Love.

After the verdict was read late Friday afternoon, Kacin thanked the jurors for sitting through an extra day of testimony than was estimated.

“You were dealing with technical legalities, determining probable cause, specific intent and self-defense,” Kacin said.

Mills, in his closing argument, asked the jury to find Vialpando guilty on all charges, explaining that the state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Vialpando was in lawful custody when he willfully and unlawfully used violence and uttered threats on the officers, committing battery by kicking, hitting and pushing them.

Pointing to the body cam video, Mills also said Vialpando was not acting out of self-defense, reminding the jury that the officers spoke calmly to the defendant and used reasonable levels of force to try to get him into the patrol car.

Deputy Public Defender Matthew Pennell argued that Vialpando hesitated when first approached by officer Love, feeling “harassed” and “mistreated,” later pulling away from officers.

Pennell said the defendant also could not carry out immediate or future threats, reminding jurors that after the altercations, Vialpando was still handcuffed and lying on the ground as police waited for a patrol car with a cage from Utah to put him in.

Kacin said a pre-sentence report would be ordered to look into Vialpando’s criminal history, noting that both sides “felt strong enough to bring the case to court.”

“I felt this was an extremely odd case of what happened in the field,” Kacin said.

A date for sentencing will be set within 60 days, and will include victim impact statements from the officers involved.

Vialpando remains free on bail.

This article has been updated to include the penalties for the charges.

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McAdoo's Basque sheepherder's presentation to go on

ELKO – For more than a year in the 1970s, Kent and Cathy McAdoo lived with Basque sheepherders in Northern Nevada.

Based on their experiences, the McAdoos put together a presentation that explored the Basque culture and the decline of the sheep ranching industry, and Kent McAdoo planned to present the program, “Basque Sheepherders: The End of An Era” for the 34th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering before his sudden death Jan. 10.

It will go on as scheduled, with his wife Cathy and son Caleb sharing photos of the seasons of a sheep camp and retelling camp stories.

Angie de Braga, Great Basin College Continuing Education Coordinator said Cathy contacted her after her husband’s death and said she wanted to go on with the presentation with the help of her son.

“They are remarkable people who are so strong,” de Braga said. “I’m so impressed to be around such great role models and good people.”

McAdoo was a specialist with the University of Nevada Reno Cooperative Extension in Elko for 19 years.

Although the presentation is part of the Gathering, the event is free to the public and no registration is required, said de Braga.

“Basque Sheepherders: the End of an Era” will be 1:45 – 3 p.m. Feb. 3 at the Elko Convention Center in the Lamoille Room.