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The Cowboy Poetry Gathering has been a wintertime fixture in Elko for more than three decades but there are good reasons for locals to get out and join the fun this year, whether it’s your first visit or your 34th.

It’s a chance to meet the Western Folklife Center’s new executive director, Kristin Windbigler, if you haven’t already noticed her at the many previous Gatherings she attended or worked on as a filmmaker and member of the board of trustees.

Windbigler grew up in a small logging town in northern California and developed a fondness for storytelling by listening to her great-grandfather.

Her previous position was with the nonprofit TED media organization, where she oversaw nearly 30,000 volunteers who translated TED Talks into more than 100 languages. That experience will translate into the world of cowboy poetry Thursday morning with the TED-inspired format of the annual keynote address.

“I think the timing is right to let rural folks or native Westerners tell their own stories,” said Windbigler.

The keynote is titled “Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things,” and features the perspectives of three speakers.

Elko High School English teacher Emily Nielson will describe her experience coaching students to recite poems in conjunction with Poetry Out Loud and the Western Folklife Center. Rancher and commercial airline pilot Eric Trigg will relate how he and his extended family had to adapt to preserve their 100-year-old ranch after the death of their father. Apache and Navajo chef Nephi Craig will talk about how he founded the Western Apache Café and Learning Center in Arizona and launched the Native American Culinary Association.

Windbigler said the purpose of having three distinct speakers is “to preserve the traditions and values we all share as Westerners but figure out where to adapt to fit into the rest of the world.”

Adaptation is an essential skill in the unforgiving landscape of the Great Basin. This year the theme of the Gathering is focused on the region’s Basque people, who came to America to herd sheep and have maintained their cultural identity while adapting to modern roles alongside other descendants of European immigrants and Native Americans.

The Basque are known more for raising sheep than cattle, and their recognition this year is a good reminder that bovines aren’t the only livestock to settle the West. The two industries were serious competitors around the turn of the 20th century, as author Iker Saitua described in an article for the Elko Daily Free Press published in our weekend edition.

“The increasing presence of Basque sheepherders in the public rangelands drew derision amidst a cowboy culture in the West,” wrote Saitua, a Postdoctoral Fellow in History at the University of California, Riverside and University of the Basque Country.

Much has changed since then, and Americans of Basque descent went on to play leading roles in the development of the region, as our “Elko 100” series of biographies illustrated last year. Today, their culture is most familiar when it comes to finding the best places to dine, so it is appropriate that the Gathering’s popular cooking workshops have a Basque flavor this year.

Another great reason to attend is the opening of the Cowboy Arts & Gear Museum, located not far from the Western Folklife Center.

Executive Director Jan Petersen and NV Energy have turned the former shop of legendary saddlemaker and silversmith G.S. Garcia into a showcase for cowboy arts and crafts.

“It was restored to look like it did in 1907, right down to the pressed tin brick façade,” Petersen told the Free Press.

Sets of the coveted Garcia bits and spurs will be displayed in the original cases that J.M. Capriola bought when the shop closed in 1938.

A grand opening is from 2-4 p.m. Friday.

The weather during the 2018 Gathering promises to be the best ever, so there is no reason to stay home this week when you can get out and “Basque” in the sun while having fun at the many entertaining events that the Folklife Center and volunteers have been preparing for us.

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