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Western Researchers Study Basque Tree Carvings


FEATHERVILLE, Idaho — Some carvings are rousing political slogans. Others depict sexual exploits. And like modern graffiti, a great many merely note for posterity that Joe, Jose, or, most likely, Joxe, "was here."

As anthropologists have spent decades combing the red rock landscape of the Southwest for petroglyphs— the prehistoric scrawlings of American Indians — researchers in the Northwest are just beginning to discover a widening trove of arborglyphs— 19th and 20th century tree carvings by Basque sheepherders.

Scholars say the drawings provide a blueprint for Basqueimmigration patterns across the western United States and unlatch a window into the psyche of the solitary sheepherder.

"These give us insight into a group that largely did not leave behind a written word," said John Bieter, the executive director of the Cenarrusa Center for Basque Studiesat Boise State University.

Basques hail from a semiautonomous region joining the Pyrenees of northern Spain and a slice of coastal territory in southern France. Basques are believed to be some of the oldest inhabitants of Europe.

On the heels of the California Gold Rush in 1850s, Basques who had already emigrated to South America followed the ore's elusive path across the West.

Basques quickly branched out to sheepherding, a common 19th century parallel to many of today's migrant labor options, Bieter said. Soon after, tree etchings began appearing in the alpine hollows of California, then Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming and other western states.

The legacies of men like Julio Ramon are etched into the bark. In an undated inscription from an aspen grove in the Boise National Forest, Ramon trumpets a rallying cry into the empty wilderness: "Gora ETA."