About this project
Disappearing West was started in 2013 as a documentary film and has evolved over the years into a multimedia project that bridges intensive research, personal essay filmmaking, photography, and interviews.
Who are the Basques?
The Basques are an ancient European people defined not by arbitrary political borders, but through their shared language, Euskara. Even their names for themselves and their land point sharply to this fact: Euskaldunak (“Basque Person”) roughly translates as “speaker of the Basque language”; Euskal Herria (“Basque Country”) can be translated as “place of the Basque language.” Euskara is an enigma for modern linguists. Historical accounts of encounters with Basques often describe outsiders’ frustration in trying to make sense of their language. Its exact lineage is virtually impossible to trace, no modern languages are related to it, and, with the exception of integrating a handful of words from neighboring languages, it appears to have remained entirely unchanged for centuries. There was no comprehensive written form of Euskara until the Middle Ages, and as a result, the history of the Basques has largely been told by other cultures.
Present-day Euskal Herria sits squarely on the border of France and Spain, near the Pyrenees Mountains. It is comprised of seven historic provinces, four on the Spanish side and three on the French side. Though the French provinces remain incorporated with France’s government, the Spanish provinces of Biscay, Alava, and Gipuzkoa comprise the autonomous national region of Euskadi. The fourth and largest Spanish province, Navarre, also maintains its own distinct autonomous status.
Along with their common tongue, the Basques are bound by a shared, centuries-old struggle to maintain their cultural identity in the face of larger, more aggressive political groups, beginning with the Roman Empire and continuing through the Spanish Civil War to modern times. They have faced countless territorial invasions, as well as attempts to ban their language, but have endured and adapted despite the opposition they have so frequently faced.
Although their population has always been relatively small, the Basques have played a key role in the development of the modern global political and economic stage. Basque cod fishing vessels were among the first to visit what is now eastern Canada, and Basque whalers were perhaps the earliest explorers of South America. Basques served as indispensable crewmen on Columbus’ voyage to the New World. Because of their expertise, no early maritime explorers left Europe without a few Basque sailors in tow and if you look closely, you can find their distinct surnames in the most remote corners of the globe.
Basques have always had a strong, if not always well-recognized, presence in North America. In fact, many of the earliest governors and leaders of Mexico and California were Basque. The mid-1800s marked an especially strong influx of Basques to the United States, largely due to the economic opportunities provided by the Gold Rush and the increasing demand for sheepherders and cattle ranchers in the newly expanded territories. Opportunities in sheepherding remained the primary catalyst for Basque immigration well into the mid-20th century, but today, as agriculture is further industrialized, the need for transhumance sheepherding has dried up and immigration from the Basque Country to the Western United States has all but stopped.