Never was there a doubt that Elias Eiguren would one day return to his family’s Southeast Oregon ranch. As an FFA officer just out of high school, he traveled around the U.S. He then spent four years away from home earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Oregon State University. Rarely, however, was the family ranch far from his heart.
“I like it here,” Elias says. “It really is a unique way to grow up, and it is how I want to raise my family.”
Elias is a rarity these days. He is among a smattering of Basque descendants who have chosen to stay on the farms and ranches their ancestors settled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in this remote part of Oregon. Now, you will drive for hours without cellphone coverage passing through sagebrush-dotted desert punctuated by lush valleys and canyons with unique rock formations.
Basque Descendants Connected to the Land
According to historians, Basques, who are native to northern Spain, migrated to Oregon’s Jordan Valley beginning in the 1880s. Most were sheepherders. As sheepherders, the Basque walked the landscape and came to love the wild beauty. Many, like the Eigurens, switched to cattle in the 1930s and 1940s in order for future generations to continue to work the family land. Today the Eiguren family has three generations living on the ranch.
Elias’ father, Fred, estimates that today only half a dozen or so of the many ranches once owned and operated by Basque ranchers in southern Malheur County are still in their original families. Most have been sold to people outside of the Basque community.
The change is both good and bad, Fred says. Bad because with each departing Basque goes a little more of the Basque heritage that once permeated this area. Good because the new landowners have brought with them new ideas about ranching and caring for the land.
Over the years, Fred has watched technological advancements replace hand laborers. And he’s seen many neighboring Basque descendants migrate the 120 or so miles from the farms and ranches of southern Malheur County to the Treasure Valley, home to Boise, Idaho.
“Especially the girls,” he says. “The girls tend to move away. They get married, and they go on with their life somewhere else.” Elias, 32, says it was different for him. “Being the oldest, and only son, I always assumed growing up that I was going to come back here,” he says.
Today, Elias is trying to revive an appreciation of the Basque heritage and keep alive traditions that once were so prominent in this southeastern Oregon enclave. He and his wife, Toni Jo, are learning the Basque language. And Toni Jo takes their son, Thales, 6, to a nearby town for Basque dancing lessons once a week.
“There are about 15 kids,” Elias says. “They are all 5 and 6 years old. They have traditional clothing that they wear – white shirts, white pants, special shoes, red berets – and they do partner dancing.”
Elias and Toni Jo also encourage Thales and his younger sister, Zada, to use the Euskara language. The children refer to Elias as “Aita,” the Basque word for father, and call Fred “Aichicha,” Basque for grandfather.
“I think it is very important that we pass down the language,” Elias says. “It is one of the dying languages in the world, but it is seeing a great resurgence.”
He also hopes to pass down the tradition of caring for the land and managing the family ranch for the generations to follow. Whether his efforts result in another Eiguren taking over the family ranch remains to be seen, though. Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, Thales says: “A sheriff.”