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Members of the Minnesota delegation pose by the Bay of Biscay in Spain.

Members of the American Indian group celebrating their history at the Basque festival, "Planet Basauri," pose by the Bay of Biscay in Spain.

Woodland American Indians celebrated in Basque country

By Bob San

Published on December 22, 2004

Roxanne Gould is not used to seeing her pictures splashed everywhere. But she got a taste of celebrity this past Thanksgiving as a member of a Minnesota contingent invited to the Basque region of Spain to participate in a festival highlighting the history and culture of North American Indians. The two-month festival, "Planet Basauri," celebrates a different culture each year and is one of the biggest events in Basauri, a small industrial city of 50,000 people about 200 miles north of Madrid by the Bay of Biscay. To promote the festival, organizers printed thousands of posters featuring the Minnesota visitors and pasted them all over Basque country.

"The posters of us were everywhere," says Gould, an Odawa/Ojibwe and coordinator of the U's Circles of Indigenous Nations and the Basque/Native exchange. "I even saw one in the condom shop window." The Basques, who live in a region straddling France and Spain, have a unique language, Euskara, which is related to no other living language, and they are the oldest indigenous people in Europe.

"They are Europeans, so there is a feeling of difference [from us], but when you look at it at a deeper level, they have a lot of symbolism and stories that are very similar to ours," Gould says.

The first Minnesota contingent to the festival represented nine Native nations and included Gould, U instructor Jim Rock, students, performers, artists, elders, and representatives from the Science Museum, the Minneapolis Arts Institute, and the Minnesota Historical Society--the three organizations in charge of setting up the exhibits during the festival.

At the opening ceremony, a blessing and traditional pipe ceremony was followed by dance performances and storytelling. Minnesota Native dancers performed with Basque country's top dance troupe. The Minnesota group also staged a Native exhibit at Basauri's 1,000-year-old museum; conducted workshops with children on dance, music, and storytelling; visited sacred sites; and met the locals. Everywhere they went, the group was treated to Basque hospitality.

"They were very respectful and very interested in who we are," Gould says of her hosts. "Many people didn't speak fluent English but they would come up and thank us and ask how they could learn about our people."

Gould also learned much about the Basques. "It was very intriguing, especially for us," Gould says. "We've always thought of indigenous people as people of color, people with brown and black skins. They are white with dark hair and dark eyes. They tend to be a bit small and the men have lots of facial hair and big eyebrows. They are Europeans, but they are obviously not Spanish or French. They look different; they speak different. They have a distinct culture of their own."

That culture is a blend of indigenous and mainstream influences. For example, Basque country is much like the rest of Spain in that establishments shut down for three hours--even during weekdays--so people can relax and spend time with their families. Also, Catholicism is the dominant religion in Basque country, but, Gould says, it has a very "indigenous" feel to it there.

"They are Europeans, so there is a feeling of difference [from us], but when you look at it at a deeper level, they have a lot of symbolism and stories that are very similar to ours," Gould says.

Much like American Indians, the Basques have had a long history of struggle against constant invasions and attempts to colonize them. "They suffered from a policy of discrimination and attempts at genocide under Francisco Franco, but I don't think their experience has been quite as brutal as ours," Gould says. "The major difference was that their families weren't torn apart like ours were and they didn't have the boarding school experience like we did. Their families have remained more intact. They have always been able to maintain their culture, autonomy, and language.

"The Basque region is part of Spain, but it is an autonomous region with its own parliament and president and it has seven or eight political parties," Gould says. "I saw Basque flags, but I don't recall seeing Spanish flags in Basque country. Basque people are very peaceful. They don't even have an army. Crime rate is very low and they don't support violent acts to exercise their self-determination. They desire separation, but they know that it would not be easy and most Basque people are not willing to engage in an all-out war or struggle to do that," says Gould.

Gould will return to Basauri with U faculty Neil McKay and Leann Howe in January to conduct workshops on language revitalization and Native films, and to participate in the closing ceremonies on January 29. Gould feels the experience has been a valuable one for the Minnesotans fortunate enough to go on this trip and she wants to bring some of it back to her people in the Twin Cities.

"It's always worthwhile when indigenous people can come together to share cultures and to experience and learn what our needs are and who we are," she says. "I learned that there are other indigenous peoples throughout Europe and that we are very isolated from that kind of information about each other. The Basques have an opportunity to learn from us and we want our people here who can't go to have a chance to learn from them. We are hoping to bring the Basques here to truly make it an exchange."