Buffalo celebrates rich Basque culture
Buffalo – The Basque culture was recently celebrated in Buffalo during the North American Basque Organizations Festival the fourth weekend in July, and its existence in Wyoming for the last 100 years can be credited to one man.
The story of John Esponda is one of lore and tradition – according to his great-granddaughter Ashton Esponda, John came to America after his brother Jean had gone to America and established a job as a sheepherder. When Jean returned to their home in France, he collected his brother John and others to return with him to America to work on sheep ranches across the West.
John and Jean worked on the Healy and Patterson Ranch in Johnson County, and many attribute the influx of the Basque population to the efforts of John to bring more Basque families from the old country to new jobs in Wyoming. Thanks to John, an estimated 39 Basque families moved to Johnson County.
The original Basque country is located in the Pyrenees Mountains between Spain and France, and the majority of the Basques who made the pilgrimage to Wyoming came from the same small area in France, within eight miles of the Esponda’s home village.
John married Dominica Etchemendy, who was also Basque, and they soon were known as the social hub of the Basque community. The Espondas hosted parties and gatherings for church holidays at their home, and people commuted from miles around to meet and socialize with others who shared their culture and heritage.
Eventually the two brothers worked their way up from sheephearder to manager to co-owner, and eventually bought the ranch. The Espondas soon became the largest landowners in Johnson County and by the ripe age of 32 John owned over 15,000 head of sheep.
John and Dominica had four children, John Jr. (Art), Jeanette, Grayce and Noeline. John worked as a wool buyer across the country and eventually took over the ranch, while Jeanette founded the local radio station and hosted a local Basque hour, where her sisters often hosted an all-Basque commentary. Grayce and Noeline were also both outstanding members of the local community, and all of the Esponda children married. Their children now carry on the traditions of their heritage.
The Esponda family is still considered a prominent figure in the Basque community, and they are still active in the Big Horn Basque Club. The grandchildren, great grandchildren and even the great great grandchildren of John Esponda are the current generation partaking in the tradition and continuing on the culture of the Basque.
The family partook in this year’s annual North American Basque Organizations (NABO) Festival, which took place in Buffalo July 21-25. The festival consisted of meetings, a parade of sheep wagons belonging to families from across the United States, public “festarra” including Basque dancers and traditional Basque music.
The festival also included a traditional Basque Catholic Mass, a tour of the Big Horn Mountains and traditional athletic competitions including Soka Tira (tug-of-war), weight carrying and sheep hooking.
Basque clubs came from all over the country, with dance troops and musical groups performing from Idaho, Washington, Nevada and Utah. Basque families also flocked from overseas to participate in the annual festivities.