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Innovation by Culture


The Basque country is a region that spans borders. Located in northern Spain and southwestern France, straddling the Pyrenees Mountains, its spirit can be felt on the sheep-grazed mountains of Idaho, in fishing communities from Scotland to Newfoundland, and in towns across Mexico and Argentina.

From an early period, Basques looked beyond their borders for resources and inspiration, a trait that keeps them on the cutting edge of global economic and sustainability movements. However, their commitment to language and cultural preservation may be the key to their success. To present this intricate tension, musicians, dancers, boat makers, cooks, and other experts from the Basque country and diaspora communities shared their unique traditions and perspectives as part of the Basque: Innovation by Culture program.

Map by Dan Cole, Smithsonian Institution

Basque culture has always emphasized innovation. The Basque were among the earliest European explorers, fishermen, and whalers to venture to the Western Hemisphere, and their culture reflects this historic influence. Many iconic Basque foods have their roots in the Western Hemisphere and the seafaring heritage, including bakailao (salted cod), piperrada (pepper-based sauce), and marmitako (tuna and potato stew). Today, Basque cuisine sets the standard for farm-to-table and sea-to-table quality.

The Basque have long been leaders in industry, helping usher in the Industrial Revolution after discovering rich bands of iron ore in their mountains. They prospered during the cooperative movement of the mid-twentieth century and are now innovators in car part manufacturing, sustainable energy, transportation, and engineering.

While Basque culture is innovative and outward looking, the people maintain strong cultural roots. They constitute one of the oldest communities in Europe, and today approximately one million people worldwide speak Basque, or Euskara, a language once on the brink of extinction and now an example of successful language revitalization. To many Basques, language is a key component of their identity.

This program was co-presented and co-sponsored by the Basque Country institutions: the Basque Government

  • Frontoia (courts) are found all over the Basque country, traditionally made of church walls to play handball.
    Photo by Cristina Diaz-Carrera, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Frontoia (The Handball Court)
  • César Alcoz poses in his workshop in Markina-Xemein (Bizkaia).
    Photo by Cristina Díaz-Carrera, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Lantegia (The Workshop)
  • Euskara
  • A hillside farm in Dima (Bizkaia).
    Photo by Josue Castilleja, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Baserria (The Farmstead)
  • Boats congregate in the old port of Ondarroa (Bizkaia).
    Photo by Mary S. Linn, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Portua (The Port)
  • The Hotel Vasco in San Francisco opened in the late 1800s, making it among the first Basque boardinghouses in the United States.
    Photo courtesy of the Jon Bilbao Basque Library, University of Nevada-Reno Library
    Basque Diaspora in the United States
  • From Zuretzako: Joaquin in his sheepwagon upon arriving in America.
    Still frame courtesy of director Javi Zubizarreta
    Basque Journeys: Stories in Film
  • Basque participants and Smithsonian staff meet in Bilbao to prepare for the Festival.

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