A terrific new exhibit focused on the history and culture of American Basques – Hidden in Plain Sight – premiered on the hallowed ground of New York’s Ellis Island Saturday.
Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and Basque Museum Director Patty Miller (second and third from the right in the photo) helped open what is truly a world-class exhibit in the same rooms where 12 million immigrants passed into the United States from 1892 to 1954.
On the far left of the photo is exhibit curator Michael Vogt who did a masterful job of assembling artifacts, oral histories, photos, video and documents to help tell the story of the thousands of Basques who left northern Spain to settle in the United States. Many of those Basques ended up in southwestern Idaho, eastern Oregon and northern Nevada. The others in the photo are official representatives of the Autonomous Basque government in Spain who contributed financial and moral support to the exhibit project.
The notion of American Basques being “hidden in plain sight” is a takeoff on the fact that while Basques have done a remarkable job of assimilating they determinedly maintain language, traditions and culture. Musuem Board President Patti Laciondo wrote about that idea in the Idaho Statesman today.
The Basque Museum and Cultural Center has been around for 25 years, but this exhibit vaults a very special Idaho cultural organization far out on the national, even international stage. The National Park Service rotates a limited number of temporary exhibits through Ellis Island on an annual basis in order to compliment the starkly effective and profoundly moving permanent displays in the old building just off the southern shore of Manhattan. It is a singular honor for the Idaho musuem to be asked to mount such an exhibit. The exhibit will stay at Ellis Island through April and then open in Boise at the Basque Museum in September. As many as 300,000 people are expected to take a journey into the Basque story during the exhibit’s run in New York.
The always entertaining Oinkari dancers performed in cavernous Registry Hall at Ellis Island before the exhibit formally opened Saturday afternoon. The Basque choir from Idaho also performed. About 150 Idahoans made the trip to take part in the Ellis Island opening and many of them had their own stories about fathers, mothers or grand parents who entered the country through the gateway of American immigration.
It was impossible not to feel a lump in the throat as the Basque choir – Biotzetik – sang “America the Beautiful,” first in Basque then in English, in the place where so many new Americans caught their first glimpse of a new life in the new world. It was a moment that makes one marvel at what a country we have. A “nation of immigrants” in the language of John F. Kennedy, made great and unique in the world by the strength of its diversity.
American Basques are a fascinating part of the great American immigrant story, a part that will now, thanks to the work of the Basque Museum and Culutral Center in Idaho, be better known and appreciated around the country and the world.