Language and the oral tradition have long served as central markers of Basque identity. Basques refer to themselves in their own language as Euskaldunak, or "speakers of Basque." The Basques who came to the western United States, first with the California Gold Rush and later to work as sheepherders, have retained their connection to Basque language and culture. As a result, the improvisational poetry tradition, known as bertsolaritza, is one of the most revered forms of Basque artistic expression. At festivals and gatherings, the bertsolari (poets) sing improvised rhyming stanzas in a variety of pre-determined forms on pre-selected topics in public verbal jousting sessions.
Jesus Arriada, Johnny Curutchet, Martin Goicoechea, and Jesus Goni delight audiences across the West with their fast-paced and witty vocal improvisations. As Meg Glaser, Artistic Director of the Western Folklife Center, describes their skills: "They are respected widely for their strength of voice, skill in improvisation, gift of language, and knowledge of Basque culture." These four individuals demonstrate their poetic skills for enthusiastic audiences by expounding freely on a variety of topics, many relating to the life of the Basque sheepherder, such as lost love, lost wages, or lost sheep.
Lest we think their achievements are isolated or on the decline, we need to be reminded that Basque is one of the few languages in the world with a growing number of speakers. The 60,000 Basques in the United States celebrate their heritage with a variety of festivals and picnics across the West, including the annual Bertsolari Championship held since 1988 in Gardnerville, Nevada. In 1998, Martin Goicoechea participated in a simultaneous inter-continental bertsolari competition via satellite, linking Buffalo, Wyoming, with Tolosa, in the Basque region of Spain.