The Defiant Sprit of the Lakota Nation

Geoffrey Cobb

(Reading time: 8 mins.)

If people know anything about the Lakota nation, known to Americans as the Sioux, then it is the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which the Lakota dealt the United States Army a humiliating defeat, completely destroying the Seventh Cavalry of General George Custer. This battle, however, was merely one chapter in the continuing struggle of the Lakota people against the ongoing colonialism practiced by the United States government.

Lakota houses on reservation land. (Photo: Larry Towell/ Magnum Photos New York Times)

The Lakota, a semi-autonomous people whose reservations occupy huge Areas of North and South Dakota have defined themselves over generations by stubbornly clinging to their culture, language and values against the forces of cultural assimilation wielded against them by the United States government.

In the 1860s, conflict arose as settlers entered the Lakota homeland, which covered a huge swath of the American Great Plains. A nomadic people, the Lakota lifestyle centered around hunting the massive herds of bison. The Lakota signed treaties protecting their homeland in 1851 and 1868, but the United States government broke them before the ink was even dry. After the disaster at Little Big Horn, the American army hungered for revenge and it responded with a campaign of terror, beginning with the Wounded Knee massacre, in which soldiers slaughtered hundreds of Native people, including women and children.

American bison — main resource of the nomadic plains tribes for food, clothing, tools and weapons (Photo source: Wikipedia)

The sovereignty of the Lakotas depended on bison, and the American government embarked on a program of systematic extermination of these herds, In a three-year period, hunters butchered more than three million bison, close to 3,000 animals a day. Their food source gone, the Lakota were forced to end their armed struggle and live on reservations, which was often the poorest and most desiccated land.

The genocide of the Lakota through the extermination of the American Bison — a mountain of bison skulls. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

The Lakota were to experience even worse horrors than the destruction of their traditional way of life. Their very culture was targeted for extermination. The American government mounted a nearly 100 year-long calculated assault on the Lakota as the state tried to force them to assimilate. The government banned the Sundance, the Lakota’s most sacred ceremony, with its days of fasting and ritual bloodletting and they were forbidden to openly practice their religion. However, perhaps most devastating to the Lakota psyche were the boarding schools, in which generations of Indians were forced to assimilate into white culture. Lakota children were severely beaten for even speaking their native tongue. As a result, many Lakota began to doubt the worth of their indigenous culture and lack of cultural pride still is an issue haunting many Lakota today.

The Lakota still struggle to cope with the attempts to destroy their culture. Their reservations are the scenes of grinding poverty. The Lakota have tragically high rates of unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction, family abuse and suicide. There is a severe housing shortage on the reservations, which has magnified the effects of the covid pandemic on the Lakota.

Lakota culture, though, proved difficult to exterminate and their faith survived. Central to that faith is the belief that nature is our mother and that humans should live in harmony with nature. This belief manifested itself in 2014 when the Dakota access pipeline was announced. The 3.78 billion dollar underground oil pipeline was intended to run for 1,172-mile-long (1,886 km) across Lakota lands. The Lakota immediately objected to the project because it not only threatened the Missouri River, their water supply, but also would destroy sites of cultural, historic and religious significance to the Lakota.

A dead car carries a live message on Lakota land. (Photo: Larry Towell/ Magnum Photos New York Times)

In the Spring of 2016, The Lakota mobilized to protest the pipeline, but it seemed like David fighting Goliath. The protests, which lasted months through sub-zero winter temperatures, were organized by Lakota teenagers on the Standing Rock Reservation. In the vanguard of the protesters were women who defied mace attacks, arrests and strip searches. The police used teargas, bulldozers and “military-style counterterrorism measures” to suppress the protesters, but the Standing Rock protests attracted tens of thousands of Native Americans from across the continent, becoming the largest Native American demonstration against the government in over a century. The rallying cry of the protestors in Lakota was “Mni wichoni! Water is life!” The protests became a cause célèbre, drawing media attention from around the world, as international environmentalists supported the Lakota defiance.

President Donald Trump supported construction of the pipeline and spoke out in favor of crushing the Native American protestors, but in a shocking decision on August 5, 2020, a district court ruled in favor of the Lakota. ” Mike Faith, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, expressed delight at the verdict, “Today is a historic day for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the many people who have supported us in the fight against the pipeline.”

Trump, though, was not finished in his battle with the Lakota and would continue disrespecting them. Trump deliberately chose to target the Lakota by celebrating the July 4th holiday of American Independence at an inflammatory site: Mt. Rushmore, where massive heads of American presidents were carved into mountains the Lakota hold sacred. “Wherever you go to connect to God, that’s what the Black Hills are to the Lakota,” said Nick Tilsen, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and the president of NDN Collective, an Indigenous activist group. Prospectors seized the land during a gold rush in the 1870s, violating the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, which recognized the Black Hills as Lakota property. In 1980, A Federal Judge sided with the Native Americans in a suit to reclaim the Black Hills but awarded them a monetary settlement in lieu of the land. The Lakota, offended by the decision, have never touched the money.

(Photo: Larry Towell/ Magnum Photos New York Times)

The statues were carved by a white supremacist with strong ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Harold Frazier, the chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, called the monument a “brand on our flesh” that needed to be removed. He said,” Visitors look upon the faces of those presidents and extol the virtues that they believe make America the country it is today. Lakota see the faces of the men who lied, cheated and murdered innocent people whose only crime was living on the land they wanted to steal.” Washington and Jefferson were both slave owners, and Lincoln ordered the hanging of 38 Lakota men in Minnesota after an uprising of 1862. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are.”

Trump’s arrival again spurred Lakota protests and at least fifteen activists were arrested for blocking the highway leading to Mount Rushmore. One of the activists, Michael Patrick O’Connor, said he came because he wanted to express his outrage at the desecration of his people’s sacred lands and his frustration at a president who has failed the people of America. “I couldn’t find any reason not to be up here,” he said. “I felt like I owed it to the grandmas and grandpas, owed it to the people who suffered before us to do something and to come here because our people were gathering.”

Campaign banner during the struggle (Photo sourced: Wikipedia)

Good Voice Elk, a spiritual advisor for the Lakota, was among the older protestors. He said this was by no means his first protest. “I grew up in protests,” he said. “The seventies were really bad, and those kids, now they are the leaders.” Protesters ranged in age from senior citizens to children as young as 10. One girl was brought by her father from the Ute Mountain tribe in Colorado so she could experience Indigenous communities coming together.

Nick, Tilsen, the leader of the non-violent protest, has been singled out for retribution by local officials. He is facing felony charges that bring his potential prison sentence to 17 years. Tilsen is just the latest victim in the American government’s attempt to crush Lakota resistance. Despite the heavy-handed response to the protests, it’s hard to imagine the tenacious Lakota giving up anytime soon.

End.

USEFUL LINKS

Defend, Develop, Decolonise collective: https://ndncollective.org/

NATIONAL PARTY RALLY SAVED BY GARDAÍ — NP leader tells Gardaí “We are of you”

Clive Sulish

(Reading time: 7 mins)

A rally outside Leinster House organised by the Irish fascist National Party for Saturday 10th October survived a clash with antifascists thanks only to the protection of a large force of Gardaí. The rally was a continuation of the attempt of the Far-Right in Ireland to use popular frustration over the Government’s haphazard and stop-go restrictions to build up their fascist and racist organisations.

The Irish Tricolour and both versions of the socialist Starry Plough, the original one of the Irish Citizen Army and the later one of the Republican Congress. (Photo source: AFA Ireland)

A broad coalition of antifascists, Irish Republicans, Socialists, Communists, LGBT activists etc, led by Antifascist Action Ireland, mobilised a counter-protest to the National Party’s presence. Immediately the counter-protesters arrived, the two forces clashed. The NP supporters were visibly taken aback as the barriers between them and their opponents flew aside or were thrown down, some actually going into the air. Two flash-bangs they threw into the antifascists seemed to have no effect and it was the Gardaí with baton blows that saved the NP. The rally’s banner was seized by antifascists and only retrieved by Gardaí.

NP supporters (right of photo) in shock as the antifascists (right of photo) clash with them. (Photo source: Internet)

The National Party, formed in 2016, are a fascist, racist, homophobic and fundamentalist sectarian Catholic organisation. Their leader Justin Barrett recently commented that when he got into power he would remove the citizenship of the current elected Mayor of Dublin, Ms. Hazel Chu, although she was born and raised in Ireland. The party propagates the “Replacement conspiracy”, where the EU is supposedly planning to replace all Irish people with migrants, proposes hanging for doctors who carry out a pregnancy termination and opposes LGBT equality. A prominent member of their organisation boasted about having organised the mob of up to 60 men who attacked a peaceful counter-protest on Custom House Quay on August 22nd with iron bars and lengths of timber.

With threatening batons and at times striking with them, the Gardaí first of all pushed all the counter-protestors into Molesworth St. where uniformed Gardaí and POU (Public Order Unit) faced off the antifascists, who alternated between shouting at the fascists over the heads of the Gardaí and shouting at the Gardaí themselves, e.g “Garda Blueshirts!”1

Original defensive screen for the NP of Gardaí with drawn batons (Photo source: Rebel Breeze)

At one point POU officers blocked off access to some antifascists who were on the steps of one of the buildings in the street and proceeded to search them but apparently found nothing. They did not conduct searches among the supporters of the NP, who had earlier thrown the flash-bangs and some other missiles at their opponents. Nor were they seen confiscating any flags from the NP supporters, while they wrenched flags from a number of antifascists – including a tricolour on a long fairly fragile carbon plastic rod (shown on Breaking News, which also showed NP supporters in a different photo striking at antifascists with flags that seemed to be on metal rods).

Public Order Gardaí forcibly searching an antifascist but nothing found (Photo source: Rebel Breeze)

Things could have remained at stasis at that point but the Gardaí several times pushed the antifascists savagely back, a few feet at a time. They were successful in doing so over some metres but it was not made easy for them – there was strong militant resistance and a number of clashes.

During the whole of these interactions after the initial clash with the NP, a number of antifascists were guarding the rear of their numbers and some fascists approaching, presumably latecomers for the rally, were turned away.

The Public Order Unit, which took over from the Gardaí and began to aggressively push the antifascists back but were resisted. The fascists may be seen beyond, with the Irish Parliament beyond that. (Photo source: Rebel Breeze)

At one point it appeared that the Gardaí were mobilising numbers to block off the antifascists’ exit but in response to a call to fall back, the solid mass passed through the Gardaí’s incomplete lines thereby defeating any intention of “kettling” the antifascists and shutting down their mobility.

NP SPEAKERS AND SPEECHES

The fascists chanted “Pedos off our streets!” in response to the antifascists’ calls for “Nazi scum off our streets!” — to the fascists, LGBT people are “paedophiles” and they find it a handy though baseless slogan to throw at all antifascists. The antifascists, apart from regularly chanting also met any attempt at fascist speeches with a barrage of shouts, rhythmic clapping, whistles and booing. Consequently, although the speakers were visible to the antifascists albeit at a distance, the content is known only from media reports.

The speakers were Mick “Chopper” O’Keefe, Rowan Croft (“Tan” Torino)2 and Justin Barrett. According to The Beacon, Barrett claimed that the Government is altering the death figures in relation to COVID-19 in order to justify its actions and that that the virus is part of a wider agenda on the part of “international finance capital”3 to destroy the world’s economies. Barrett insisted that the “restrictions are here to stay” as part of the economy-destroying agenda.

(Photo source: Rebel Breeze)
(Photo source: Rebel Breeze)
(Photo source: Rebel Breeze)

Prior to the event, on social media the NP cautioned its supporters to be friendly towards the Gardaí: “The Gardaí know the reds are scum, remember the migration compact protest: the Gardaí were having the banter with us, they had their batons out for the reds. We need to maintain that dynamic.”

(Photo source: Rebel Breeze)

According to the Beacon, Barrett, who beats the law-and-order drum, told the Gardai “you are of us and we are of you”.

(Photo source: Rebel Breeze)

FASCISTS CHASED AND REPORTING

After mocking the fascists as they left, the antifascists marched off in apparently the opposite direction, then swung around to pursue the NP supporters. Apart from the Garda circle around the latter, they also threw up a cordon against the antifascists at the Nasseau Street junction with Kildare Street.

The main body of antifascists turned then and marched through the city centre chanting “Fascist scum off our streets” to applause from some bystanders, then rallied at the GPO. Gardaí reported two arrests and it is known that they arrested an antifascist in Moore St for having allegedly confiscated a POU cap back in Molesworth Street. There are rumours that a few unguarded fascists were also met by antifascists to the dismay of the former but these have not been confirmed.

Media reporting varied, from a wildly inaccurate account in Dublin.Live to RTÉ’s equating of both groups on the same level, with the Irish Times giving the very erroneous impression that the NP were as eager to get to grips with the antifascists as the antifascists were with them.

Commenting on the events in a statement later, Anti-Fascist Ireland said: “The NP event was a failed attempt to use current Covid-19 restrictions as a rallying point to attract unsuspecting members of the public who may hold genuine grievances with the lockdown.”

Quoting the London-based Anarchist antifascist Albert Meltzer (1920-1996) “there’s no such thing as a fascist march – only a police march”4 the statement referred to” the massive Garda operation required to ensure the larger anti-fascist mobilisation was kept away from the underwhelming fascist presence.”

Referring to the recent fascist boast of about ‘controlling’ the streets of Dublin, the AFA statement commented that “they seemed genuinely shocked and scared by the sight of hundreds of working-class anti-fascists in Dublin today” and reported that “A nervous Torino was spotted leaving the vicinity immediately after his rant and did not even stay around for Justin Barret’s rambling long speech.”

The statement pointed out that the NP oppose the use of masks to prevent the spread of Covid19 and that their supporters disregard any restrictions. “We know that huge numbers of our supporters did not take to the streets today out of concern for the most vulnerable in society”, the statement continued. Those of us out today did so out of a sense of necessity and true patriotism to protect our country from their dangerous and toxic ideologies.”

The statement concluded: “AFA Ireland is a militant anti-fascist organisation formed in 1991. We believe in physically and ideologically confronting fascism whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head. As always, we encourage all anti-fascist minded people across the island to reach out to us and work together in a militant, disciplined movement against fascism. Profound thanks again to all our members and supporters in the republican, socialist, grassroots, LGBTQ+ and trade union movements.

Beir Bua. La Lucha Continúa. No pasarán.”

FAILURE OF THE LEFT FACILITATED GROWTH OF THE FAR-RIGHT

The National Party is one of a number of similar organisations and parties that make up the Far-Right in the 26 Counties (in addition there are the Loyalists in the Six Counties). There are also the Irish Freedom Party led by Herman Kelly, Síol na hÉireann led by Niall McConnell, QAnon led by Dee Wall (real name Dolores Webster) – who was at the NP rally, Anti-Corruption Ireland led by Gemma O’Doherty and Irish Yellow Vests, led by Glen Miller and Ben Gilroy (who also has his own promotion through the Tiger Reborn FB page). Despite their wide representation on social media, most of these are tiny groups which is why until recently they have been banding together at a number of events and in particular participating in events organised by the more popular Irish Yellow Vests. The IYV have been making a comeback since they fizzled out a couple of years ago after the Islamophobia of Miller, opportunism of Gilroy and racism of some of their supporters was exposed.

The failure of the Irish Left to mount a comprehensive resistance to the attacks of the Irish ruling class on working people over the years and, in particular, its failure to construct an adequate response to the Covid19 pandemic and to the Government’s handling of it has proved a boon to the ‘Vests and they have provided platform and marching space for all the other parts of the Far-Right, including the obvious fascists, but also attracting a number of innocent but confused people.

Recently the ‘Vests have been trying to clean up their image a bit by dumping the likes of O’Doherty, despite having using her notoriety up to now, along with the parties led by Barrett, McConnell and Kelly. And a report in the Examiner recently suggested that the State wished to assist the Vests in gaining popularity, as the report quoted unnamed senior Garda sources alluding to their alleged investigation of the “penetration” of the anti-mask movement “by fascist organisations”. If this is so however, the Gardaí on Saturday seemed to have not yet received the message – unless it was just their old prejudice against Republicans and the Left coming into play.

The media reported that Gardaí were going to “investigate the organisers” of the NP event (pretty obvious really!) and of the antifascist counter-protest. This is a ritual verbal response from a police force which has left the weekly QAnon protest outside the GPO unmolested from the very start of the Covid19 restrictions, while they harassed Debenhams workers’ pickets around the corner in Henry Street and their Special Branch did the same to political prisoner solidarity pickets further down O’Connell St.

End.

LGBT and Irish Tricolour flown among the antfascists. (Photo source: Rebel Breeze)

FOOTNOTES

1A reference to the fascist movement in 1930s Ireland, the leader of which was the former first Commissioner of the Free State Gardaí.

2Rowan Croft nicknamed himself the “Gran Torino” but has been nicknamed “Tan Torino” by opponents due to his past service in the British Army and possibly also due to his participating in a panel, along with Herman Kelly, with notorious fascist and British Loyalist Jim Dowson.

3This term in the past has been and today too is often a coded expression of anti-semitism and Barrett has let slip some remarks indicating in that direction.

4Based on the experience of antifascists when fascist marches are accompanied or even led by police, as for example in London at Cable Street in 1936 and Lewisham in 1977.

REFERENCES & LINKS FOR FURTHER INFORMATION

Antifascist Action Ireland: https://www.facebook.com/afaireland

Dublin Republicans Against Fascism: https://www.facebook.com/pages/category/Political-Organization/Dublin-Republicans-Against-Fascism-104013457786981/

RTE: https://www.rte.ie/news/2020/1010/1170689-dublin-protests/

Radio wildly inaccurate report: https://www.dublinlive.ie/news/dublin-news/protest-dublin-city-coronavirus-lockdown-19083969?fbclid=IwAR0UDq7tF_XFclsXbm-UdBoqc5VRTDos-BA3nIsndi9mIpm4P_tmV-z1ix0

The Beacon: https://www.facebook.com/TheBeaconIrl/posts/359885528700841

Irish Times: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/hundreds-clash-in-violent-exchanges-at-dublin-protest-1.4377808

Earlier report about “infiltration” in the Examiner: https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-40062431.html?type=amp&__twitter_impression=true&fbclid=IwAR3FCKr-5Vj3kR8q6UKSS5TczaTD0vtTNlM_om_4YDBjeyr3bY44RC14PG4

GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER?

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 2 minutes)

Garda Armed Support Unit patrol car, one of a great many seen driving around many parts of Dublin including the city centre.
(Image source: Internet)

Last year, a Garda shot dead a man sitting inside a car who was harming himself with a Stanley knife.  In June 2019 the Department of Public Prosecution decided not to even charge the Garda who fired the shot.  What does this mean?

Since the evidence from witnesses (including his own colleagues) is that Garda A fired a deliberate shot at close range that killed Mark Hennessy through a closed window and that the man was not at that moment posing a threat to anyone (apart from himself), never mind a lethal one — how can we view this as anything but an on-the-spot execution by a Garda?  Since we are told that Gardaí are not authorised to carry out executions (and the State has abolished the death penalty), what can this be but MURDER?

It is useful to remember too that the founders of the Irish State deliberately resolved to set up the Garda Síochána as an primarily unarmed police force (in direct opposition to the armed colonial police forces that had suppressed Irish people in the past and continued to do so in the Six occupied Counties).

Not even charged?  For the moment, we need to forget about the fact that all the evidence points to the victim having murdered a child and hidden her body.  Killing the man could not bring her back (in fact might even have prevented her body being found but luckily the location was written on a piece of paper inside the car).

How can this killing be justified?  What possible legal reason can be given?  Dubious though it may be, the Gardaí who shot Mac Lochlainn (see below) at least claimed he had pointed a gun at them (interestingly, the officer who fired the fatal shot was himself killed a few years later in what was described as a firearm accident involving a colleague).  Well, in fact, in the Mark Hennessy killing NO REASON WHATSOEVER WAS GIVEN.  The DPP just “decided not to prosecute”.

Garda of the Armed Response Unit with machine gun.
(Image source: Internet)

If a Gardaí can decide when someone needs to die and act upon that decision, anyone might be a victim in future: political activist, whistleblower, personal enemy, mistaken identity ….

Unlikely?  Why?

There have been a number of questionable killings by Gardaí, including the shooting dead of Real IRA Volunteer Ronan Mac Lochlainn on May 1st 1988.  Mac Lochlainn was driving away from a Garda Special Branch ambush of a robbery team when he was shot dead by the Gardaí.  The matter was not seriously investigated until 20 years later when the investigators decided for whatever reason to clear all the Gardaí involved, leaving many important questions unanswered.

Another incident that might have ended fatally occurred in 2005 between two drunken senior Gardai who got into a fight and pulled guns on one another!  A personal quarrell ….

Armed Gardaí Detectives after a raid.
(Image source: Internet)

One can see on any day in Dublin the vehicles of the Garda Armed Response Unit driving around the city.  Nor do they restrict themselves to the duties for which one might imagine Gardaí would need to carry arms.  They have been seen stopping cars in traffic incidents, driving through busy streets, surveilling political demonstrations and even on one occasion last year stopping to caution people demonstrating against internment in Temple Bar.

In 2014 they turned up at a protest against Irish Water in Clonmell.  On another occasion last year they turned up to dispute between a private landlord and two of his tenants in Dublin and at a separate housing occupation action in Cork.  Last year also they attended a farmers’ protest in Limerick.

Is the Irish public being subjected to an armed Gardaí normalisation process? Why are the DPP not being made to justify their decisions not to prosecute Garda perpetrators of homicide?  How long before another unjustifiable killing?

end.

REFERENCES:

Inquest on Mark Hennessy: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/man-who-killed-jastine-valdez-shrugged-before-being-shot-by-garda%C3%AD-inquest-told-1.4147055

Decision not to charge Garda: https://www.rte.ie/news/ireland/2019/0605/1053612-garda-hennessy/

Shooting dead of IRA Volunteer by Gardaí in ambush: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/crime-and-law/garda%C3%AD-exonerated-over-shooting-dead-of-real-ira-raider-maclochlainn-1.3738624

Senior Gardaí in brawl pulled guns on one another: https://www.breakingnews.ie/ireland/gardai-sacked-after-drunken-embassy-brawl-287170.html

Heckler & Koch machine-gun dropped out of Garda car: https://www.thesun.ie/news/4138462/garda-gsoc-machine-gun-lost-dublin/

Armed police attending farmers’ protest: https://www.farmersjournal.ie/garda-armed-response-unit-attends-limerick-factory-protest-484362

Armed police attending protest against Irish Water: http://www.rabble.ie/2014/11/10/stark-contrasts-in-protest-policing-by-gardai/

Armed police attending housing occupation action: https://cym.ie/2018/07/26/armed-response-unit-break-up-political-protest-in-cork-ireland/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garda_S%C3%ADoch%C3%A1na#Armed_Gardaí

MY BASQUE FAMILY AND MUSHROOMS

Diarmuid Breatnach

Maribel Eginoa Cisneros died on the 13th of this August in the Santutxu district of Bilbao. She was many things – a democratic Basque patriot, dancer, choir singer, herbalist, mycologist, carer, wife, mother ….

I and two of my siblings travelled to attend the funeral. For me it was a farewell to a warm, intelligent and cultured person who, along with her husband, two of her daughters and a son-in-law, had been very welcoming to me. More than that or because of that, I thought of them as “my Basque family”.

Somewhere I have a Basque family related through blood and marriage but I don’t know them. Different loyalties and some German blood during the Spanish Civil War took my mother out of the Basque Country; the ties were cut and left behind. My mother became a woman in Madrid, where she met my father soon after.

Although they never met, it was because of my mother that I had first met Maribel. My mother, Lucila Helmann Menchaca (the Basques spell it Mentxaka), was born in Algorta, in the Getxo district, not far from Bilbao and spent her early childhood there. How her parents met is another story but Luci grew up bilingual in Castillian (Spanish) and German, with a Basque mother who hardly knew any Euskera (Basque) and a German father. All of Luci’s children, the five boys and one girl, knew of their mother’s childhood in the Basque Country and as we grew older, a desire grew with it to see where she had been born; each of us individually making the pilgrimage.

ONGI ETORRI – BASQUE WELCOME

I was a total stranger and low on funds on my first visit to the Basque Country. I had one contact, a woman I had met only a couple of times when she worked as an au pair in Dublin; she promised to help me get based and I arranged to phone her when I arrived. But the flight was delayed and then could not land at Bilbao airport – too much cloud, the pilot said – and we would land instead at Zaragossa, over 154 miles (248 Km) away. There the passengers had to wait for a coach and eventually arrived in Bilbao in the early hours of the morning. Of course, I had not booked an hotel, so the driver of the last taxi available tried a few without success and then brought me to the Nervión, a four-star hotel over its namesake river, dark and unlovely with a nightly rate that hit me in the gut.

Maribel and Ziortza on a visit to the Cantabrian coast
Maribel and Ziortza on a visit to the Cantabrian coast (Photo from Maribel’s family)

Next morning I phoned my contact, Ziortza and she came to the Nervión and waited while I checked out. I expected to be brought to a cheap hotel or hostel but was instead brought to her family’s home and there, for the first time, I met Ziortza’s parents, Maribel Eginoa and Josemari Echeverria (women don’t change their surnames now when they marry there). I was welcomed, fed and shown to what was to be my room during my stay. It was Ziortza’s, who moved in with her parents – the other two sisters lived in their own apartments with their partners and children. I was fed wonderfully every day too.

I was stunned by the depth of the hospitality from people I did not know, a trait I have encountered again and again among many Basques I have met. Nor was that all. Ziortza took me on her days off on excursions to some different places and towns and her sister Gurrutze and husband Gorka took me on a tour along the Bay of Biscay before turning uphill to iconic Gernika (Spanish spelling “Guernica”). Ziortza also gave me instructions on how to get to Algorta by local train, where my hand-drawn map could take me to where my mother had lived, a trip I preferred to make alone.

The next occasion I returned to Bilbao, this time to begin to know the southern Basque Country, I stayed in their apartment again, in the same room, but this time without discommoding them, since Ziortza had moved out to her own place.

 

THE UNEXPECTED ONE

Maribel and Josémaria were fairly comfortable and retired when I met them but they had some hard times behind them. Josémari’s father had been a Basque nationalist and fought against Franco, a fact that did not escape the victorious Franco authorities. When it came to time for the Spanish military service obligatory for males (much resisted in the Basque Country and now

Only a few months before her death (hard to believe) -- Maribel Eginoa
Only a few months before her death (hard to believe) — Maribel Eginoa (photo Maribel’s family)

abolished throughout the State), they sent Josémari to one of the worst places to which they could send the son of a Basque nationalist – Madrid. His superior officers took pleasure in reminding him of his father and of what they thought of Basque nationalists (or even Basques in general). For the couple, it was a difficult separation but they married as soon as he was finished with the Spanish Army. Maribel was 21 years of age.

Pyrenean landscape in Iparralde ("the northern country"), the part of the Basque Country ruled by France.
Pyrenean landscape in Iparralde (“the northern country”, the part of the Basque Country ruled by France). (photo from Internet)

In their early years together they often travelled to Iparralde (“the northern country”), the Basque part under French rule, with a Basque dance group called Dindirri. The French state has no tolerance for notions of Basque independence but does not harry the movement as does the Spanish state in Hegoalde (“the southern country”). Maribel was fluent in French as well as in Castillian.

Born ten years after the most recent of another four siblings, Maribel was the result of an unexpected pregnancy. “It was destiny,” commented one of her daughters. “The unexpected one would be the one to take care of everyone in the future.” One of Maribel’s siblings had died after a few days, another at the age of 19 due to surgical negligence, another had cerebral palsy. Maribel’s sister herself had an intellectually challenged boy and, when she emigrated with her husband and daughter, left him in Maribel’s care. As Maribel’s mother grew old and infirm, she took care of her too. Her brother with cerebral palsy, although in a home for his specialist care, spent weeks at a time in the family home. And another relative came to stay with them too, for awhile. Maribel looked after everyone.

Of course, her husband Josémari helped, as did her daughters. And they all accepted that this was how things were. And to add to that, the couple visited friends and neighbours in hospital.

LANGUAGE AND POLITICS

When I met Maribel and Josémari, I heard them speak to their daughters in Euskera — the Basque native language. But they themselves had not been raised speaking it – they went to classes to learn the language and raised their children with it. Speaking or learning Euskera was illegal under Franco except for some dispensation to Basque Catholic clergy. It was the latter who founded the first illicit “ikastolak”1 to teach Euskera and later these were set up by lay people too. The ikastola, teaching all subjects except language through Euskera, is now the school type attended by the majority in the southern Basque Country and is mainstream in the Euskadi or CAV administrative area, encompassing the provinces of Bizkaia, Alava and Guipuzkoa.

Most of "my Basque family: Front R-L: Aimar and Markel, Gurrutze's sons; Back R-L: Gurrutze, Maider, Josemari, Maddi & Ziortza.
Most of “my Basque family: Front R-L: Aimar and Markel, Gurrutze’s sons; Back R-L: Gurrutze, Maider, Josemari, Maddi & Ziortza. (Photo from Maribel’s family)

Under Spanish state repression the old Basque Nationalist Party was decimated and although still in existence, its youth wing became impatient with what they perceived as the timidity of their elders.  The PNV youth found a similar impatience among leftish Basque youth who had picked up on the vibrations of the youth and student movement of the 1960s. These youth brought to the table the narratives of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, mixed with socialist ideas of the Cuban and Algerian revolutions. Thus was Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Homeland and Freedom) born — doubly illegal, as they espoused Basque self-determination and socialism. And so they were spied upon by the Guardia Civil, harassed, arrested, tortured, jailed … after nine years of which ETA took up arms.

Of the Spanish state’s main political parties today, the ultra-right Partido Popular and the social democratic PSOE, the first receives very little electoral support in the CAV administrative area and the second always less than the total of Basque parties. Maribel and Josémari, like most of patriotic Basque society, were presented with the choice of supporting the PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) or the Abertzale Left, the broad political movement of which ETA was a part. The PNV was known for jobbery and corruption and collusion with the Spanish state so of course Maribel and Josemari raised their family in loose allegiance to the Abertzale Left, attending many marches of the movement, public meetings, pickets and now and then hearing gunshots and explosions, hearing of people they knew going into clandestinity and others arrested, tortured and jailed. Everyone knew someone who became a political prisoner (and that is still largely the case) — a neighbour, work colleague, a past pupil. One of Maribel’s daughters saw most of her quadrilla – a small circle of Basque school friends who typically stay close throughout life – go to jail; part of her life is now organised around making visits to jails throughout the Spanish and French states, thanks to the cruel dispersal policy.

At the funeral service in the packed Iglesia del Karmelo in the Bilbao district of Santutxu, I remembered Maribel’s warm personality and hospitality. In fact it was around that hospitality that I unwittingly caused a rift between us. By the last time I returned to stay with them, I had become active in Basque solidarity work in Ireland. Beset with communication difficulties with the organisations in Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) and desperate for regular sources of accurate information, I was essentially based at their home while seeking out and establishing contacts every day. Maribel, as a considerate Basque hostess, wanted to know in advance whether I was going to be available for meals and I sometimes forgot to tell her when I was not. I also didn’t get into the Basque rhythm of lunch, supper and main meal. In my focus on finding needed contacts I just didn’t appreciate the distress I was causing and that it might have appeared, as one daughter told me, that I was treating her parent’s apartment as an hotel. In subsequent annual visits to Bilbao, staying with others, I tried to make amends but though we remained friendly, it was never as before. Some rips you can darn but the fabric is never what it was.

Iglesia del Karmelo, in Santutxu, Bilbao (photo from Internet)
Iglesia del Karmelo, in Santutxu, Bilbao

In Maribel’s funeral service, the daughters led the singing of the “Agur Jaunak”2; I had the words printed out but didn’t recognise the air at first so by the time I caught on, was unable to find the place to join in. The first time I heard it, sung in performance by Maribel and Josemaria in their choir in another church, the song brought tears to my eyes. The couple belonged to two choirs and had even performed abroad; for many years choirs had been a big thing in the Basque Country but are not so popular now. The Agur Jaunak is a moving piece of music and the final words of farewell, now laden with additional meaning, brought forth my tears at the funeral too (and in fact bring some to my eyes now even recalling it).

When I got back to Dublin I decided to write an article dedicated to Maribel. And to the Basque love of mushrooms. Maribel and her husband were both mycologists (students of fungi) and she was a great cook too. At the time the urge to write struck me, it was autumn, the optimum time for fungi, when the weather is still fairly warm in much of Europe, but also damp.

 

MOUNTAIN PEOPLE AND MUSHROOMS

The Basques imagine themselves in many forms but the most enduring is probably as a mountain people. Not all the country is mountainy, of course – it has lowlands along most of its coastline (yes, they sometimes see themselves as mariners too) and even some highlands are plateau rather than mountain. But. Mountain people, nevertheless. My mother told us that Basque patriots when they died were often cremated and their ashes carried up the mountains inside the ikurrina, the Basque national flag. On reaching the top, the flag would be shook out, consigning the ashes to the winds. The Basque irrintzi cry, like yodelling, is typical of methods that use the voice to communicate from mountain to mountain. Climbing is a popular sport and so is hill walking, often also done as a form of youth political and social activity.

Mundaka coastline in Bizkaia province on south-eastern coast -- with mountains visible behind
Mundaka coastline in Bizkaia province on south-eastern coast — with mountains visible behind (photo Wikipedia)

Even among Basques living on the coast or other lowlands, it is hard to meet a native who has not been to the mountains and high valleys and many go there regularly, sometimes in organised groups. One of the reasons they go, apart from reinforcing their cultural affinity, is to pick edible fungi. I am told that there are 100 edible species known in the Basque Country and that “between 40 and 50 varieties are eaten regularly”.3

As opposed to other regional administrations, a fee does not have to be paid in the CAV administration (three of the southern Basque provinces) to collect these mushrooms, although breaching rules can cost between 30 and 250 euros in fines. The regulations specify a collection limit of two kilograms per person per day and one is obliged to use a knife to remove and a wicker basket to store.

Sadly, illegal commercial operations have cashed in on the love of mushrooms in the Spanish state and gangs have been discovered recruiting poorly-paid migrants or unemployed natives to collect without a licence in administrations where such is a requirement, breaching conservation rules and running the risk of arrest. These gangs are less likely to succeed in the southern Basque Country, a society highly organised on a voluntary and local basis and in general quite conscious of the importance of conservation.

Display of edible fungi from the New Forest, England, showing the conservation-friendly collecting basked and knife
Display of edible fungi from the New Forest, England, showing the conservation-friendly collecting basked and knife (photo from Internet)

Further northwards, 25 km. from Iruňa (Pamplona), is the Harana (valley) Ultzama, a natural reserve, over half of it thick woodland. It is in Nafarroa (Navarre), the fourth southern Basque province.

A mycological park over 6,000 hectares has been marked out, a great luxury for mushroom-lovers. …. The park’s information point, in the municipality of Alkotz, indicates the routes where these mushroom can be found as well as information about the species and how to identify those that have been collected throughout the day.” The collection permit costs €5 per day and is available from the information office or on their website.4

The Basques go in family groups or groups of friends, knowing the edible types (or accompanied by at least one who knows) and they bring baskets, not plastic bags. The idea is that the spores of picked mushrooms will drop through the weave as they walk and so seed growths of new mushrooms further away from where the parent fungi were picked. It is actually illegal to go picking with plastic bags and though there are not many of them, the forest police will arrest people who break that law. In a nation overburdened with police forces, that force is the only one that seems free from popular resentment.

The best mushroom sites are kept secret by those who know and the location of those sites is sometimes handed down through generations. In a peninsula renowned for its types of food and preparation styles, Basque cuisine lays claim to the highest accolade. Yet it uses hardly any spices or herbs. Sea food is high on the cuisine list of course but so is the ongo, the mushroom.

On a Sunday in October 2010, I was present in Bilbao when Maribel and Josemari’s mycological group had an exhibition in a local square, where they also cooked and sold fungi. Josemari and Mirabel worked all day in the hot sun and then had their own feast with their group afterwards, though by then I imagine many would not have had a great appetite.

I was staggered by the number of different species of fungi native to Euskal Herria and their variety of shapes and colours — I was told by the couple, and can well believe it, that their association had exhibited just over 300 species in that exhibition, between edible, inedible and poisonous. This figure was down on the previous year, when they had exhibited 500! Apparently there are over 700 species known to the country.

I tried to imagine how many Irish people would attend such an exhibition in Dublin, even on a sunny day such as we had there — perhaps 20, if the organisers were lucky. The square in that Santutxu district of Bilbao was full, as were the surrounding bar/cafés. There were all ages present, from babies at their mothers’ breasts to elderly people making their way slowly through the crowds. The food was all centred around cooked edible fungi: shish kebabs of mushroom, peppers, onions; burgers made of minced mushrooms and a little flour; little mushrooms with ali-oli on top, served on small pieces cut off long bread rolls; big pieces of brown mushroom almost the size of the palm of one’s hand.

Street in the Casco Viejo medieval part of Bilbao, showing decorations for the Bilbo festival in August
Street in the Casco Viejo medieval part of Bilbao, showing decorations for the Bilbo festival in August (photo D.Breatnach)

The people queued for the food and those selling it couldn’t keep up with demand. And the people also, including children, queued to see the fungi being exhibited. Unlike the Irish, who doubtless also have varieties of edible native fungi in their land but have largely shown an interest in only the common white cultivated kind and, among certain groups of mostly young people, the ‘magic’ variety, the Basques love their fungi.

I ate some there in that square and again, with other food also, down in the Casco Viejo (the medieval part of Bilbo city), where some new friends took me de poteo (from bar to bar) and wouldn´t let me buy even one round. Many bars serve pintxos, small cold snacks, some plain enough and others more involved – normally one eats and drinks and pays the total before leaving. But some of those bars have a room upstairs or to the side where meals are served and one had an excellent restaurant where we ate well and, of course, my friends wouldn’t let me pay my share of that either. True, I had organised some solidarity work for one of their family in prison but all the same ….. When it comes to hospitality, in my opinion the Basques deserve the fame even better than the Irish, who have been justly known for that quality too.

Some of the company had been the previous day in the town of Hernani, where a rally convened to call for Basque Country independence had been banned by the Spanish state. Despite the judicial order, thousands of young people had participated in the rally and had been planning to attend the rock concert afterwards. The Basque Region Police had attacked the peaceful demonstration with plastic bullets and then baton-charged the young people. Many were injured by the plastic bullets, by batons, and by being trampled in the narrow streets when people tried to flee the charging police. It was an object lesson in the drawbacks to regional autonomy or “home rule”. However, the resistance had been so strong that the police eventually had to retreat and allow the rock concert to proceed without further interference. But that too is another story.

AGUR — SLÁN

But five years later, outside the church after Maribel’s funeral, I waited with my two brothers on the margins of the crowd. I saw some youth among the mourners, including Goth and punk types, presumably friends of Maribel and Josemari’s daughters. Most in attendance were of older generations, however. It was noticeable how prominent the women were – garrulous and assertive. There were of course representatives of various branches of the movement, who knew the couple personally.

Small section of the funeral crowd outside the church (photo D. Breatnach)
Small section of the funeral crowd outside the church with Gorka in the foreground in white shirt (photo D. Breatnach)

Inside the church I had already conveyed my condolences to Josemari, who had seemed amazed, amidst his grief, that I had travelled from Ireland for the funeral. I was surprised, in turn, that he would have expected any less; for me, there was no question – I’d have borrowed the money to go if necessary. His son-in-law burst into tears when I hugged him and that was it for me, my composure crumbled and we cried in one another’s arms. Now I waited for the crowd to thin so I could hug the daughters, the two who live in Bilbao and Maider, who lives in Gastheiz (Vitoria).
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I stayed in a friend’s house a couple more days, renewing contacts and making a few new ones, meeting some old friends and then it was back to Dublin once more. Agur to Euskal Herria and agur to Maribel Eginoa – a loss to her family, to her nation, to me and to humanity.

End.

Footnotes

1  “ikastola” = school or college; plural “ikastolak”

2  Agur translates as “goodbye” but can also be a greeting. The Agur Jaunak’s lyrics are short and simple; the song is performed usually a capella, in giving honour to a person or persons and traditionally everyone stands when it is sung. The provenance of the air is a matter under discussion but it is only the Basques who are known to have lyrics to it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNMaMNMpYEk is one of the best versions I could find on the Internet although there is a somewhat cheesy bit by one of the performers in it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7Z8E-xhYTU is vocally another lovely interpretation sung unusually high although I dislike the crescendo at the end which is not the traditional way of singing it, which is to end on a low note.

3  http://www.micologica-barakaldo.org/Micologica_Barakaldo/index.html