Trailing of the Sheep Festival: The Folk Life of Sheepherding

When you think of Sun Valley, you probably first think of the Sun Valley Ski Resort. Sun Valley is a beautiful resort town in the Wood River Valley, and it is best known for its incredible skiing. The ski resort rivals skiing the world over. Yet, Sun Valley and Ketchum aren’t just on the map for some truly incredible skiing. If you visit in October and catch the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, you’ll find a completely different culture and industry that lies at the heart of Wood River Valley.

Sheepherding was first introduced to the Wood River Valley in the 1960s, and it’s remained a vital industry ever since. Even when the mining industry began to slow down and stop, the sheep industry grew to fill the economic void. At one point, Ketchum was a major center for the sheep industry, rivaled only by Sydney, Australia. Before long, the population of sheep vastly outnumbered that of the human residents of Idaho, and it stayed that way until the 1970s. Sheep are important to the Wood River Valley, and the Trailing of the Sheep Festival celebrates the diverse culture and life of sheepherding.

Scots, Basques, and More

If you take a look at the history on the Trailing of the Sheep website, you’ll discover that sheepherding in Idaho attracted a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures. While many of the sheepherders today are Peruvian, the culture of the Wood River Valley is still rich with the influence of the many Scots and Basques that were a part of the sheepherding industry.

One Scot came to the valley with nothing more than the clothes he was wearing. He worked for other sheep owners, and was paid with sheep. Over time, he gained enough sheep to start his own operation, and his developments with breeding produced some of the finest sheep in all of Idaho.

The Basques were known for their hard work and determination, and their ethic allowed sheep owners to graze their sheep in remote regions of the mountains. Many Basques became sheep owners themselves. There are still companies created by Basques, and the Scots, around today.

Music and Dance

When you attend the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, you’ll be able to experience the music and dances of the cultures present in the sheep industry. One of the most well known are the Boise Highlanders. They are a troupe of bagpipers, drummers, and dancers. They perform Highland jigs, and play the Highland drums. The Highland drums are often considered one of the most complex snare drums, and the drumming compliments the bagpipes and dancing.

Today, many of the sheepherders in Idaho are Peruvian, and you’ll be able to experience their music and dance as well. The Peruvian Dancers and Musicians perform contemporary music from Peru, as well as Andean music. They are a full band, and feature dancing.

The Oinkari Basque Dancers carry on the traditions of their Basque homeland. The dancers are the children of the founders of the dance group, and they perform traditional music and dance. The music they play has survived the test of time and a new home, surviving over one hundred years.

For an experience you won’t be able to enjoy anywhere else, watch the Siumni Polish Highlanders of North America. They are descendants of the shepherds in the Tatra Mountains of Poland, and their dance is only found in that region. But, you’ll be able to experience their traditional dances and singing at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival.

A Celebration of Diversity

While the Trailing of the Sheep Festival is a celebration of the sheep industry and the sheep as they return to their southern winter grounds, it’s also a celebration of the cultures of the sheepherders that made Wood River Valley their home. They helped shape the sheep industry in Idaho, and kept it alive in thriving even through the depression.

This festival is an incredible opportunity to experience the diverse cultural heritage of Idaho. You’ll enjoy the traditional music, dances, and costumes of the Scots, Basque, Peruvian, and Polish sheepherders that lived and worked in this slice of Idaho. Idaho has a rich history and culture, and the Trailing of the Sheep Festival celebrates and embraces that diversity in a way that only Idahoans can. It’s a truly incredible experience, and one that you should strongly consider making a tradition of your own.

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