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Tree of Gernika

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Instead of guns, pro-peace reformers from ETA's banned political party can find strength in Basque's beloved oak.

Tree of Gernika
(Image by Shaury Nash)
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Outside the Basque region in northeastern Spain, the town of Gernika is perhaps most symbolized by Pablo Picasso's famous 1937 anti-war painting Guernica , which depicts the German and Italian aerial bombing of the town on April 26 of the same year. The attack was requested by Spain's Nationalist forces under the command of the dictator Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

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But during medieval times, this cultural region had a decidedly more peaceful symbol -- a tree.

In those days, the various representatives of Basque villages in the province of Biscay held meetings under the shade of trees, none more famous or revered today as a big oak named Gernikako Arbola (Basque for "Tree of Gernika").

When assemblies moved indoors in the early 16th century, the old tree gained a symbolic meaning, representing the traditional freedoms (or Fueros) of the Biscayan people -- and by extension the people of Basque as a whole.

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The green saltire that diagonally bisects the Ikurrina -- the official Basque flag -- is said to represent the oak and the historical laws that it symbolizes.

It is also the name of the Basque anthem, which states, "The Tree of Guernica is blessed among the Basques; absolutely loved. Give and deliver the fruit unto the world. We adore you, holy tree."

Rooted in Carlism and the loss of the relationship between the Basque provinces and the Spanish crown under the Ancien Re'gime, Basque nationalism has long called for independence from Spain and France, but has also been the source of much violence. The armed separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, Basque for "Basque Homeland and Freedom") has claimed the lives of 825 people since the late 1960s.

Recently, there has been talk of a Spain without ETA. The group, which called a cease-fire in September, has not killed anyone in a year.

ETA "has never been as weak and cornered as it is now," Foreign Minister Trinidad Jimenez told Spain's parliament last month, according to an AP report. "The end of ETA is near."

As some former members of ETA's banned political wing Batasuna call for a permanent cease-fire and move towards the formation of a legitimate party, perhaps they can help the abandonment of ETA's fearful symbol -- a snake wrapped around an axe -- and instead call for a return to the deeper roots of the Gernikako Arbola.

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After all, the medieval Basque representatives would not have enjoyed a protective shade if their great oak had met an angry axe.


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Reynard Loki is a New York-based artist, writer and editor. He is the environment and food editor at, a progressive news website. He is also the co-founder of MomenTech, a New York-based experimental production studio whose projects (more...)

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