Wisdom Sits in Places
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Wisdom Sits in Places

Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache

Keith H. Basso

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Wisdom Sits in Places

Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache

Keith H. Basso

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About This Book

This remarkable book introduces us to four unforgettable Apache people, each of whom offers a different take on the significance of places in their culture. Apache conceptions of wisdom, manners and morals, and of their own history are inextricably intertwined with place, and by allowing us to overhear his conversations with Apaches on these subjects Basso expands our awareness of what place can mean to people.

Most of us use the term sense of place often and rather carelessly when we think of nature or home or literature. Our senses of place, however, come not only from our individual experiences but also from our cultures. Wisdom Sits in Places, the first sustained study of places and place-names by an anthropologist, explores place, places, and what they mean to a particular group of people, the Western Apache in Arizona. For more than thirty years, Keith Basso has been doing fieldwork among the Western Apache, and now he shares with us what he has learned of Apache place-names--where they come from and what they mean to Apaches.

"This is indeed a brilliant exposition of landscape and language in the world of the Western Apache. But it is more than that. Keith Basso gives us to understand something about the sacred and indivisible nature of words and place. And this is a universal equation, a balance in the universe. Place may be the first of all concepts; it may be the oldest of all words."--N. Scott Momaday

"In Wisdom Sits in Places Keith Basso lifts a veil on the most elemental poetry of human experience, which is the naming of the world. In so doing he invests his scholarship with that rarest of scholarly qualities: a sense of spiritual exploration. Through his clear eyes we glimpse the spirit of a remarkable people and their land, and when we look away, we see our own world afresh."--William deBuys

"A very exciting book--authoritative, fully informed, extremely thoughtful, and also engagingly written and a joy to read. Guiding us vividly among the landscapes and related story-tellings of the Western Apache, Basso explores in a highly readable way the role of language in the complex but compelling theme of a people's attachment to place. An important book by an eminent scholar."--Alvin M. Josephy, Jr.

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Quoting the Ancestors

Place is the first of all beings, since everything that exists is in a place and cannot exist without a place.
Archytas, as cited by Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories
If, as L. P. Hartley (1956:1) proposed, “the past is a foreign country”—“they do things differently there,” he added to make the point—it is everywhere a land that attracts its share of visitors. And understandably so. Passage to the past is easy to come by (any reminder of bygone times can serve to launch an excursion), getting there is quick and efficient (a quiet moment or two is usually sufficient to make the transition), and restrictions on local travel are virtually nonexistent (memory and imagination, the most intimate and inventive of traveling companions, always see to that). And however the trip unfolds, one can proceed at an undemanding pace, exploring sites of special interest or moving about from place to place without feeling harried or rushed. Which may account for the fact that returning abruptly to the country of the present, where things are apt to be rushed enough, is often somewhat jarring.
Just where one ventures in the country of the past sometimes depends on where one has ventured before, on personal predilections, nurtured over time, for congenial pieces of experiential terrain: the terrain of one’s youth, perhaps, or of where one’s forebears lived, or of decisive events that altered the course of history; the possibilities are endless. Yet whatever these preferences are, and no matter how often indulged, the past has a way of luring curious travelers off the beaten track. It is, after all, a country conducive to wandering, with plenty of unmarked roads, unexpected vistas, and unforeseen occurrences. Informative discoveries, pleasurable and otherwise, are not at all uncommon. Which is why it can seem, as William Chapman (1979:46) has written, that “the past is at its best when it takes us to places that counsel and instruct, that show us who we are by showing us where we have been, that remind us of our connections to what happened here” (italics in the original). And why it is as well, for the same set of reasons, that this ever-changing landscape of the active heart and mind rewards repeated visits. For wherever one journeys in the country of the past, instructive places abound.
Many of these places are also encountered in the country of the present as material objects and areas, naturally formed or built, whose myriad local arrangements make up the landscapes of everyday life. But here, now, in the ongoing world of current concerns and projects, they are not apprehended as reminders of the past. Instead, when accorded attention at all, places are perceived in terms of their outward aspects—as being, on their manifest surfaces, the familiar places they are—and unless something happens to dislodge these perceptions they are left, as it were, to their own enduring devices. But then something does happen. Perhaps one spots a freshly fallen tree, or a bit of flaking paint, or a house where none has stood before—any disturbance, large or small, that inscribes the passage of time—and a place presents itself as bearing on prior events. And at that precise moment, when ordinary perceptions begin to loosen their hold, a border has been crossed and the country starts to change. Awareness has shifted its footing, and the character of the place, now transfigured by thoughts of an earlier day, swiftly takes on a new and foreign look.
Consider in this regard the remarks of Niels Bohr, the great theoretical physicist, while speaking in June of 1924 with Werner Heisenberg at Kronberg Castle in Denmark, Bohr’s beloved homeland.1
Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together. The stone, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and ramparts speak a different language. The courtyard becomes an entire world, a dark corner reminds us of the darkness of the human soul, we hear Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” Yet all we really know is that his name appears in a thirteenth-century chronicle. No one can prove he really lived here. But everyone knows the questions Shakespeare had him ask, the human depths he was made to reveal, and so he too had to be found in a place on earth, here in Kronberg. And once we know that, Kronberg becomes a quite different castle for us. (quoted in Bruner 1986:45)
Thus, by one insightful account, does the country of the past transform and supplant the country of the present. That certain localities prompt such transformations, evoking as they do entire worlds of meaning, is not, as Niels Bohr recognized, a small or uninteresting truth. Neither is the fact, which he also appreciated, that this type of retrospective world-building—let us call it place-making—does not require special sensibilities or cultivated skills.2 It is a common response to common curiosities—what happened here? who was involved? what was it like? why should it matter?—and anyone can be a place-maker who has the inclination. And every so often, more or less spontaneously, alone or with others, with varying degrees of interest and enthusiasm, almost everyone does make places. As roundly ubiquitous as it is seemingly unremarkable, place-making is a universal tool of the historical imagination. And in some societies at least, if not in the great majority, it is surely among the most basic tools of all.
Prevalent though it is, this type of world-building is never entirely simple. On the contrary, a modest body of evidence suggests that place-making involves multiple acts of remembering and imagining which inform each other in complex ways (Casey 1976, 1987). It is clear, however, that remembering often provides a basis for imagining. What is remembered about a particular place—including, prominently, verbal and visual accounts of what has transpired there—guides and constrains how it will be imagined by delimiting a field of workable possibilities. These possibilities are then exploited by acts of conjecture and speculation which build upon them and go beyond them to create possibilities of a new and original sort, thus producing a fresh and expanded picture of how things might have been. Essentially, then, instances of place-making consist in an adventitious fleshing out of historical material that culminates in a posited state of affairs, a particular universe of objects and events—in short, a place-world—wherein portions of the past are brought into being.3
When Niels Bohr went with Heisenberg to visit Kronberg Castle, he thought instantly of Hamlet and recalled the famous play in which this figure comes to life. Then, seizing on possibilities inherent in Shakespeare’s drama, Bohr went on to imagine a darkly compelling place-world in which the walls of the castle echoed an alien tongue, a shaded courtyard nook gave notice of the troubled human soul, and Hamlet uttered his anguished cry, “To be or not to be.” And probably, considering it was Bohr, there was much more besides: other fancied elements, wrought in compatible terms, which endowed his somber place-world with added substance and depth. Within this foreign universe Bohr could briefly dwell, and until it started to fade, as every place-world must, the imaginative Danish physicist and a bit of Danish history breathed life into each other.
But there is more to making place-worlds than living local history in a localized kind of way. In addition, place-making is a way of constructing history itself, of inventing it, of fashioning novel versions of “what happened here.” For every developed place-world manifests itself as a possible state of affairs, and whenever these constructions are accepted by other people as credible and convincing—or plausible and provocative, or arresting and intriguing—they enrich the common stock on which everyone can draw to muse on past events, interpret their significance, and imagine them anew. Building and sharing place-worlds, in other words, is not only a means of reviving former times but also of revising them, a means of exploring not merely how things might have been but also how, just possibly, they might have been different from what others have supposed. Augmenting and enhancing conceptions of the past, innovative place-worlds change these conceptions as well.
By way of illustration, and returning once more to Denmark, Bohr’s remarks to Heisenberg could have provided Heisenberg with novel possibilities for building his own version of Hamlet’s castle in Hamlet’s time, a place-world that would have been different from any he might have fashioned working by himself. And if Heisenberg had then returned the favor, describing in some detail his own construction to Bohr, the same would be true in reverse. Which is simply to say that discussing the stuff of place-worlds—comparing their contents, pursuing their implications, assessing their strengths and weaknesses—is a regular social process, as common and straightforward as it is sometimes highly inventive.
In this discursive fashion, even in societies where writing and other devices for “preserving the past” are absent or devalued, historical knowledge is produced and reproduced. And in this manner too, even in societies which lack the services of revisionary historians, historical understandings are altered and recast. It is well to keep in mind that interpreting the past can be readily accomplished—and is every day—without recourse to documentary archives, photographic files, and early sound recordings. It cannot be accomplished, readily or otherwise, without recourse to places and the place-worlds they engender. Long before the advent of literacy, to say nothing of “history” as an academic discipline, places served humankind as durable symbols of distant events and as indispensable aids for remembering and imagining them—and this convenient arrangement, ancient but not outmoded, is with us still today. In modern landscapes everywhere, people persist in asking, “What happened here?” The answers they supply, though perhaps distinctly foreign, should not be taken lightly, for what people make of their places is closely connected to what they make of themselves as members of society and inhabitants of the earth, and while the two activities may be separable in principle, they are deeply joined in practice. If place-making is a way of constructing the past, a venerable means of doing human history, it is also a way of constructing social traditions and, in the process, personal and social identities. We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.
But these and related matters are only broadly discerned and loosely understood, and the main reason why is easy to identify. A widespread form of imaginative activity, place-making is also a form of cultural activity, and so, as any anthropologist will tell you, it can be grasped only in relation to the ideas and practices with which it is accomplished. And because these ideas and practices may vary considerably both within and among particular social groups, the nature of the activity can be understood only by means of sustained ethnography. Yet little ethnography of place-making has in fact been undertaken, and what is known about place-making—Navajo or Norwegian, Sinhalese or Soviet, Mexican or Moroccan—is therefore sharply limited. There is work to be done, and now is as good a time as any to see what it may involve.
This chapter, which offers an example of the work I have in mind, is soon to cross over the border into an American Indian version of Hartley’s foreign land. The time has come to travel, first to Arizona and the village of Cibecue, home since the beginning to groups of men and women known to themselves as ndee (people), to others as Western Apache (fig. 1).4 And then to some of their places not far away—places with names such as Widows Pause For Breath, She Carries Her Brother On Her Back, and Bitter Agave Plain—places made memorable, and infinitely imaginable, by events that happened long ago when the people’s distant ancestors were settling into the country. So let us be off, stopping here and there with one Charles Henry, age sixty or thereabouts, skilled herbalist, devoted uncle, and veteran maker of place-worlds. Niels Bohr, I like to think, would have enjoyed his company. For both men understood, though in very different ways, that castles come in a great many shapes and need not be wrought with mortar and stone.

Water Lies With Mud In An Open Container

Early morning, late May 1979, the night’s redemptive chill rapidly receding before the rising sun. Silence deep and full, a blanket upon the land. I am standing with Charles Henry and one of his cousins, Morley Cromwell, at the edge of a circular swale some forty feet across. Ringed by willows and filled with luxuriant grass, it lies near a spring-fed creek which flows southeast to the gardens and cornfields of Cibecue. The earth at our feet is marked with the tracks of deer, and from high in a cottonwood tree comes the liquid call of a raven. A chipmunk creeps to the swale, secures a nervous drink, and darts away behind a rotting log covered with patches of green and orange moss. The air is heavy and moist. A small white butterfly dances in place in a shaft of golden sunlight.
Charles and Morley have brought me here at the outset of a long-range project in Western Apache cultural geography. Authorized and endorsed by the White Mountain Apache Tribal Council, the project’s main objective is to record on topographic maps the approximate location of each and every place that bears an Apache name within a twenty-mile radius of the Cibecue community. Residents of the community have never known maps they considered their own (those in their possession show but a handful of places with extraneous names in English and Spanish), and the work we have started, which is intended to lay the foundation for a local Apache atlas, is regarded by some as long overdue. A couple of weeks ago, before the work began, the three of us agreed on a simple division of labor. Charles, who is in charge, will guide us from place to place, supply each place’s proper name, and comment as he chooses on its past and present significance. Morley will translate as necessary (Charles speaks English reluctantly, and my own Apache is stiff and uneven at best) and offer additional insigh...

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