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Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache

Keith H. Basso (1996)


[Note: Lacking the Apache language font (which is temporarily unavailable, for some reason), renderings of Apache words below are only approximate. Apologies to speakers of Apache.]

When the essay on joking [Portraits of "The Whiteman" - Linguistic play and cultural symbols among the Western Apache] was done I began to look around for something new to do.
The answer came from Ronnie Lupe, chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, a keenly intelligent man with a splendid gift for his own Apache language and an abiding interest in Cibecue, where he was born and raised. "Why don't you make maps over there," the chairman suggested firmly in his office at Whiteriver one day. "Not whitemen's maps, we've got plenty of them, but Apache maps with Apache places and names. We could use them. Find out something about how we know our country. You should have done this before." Mr. Lupe's suggestion (or was it a directive?) appealed to me at once, and a few days later, having discussed it at length with some of my friends in Cibecue, I informed him that I was prepared to begin. (xv)

My debt to the Apache people of Cibecue, which now reaches back more than thirty-five years, is enormous and profound. No one could ask for better teachers or finer friends than horsemen Morley Cromwell, Charles Henry, Robert Machuse, Nick Thompson, and Dudley Patterson. Although all are with their ancestors now, I know they are still on hand, for I hear their voices often as I travel through their country. How deeply they loved their country. And how pleased they were that some of their knowledge of it would be preserved and made public, subject to a set of clearly defined restrictions which have not—and shall never be—violated. (xvii)

"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 (3)

Shortly before his death in 1960, Clyde Kluckhohn made the following observation in a course he gave at Harvard University on the history of anthropological thought: "The most interesting claims people make are those they make about themselves. Cultural anthropologists should keep this in mind, especially when they are doing fieldwork." (37)

This chapter focuses on a small set of spoken texts in which members of the community of Cibecue express claims about themselves, their language, and the lands on which they live. The statements that interest me, which could be supplemented by a large number of others, are the following.
"The land is always stalking people. The land makes people live right. The land looks after us. The land looks after people." (Annie Peaches, age 77, 1978)
"Our children are losing the land. It doesn't go to work on them anymore. They don't know the stories about what happened at these places. That's why some get into trouble." (Ronnie Lupe, age 42; Chairman, White Mountain Apache Tribe, 1978)
"We used to survive only off the land. Now it's no longer that way. Now we live only with money, so we need jobs. But the land still looks after us. We know the names of the places where everything happened. So we stay away from badness." (Nick Thompson, age 64, 1980) (38)

One time I went to L.A., training for mechanic. It was no good, sure no good. I start drinking, hang around bars all the time. I start getting into trouble with my wife, fight sometimes with her. It was bad. I forget about this country here around Cibecue. I forget all the names and stories. I don't hear them in my mind anymore. I forget how to live right, forget how to be strong. (Wilson Lavender, age 52, 1975) (39)

Something else contributes to the common use of place-names in Western Apache communities, however, and that, quite simply, is that Apaches enjoy using them. Several years ago, for example, when I was stringing a barbed-wire fence with two Apache cowboys from Cibecue, I noticed that one of them was talking quietly to himself. When I listened carefully, I discovered that he was reciting a list of place-names—a long list, punctuated only by spurts of tobacco juice, that went on for nearly ten minutes. Later, when I ventured to ask him about it, he said he "talked names" all the time. Why? "I like to," he said. "I ride that way in my mind." And on dozens of other occasions when I have been working or traveling with Apaches, they have taken satisfaction in pointing out particular locations and pronouncing their names—once, twice, three times or more. Why? "Because we like to," or "Because those names are good to say." (45-6)

It is essential to understand that all but a very few Apache place-names take the form of complete sentences. This is made possible by one of the most prominent components of the Western Apache language: an elaborate system of prefixes that operate most extensively and productively to modify the stems of verbs. Thus, well-formed sentences can be constructed that are extremely compact yet semantically very rich. It is this combination of brevity and expressiveness, I believe, that appeals to Apaches and makes the mere pronunciation of place-names a satisfying experience. (46)

Here is Nick Thompson's statement:
This is what we know about our stories. They go to work on your mind and make you think about your life. Maybe you've not been acting right. Maybe you've been stingy. Maybe you've been chasing after women. Maybe you've been trying to act like a whiteman. People don't like it! So someone goes hunting for you—maybe your grandmother, your grandfather, your uncle. It doesn't matter. Anyone can do it.
So someone stalks you and tells a story about what happened long ago. It doesn't matter if other people are around—you're going to know he's aiming that story at you. All of a sudden it hits you! It's like an arrow, they say. Sometimes it just bounces off—it's too soft and you don't think about anything. But when it's strong it goes in deep and starts working on your mind right away. No one says anything to you, only that story is all, but now you know that people have been watching you and talking about you. They don't like how you've been acting. So you have to think about your life.
Then you feel weak, real weak, like you are sick. You don't want to eat or talk to anyone. That story is working on you now. You keep thinking about it. That story is changing you now, making you want to live right. That story is making you want to replace yourself. You think only of what you did that was wrong and you don't like it. So you want to live better. After a while, you don't like to think of what you did wrong. So you try to forget that story. You try to pull that arrow out. You think it won't hurt anymore because now you want to live right.
It's hard to keep on living right. Many things jump up at you and block your way. But you won't forget that story. You're going to see the place where it happened, maybe every day if it's nearby and close to Cibecue. If you don't see it, you're going to hear its name and see it in your mind. It doesn't matter if you get old—that place will keep on stalking you like the one who shot you with the story. Maybe that person will die. Even so, that place will keep on stalking you. It's like that person is still alive.
Even if we go far away from here to some big city, places around here keep stalking us. If you live wrong, you will hear the names and see the places in your mind. They keep on stalking you, even if you go across oceans. The names of all these places are good. They make you remember how to live right, so you want to replace yourself again. (58-9)

"What we call the landscape is generally considered to be something 'out there.' But, while some aspects of the landscape are clearly external to both our bodies and our minds, what each of us actually experiences is selected, shaped, and colored by what we know." —Barrie Greenbie, Spaces: Dimensions of the Human Landscape (71)

But the common activity of placenaming—the actual use of toponyms in concrete instances of everyday speech—has attracted little attention from linguists or ethnographers. Less often still has placenaming been investigated as a universal means—and, it could well turn out, a universally primary means—for appropriating physical environments.
The reasons for this innocuous piece of scholarly neglect are several, but the main one arises from a widespread view of language in which proper names are assumed to have meaning solely in their capacity to refer and, as agents of reference, to enter into simple and complex predications. (76)

The silence is broken by Louise, who reaches into her oversized purse for a can of Pepsi-Cola, jerks it open with a loud snap, and begins to speak in the Cibecue dialect of Western Apache. She speaks softly, haltingly, and with long pauses to accentuate the seriousness of what she is saying. Late last night, she reports, sickness assailed her younger brother. Painful cramps gnawed at his stomach. Numbness crept up his legs and into his thighs. He vomited three times in rapid succession. He looked extremely pale. In the morning, just before dawn, he was driven to the hospital at Whiteriver. The people who had gathered at his home were worried and frightened and talked about what happened. One of them, Louise's cousin, recalled that several months ago, when the young man was working on a cattle roundup near a place named Tsi Biyi'itine (Trail Extends Into A Grove Of Sticklike Trees), he had inadvertently stepped on a snakeskin that lay wedged in a crevice between some rocks. Another member of the roundup crew, who witnessed the incident, cautioned the young man that contact with snakes is always dangerous and urged him to immediately seek the services of a 'snake medicine person' (tl'iish bi diiyin). But Louise's younger brother had only smiled, remarking tersely that he was not alarmed and that no harm would befall him.
Louise, who is plainly worried and upset by these events, pauses and sips from her drink. After a minute or so, having regained her composure, she begins to speak again. But Lola Machuse quietly interrupts her. Emily and Robert will speak as well. What follows is a record of their discourse, together with English translations of the utterances.
Louise: Shidizhe . . . (My younger brother . . .)
Lola: Tsee Hadigaiye yu 'agodzaa. (It happened at Line Of White Rocks Extends Up And Out, at this very place!)
[Pause: 30-45 seconds]
Emily: Ha'aa. Tuzhi' Yaahigaiye yu 'agodzaa. (Yes. It happened at Whiteness Spreads Out Descending To Water, at this very place!)
[Pause: 30-45 seconds]
Lola: Da'anii. K'is Deeschii' Naaditine yu 'agodzaa. (Truly. It happened at Trail Extends Across A Red Ridge With Alder Trees, at this very place!)
Louise: [laughs softly]
Robert: Gozhoo doleel. (Pleasantness and goodness will be forthcoming.)
Lola: Gozhoo doleel. (Pleasantness and goodness will be forthcoming.)
Louise: Shidizhe bini'eshid ne goshe? (My younger brother is foolish, isn't he, dog?)
Following this brief exchange, talk ceases under the brush-covered ramada and everyone retreats into the privacy of his or her thoughts. Louise drinks again from her can of Pepsi-Cola and passes it on to Emily. Lola Machuse returns to her sewing, while Robert studies a horse in a nearby corral. Only Clifford, who has launched a feverish attack on an itch below his ear, seems unaffected by what has been said. Silence once again.
But what has been said? To what set of personal and social ends? And why in such a clipped and cryptic fashion? If these questions create problems for us (and I think it can be assumed that they do), it is because we are dealing with a spate of conversation whose organization eludes us, a strip of Western Apache verbal doings whose animating aims and purposes seem obscure. (78-80)

The episode at the Machuses' home exemplifies a venerable practice with which Western Apache speakers exploit the evocative power of place-names to comment on the moral conduct of persons who are absent from the scene. Called "speaking with names" (yalti' bee'izhl), this verbal routine also allows those who engage in it to register claims about their own moral worth, about aspects of their social relationships with other people on hand, and about a particular way of attending to the local landscape that is avowed to produce a beneficial form of heightened self-awareness. And as if this were not enough, much of what gets said and done is attributed to unseen Apache ancestors who are prompted by the voices of conversational participants to communicate in a collective voice that no one actually hears. All in all, the practice of "speaking with names" is a subtle and subterranean affair. (80-1)

All such undertakings profit from the guidance of experienced native instructors, and no one living at Cibecue is more capable or willing in this regard than Lola Machuse herself. So let us begin, as in fact I did shortly after the episode at her camp took place, by considering her account of what transpired as the women drank their Pepsi and Clifford snapped at flies.
"We gave that woman [Louise] pictures to work on in her mind. We didn't speak too much to her. We didn't hold her down. That way she could travel in her mind. She could add on to them [the pictures] easily. We gave her clear pictures with place-names. So her mind went to those places, standing in front of them as our ancestors did long ago. That way she could see what happened there long ago. She could hear stories in her mind, perhaps hear our ancestors speaking. She could recall the knowledge of our ancestors.
"We call it speaking with names. Place-names are all we need for that, speaking with names. We just fix them up. That woman was too sad. She was worried too much about her younger brother. So we tried to make her feel better. We tried to make her think good thoughts. That woman's. younger brother acted stupidly. He was stupid and careless. He failed to show respect. No good! We said nothing critical about him to her. We talked around it. Those place-names are strong! After a while, I gave her a funny story. She didn't get mad. She was feeling better. She laughed. Then she had enough, I guess. She spoke to the dog about her younger brother, criticizing him, so we knew we had helped her out."
Lola Machuse recorded this statement two days after the speech event at her home took place, and four days later, having discussed her account with all parties involved, I determined to treat it as a guide for subsequent inquiries. Everyone to whom I presented Lola's account agreed that it was encompassing and astute; it touched, they said, on everything that was essential for getting a proper sense of what "speaking with names" might be used to accomplish. (82-3)

Western Apaches regard spoken conversation as a form of 'voluntary cooperation' (lich'i' 'odaach'idii) in which all participants are entitled to displays of 'respect' (yinlsih). Accordingly, whenever people speak in cordial and affable tones, considerations of 'kindness and politeness' (bil goch'oba') come centrally into play. Such considerations may influence Apache speech in a multitude of ways, but none is more basic than the courtesy speakers display by refraining from 'speaking too much' (laago yalti'). Although the effects of this injunction are most clearly evident in the spare verbal style employed by Apache storytellers, people from Cibecue insist that all forms of narration benefit from its application. And the reasons, they explain, are simple enough.
A person who speaks too much—someone who describes too busily, who supplies too many details, who repeats and qualifies too many times—presumes without warrant on the right of hearers to build freely and creatively on the speaker's own depictions. With too many words, such a speaker acts to 'smother' (bika' yinlkaad) his or her audience by seeming to say, arrogantly and coercively, "I demand that you see everything that happened, how it happened, and why it happened, exactly as I do." In other words, persons who speak too much insult the imaginative capabilities of other people, "blocking their thinking," as one of my consultants said in English, and "holding down their minds." So Western Apache narrators consistently take a different tack, implying by the economical manner of their speech, "I will depict just enough for you to see what happened, how it happened, and perhaps why it happened. Add on to these depictions however you see fit." An effective narrator, people from Cibecue report, never speaks too much; an effective narrator takes steps to open up thinking," thereby encouraging his or her listeners to "travel in their minds." (85)

But speaking with names accomplishes more than this. A traditional Apache narrative encapsulated in its own spatial anchor, the expression X 'agodzaa yu is also a call to memory and imagination. Simultaneously, it is a call to persons burdened by worry and despair to take remedial action on behalf of themselves. "Travel in your mind," the expression urges those to whom it is addressed. "Travel in your mind to a point from which to view the place whose name has just been spoken. Imagine standing there, as if in the tracks of your ancestors, and recall stories of events that occurred at that place long ago. Picture these events in your mind and appreciate, as if the ancestors were speaking to you directly, the knowledge the stories contain. Bring this knowledge to bear on your own disturbing situation. Allow the past to inform your understanding of the present. You will feel better if you do."
And Western Apache people report that sometimes they do feel better. Having pictured distant places and dwelled on ancestral events, their worries become less acute: less 'sharp' (ts'ik'ii), less 'hard' (ntl'iz), less 'noisy' (gonch'aad) in their minds. Feelings of anxiety and emotional turbulence may give way to welcome sensations of 'smoothness' (dilkooh), of 'softness' (dedi'ile), of growing inner 'quiet' (doohwaa gonch'aada). (91)

Louise's chronicle of her brother's misfortune created an opportunity for all on hand to comment on his conduct. But because her account portrayed him in a distinctly unfavorable light, it also presented him as a target for easy criticism. If criticism were to be forthcoming, it could only serve to embarrass Louise, for she would have no alternative but to try to defend her brother's actions—and this would be awkward and difficult at best. Yet refusing to defend him could be taken to mean that she was prepared to condemn him entirely, and condemning one's relatives, especially in the presence of nonrelatives, is a conspicuous violation of kinship loyalties that Western Apaches rarely see fit to excuse.
For these reasons, Louise's candid statement placed her companions in a delicate dilemma. On the one hand, no one could assert that Louise's brother had not acted wrongly without casting serious doubt on his or her own good judgment. On the other hand, no one could openly censure the young man without adding to Louise's discomfort, thereby displaying a lack of consideration for her feelings and a lack of concern for the circumstances that had produced them. How, then, to respond? How to speak the truth—or something that could be heard as not denying the truth—without exacerbating an already sensitive situation?
"Those place-names really helped us out! We gave her pictures with place-names. That way she started feeling better. Those place-names are strong!"
After finishing her account, Louise paused, took a long drink of Pepsi-Cola, and started to speak again of her beleaguered brother. But Lola Machuse intervened at this point, saying softly but firmly, "Tsee Hadigaiye yu 'agodzaa" (It happened at Line Of White Rocks Extends Up And Out, at this very place!). Lola's utterance was intended to evoke a historical tale for Louise to picture in her mind, but it was also designed to change the topic of talk and set the conversation on a new and different course. Instead of Louise's brother, whom Lola was showing she had no desire to criticize, attention was shifted to Louise herself and her troubled reactions to her brother's predicament. Instead of disapproval, Lola Machuse was exhibiting sympathy and concern. (93-4)

Following another lengthy silence inside the brush ramada, Lola Machuse acted to affirm and consolidate the tacit messages communicated thus far with a place-name intended to evoke a third historical tale with similarities to the previous two. But with this utterance—"Da'anii. K'is Deeschii' Naaditine yu 'agodzaa." (Truly. It happened at Trail Extends Across A Red Ridge With Alder Trees, at this very place!)—she took a moderate risk. Although it deals with serious matters, the story Lola was thinking of presents a humorous aspect, and one of her purposes in evoking it was to lighten Louise's spirits (and everyone else's) by striking a note of reserved good cheer. The risk Lola ran was that her action would be perceived as intemperate, perhaps even playful, and thus inappropriate to the seriousness and solemnity of Louise's troubled circumstances. (97)

Touched by this display of friendly goodwill, and aware that some sort of acknowledgment of it was now in order, Louise responded by taking a deft and self-effacing step. In the form of a mock question addressed to Clifford, the Machuses' dog, she gently criticized her own brother: "Shidizhe bini'eshid ne goshe?" (My younger brother is foolish, isn't he, dog?). This utterance accomplished several actions at once. First, by drawing attention away from herself, Louise gave notice that further evocations of traditional narratives could be politely dispensed with; in effect, "You have all done enough." Also, by directing her question to one who could not answer it, Louise indicated that additional discussion of her brother and his difficulties would serve no useful purpose; in effect, "Let the matter rest. There is nothing more to say." Finally, and most adroitly of all, by voicing the thought that had been on everyone's mind from the beginning—that Louise's brother had indeed acted foolishly—she contrived to thank them for their tact in not having voiced it; in effect, "This is the discrediting truth about my relative. I know it and I know that you know it. You were polite and thoughtful to refrain from expressing it."
As could have been predicted, Clifford did not respond to Louise's bogus query. Neither did anyone else. The speech event was over. A few minutes later, Louise and Emily rose to their feet, complained to each other about a sudden plentitude of flies, and set off together in search of a cold can of Pepsi-Cola. Lola Machuse resumed her sewing . And Robert Machuse went to water his horse. The day was beginning to cool, and the landscape beyond Cibecue, its rugged contours softened now by patches of lengthening shadow, looked more hospitable than before. (99)

"To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from." —Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (105)

It is unfortunate that anthropologists seldom study what people make of places. (105)

Consequently, little is known of the ways in which culturally diverse peoples are alive to the world around them, of how they comprehend it, of the different modes of awareness with which they take it in and, in the words of Edmund Husserl, "discover that it matters." Nor can much be said about the effects of such discoveries on the persons who make them, about why some localities matter more than others, about why viewing a favored site or merely recalling aspects of its appearance may loosen strong emotions and kindle thoughts of a richly caring kind. In short, anthropologists have paid scant attention to one of the most basic dimensions of human experience—that close companion of heart and mind, often subdued, yet potentially overwhelming, that is known as sense of place. (106)

Through a vigorous conflation of attentive subject and geographical object, places come to generate their own fields of meaning. (108)

[Dudley Patterson] explains to Ruth Patterson that he has been talking to me about the land and how it can make people wise. "Wisdom," Ruth says firmly in Apache. "It's difficult!" And then, after inviting me to stay and eat with them, she enters Dudley's house to prepare a simple meal. Ruth's remark prompts a surge of ethnographic gloom, forcing me to acknowledge that I know next to nothing about Apache conceptions of wisdom. In what is wisdom thought to consist? How does one detect its presence or absence? How is it acquired? Do persons receive instruction in wisdom or is it something they arrive at, or fail to arrive at, entirely on their own? And why is it, as Ruth had said, that wisdom is "difficult"? If I am to understand something of how places work to make people wise, an arresting idea I find instantly compelling, these are matters I must try to explore.
And who better to explore them with than Dudley Patterson? He is known to be wise—many people have said so—and I have to begin somewhere. So without further ado I put the question to him: "What is wisdom?" Dudley greets my query with a faintly startled look that recedes into a quizzical expression I have not seen before. "It's in these places," he says. "Wisdom sits in places." (121)

[Dudley Patterson:] "Wisdom sits in places. It's like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don't you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. Then you will see danger before it happens. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise. People will respect you." (127)

Stated in general terms, the Apache theory holds that 'wisdom'—igoya'i—consists in a heightened mental capacity that facilitates the avoidance of harmful events by detecting threatening circumstances when none are apparent. This capacity for prescient thinking is produced and sustained by three mental conditions, described in Apache as bini' godilkooh (smoothness of mind), bini' gontl'iz (resilience of mind), and bini' gonldzil (steadiness of mind). Because none of these conditions is given at birth, each must be cultivated in a conscientious manner by acquiring relevant bodies of knowledge and applying them critically to the workings of one's mind. Knowledge of places and their cultural significance is crucial in this regard because it illustrates with numerous examples the mental conditions needed for wisdom as well as the practical advantages that wisdom confers on persons who possess it. (130)

Except for the mentally impaired, every Apache who enters the world can legitimately aspire to wisdom. Yet none is born with the three conditions of mind required for wisdom to flourish. Cultivating these conditions, a long and uneven process involving much introspection and many disheartening setbacks, has both private and public aspects. On the one hand, it is the responsibility of individuals to critically assess their own minds and prepare them for wisdom by cultivating the qualities of smoothness, resilience, and steadiness. On the other hand, instruction is needed from persons sympathetic to the endeavor who have pursued it themselves with a measure of success. Although instruction may begin at any age, it usually commences when preadolescent children become aware that adult life entails an endless flow of demands that need to be met with special skills and abilities. Young people who have reached this level of understanding are told to be constantly alert to what goes on around them, to remember everything they observe, and to report on anything out of the ordinary. They are also urged to pay close attention to the words and actions of older people whose general demeanor is deemed worthy of emulation. And they are regularly invited to travel, especially in the company of persons who will speak to them about the places they see and visit. It is on these excursions that the relationship between places and wisdom is first made explicit. "Drink from places," Apache boys and girls are told. "Then you can work on your mind." (133-4)

It is important to understand that wise men and women are able to consult dozens of cautionary narratives in very short periods of time. Such concentrated effort is not required of them under ordinary circumstances, but when a crisis appears to be looming they set about it immediately. Serene and undistracted, they start drinking from places (in times of emergency they are said to "gulp" from them), and soon enough, often within minutes, they have seen in their minds what needs to be done. Wisdom has finally shown its hand. And when it does, as Dudley Patterson remarked in English the day he cast off his sling and prepared to rejoin the horsemen, "It's sure pretty good all right." "Yes," he said thoughtfully. "That's sure pretty good all right." (140)

Albert Camus may have said it best. "Sense of place," he wrote, "is not just something that people know and feel, it is something people do." (143)

Yet such culminations of mind seem destined to occur with decreasing frequency in times that lie ahead. In communities throughout the Fort Apache Reservation—and Cibecue is prominent among them—fewer and fewer young people are currently embarking on the ancestral trail of wisdom. Caught up with other concerns and reluctant to appear old-fashioned before their watchful peers, they travel less extensively, learn smaller bodies of cautionary narratives, and subscribe with mounting conviction to the imported belief that useful knowledge comes mainly from formal schooling. This is not to imply that young Apaches fail to develop a robust sense of place—on the contrary, they do—but it does get fashioned from new and different materials and points in fresh directions. And that may be all to the good, for as modern tribal leaders point out repeatedly, surviving in the contemporary world requires the acquisition of contemporary skills. It is doubtful, however, that future generations of Apache people will ever devise a more striking way to think about places—and by means of places to think about thinking itself—than the one made known to me by the horseman Dudley Patterson. (147)

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