Wisdom Sits in Places – Apache identify through places


The Apache name locations by what they see the first time; the name is a visual description of the physical landscape of a location.   For centuries locations were passed from generation to generation as a place to gather food, obtain water, good places to grow food, etc.  As they described the location, they named the place.  One example given was Tliish Bi Tu’e or Snakes water and the author describes a scene of Cibecue Apache arriving at this location for the first time, probably thirsty, looking for water (Basso. 1996:15).  They see a spring, bubbling out of the rocks forming a pool and start toward it and are quickly halted by the leader who notices snaking sunning themselves on the rocks.  He halts the group, telling them to stay put as he moves toward the snakes, talking quietly to them, convincing them to move one so the people can gather water.  The people then are able to drink (Basso, 1996:15).

Imagine the Cibecue Apache coming year after year, decades after decades and one day, they come and the water is gone and now, centuries later, we come to the location and only see an outcropping of rock and dust on hard packed earth. (Basso, 1996:16) The only way anyone has a glimmer of what the landscape was like before now is through the Apache names of the locations.  History is oral and passed down through generations.  We know that at some time when the first people visited this location, there WAS water.  Their names give us a visual landscape of what used to be and how much the land has changed and effected by natural (and unnatural) forces (Basso: 1996:15).  There are no maps, gps coordinates for positioning, written records telling the Cibecues where to find these places, only the names given long ago describing what the people saw and experienced, showing what was and what is the same.

            The Apache names for places connect them not only to their homeland but to their ancestors.  They hear the descriptions and can imagine how different the land was then versus as it is now; they see their ancestors made good decisions in deciding to stay based how they describe what they saw and experienced.  Rather than desert that the Apaches see now, the names describes places that had more water, were good places of protection or good areas to grow crops (Basso:1996:5).  The people of these places named themselves after the places and today’s generations are living proof that they were successful; today many still live in the same places, plant corn and tend to the corn field as their ancestors did – the place and farming is a connection to past Apaches.  The Anglo word homeland truly describes these Apaches places – it has been home for their people for hundreds of years and many have stayed, while others return home every year; there is still that connection to the land regardless of where people live.

                The Apache elders recount the stories of place names and link them with the past and present by first of all speaking in present tense, describing what the elders experienced so the listener is there, internalizing, and becoming a part of the story.  You are not a spectator but a participant, seeing what is described, feel the emotions of the story.  What you see today suddenly vanishes and you see the descriptors of what was then. 

You are Apache and still share the same belief system so you understand the emotions in the story, the supernatural experiences of the ancestors and see the value of what is being taught through the story.  How to live a quiet ,respectful life that focuses on the Apache way is taught through the stories that have been told through generations – patience, resilience, integrity , dignity, respect for the land, the Diyi’, for elders are taught through the places names. (Basso: 1996)

                Keith Basso (1996) traveled with Apache elders over the course of weeks to experience the connection with the Apache with their landscape.   He discovered a description of a landscape that was much different than what he was currently seeing and realized that this landscape was woven in between history and ecology.  The ancestors were prudent in the places they chose to keep their people safe and provide land that would sustain them.  The wisdom is seen in the names the people gave to the land, illuminating the relationships the ancestors had with the land and not only show the wisdom in their choice of land but also  teach respect and how to live a moral life (Sabau and Sabau 2004:1).  Some of the place names given are difficult to pronounce and even that mispronunciation is a sign of disrespect and worrisome; worrisome because the spirits are always watching and you don’t want to make a mistake.  Describing the places that are so different now also reminds the Apaches of the supernatural forces that are always at work in their world and that what was then may be different now because the some of their ancestors may not have lived a life that was pure, so the spirits punished and changed the landscape over time; that reminder helps the people to live a life above reproach.  By remembering the places in the past the Apache not only see the place but they have the opportunity to discover the wisdom of their ancestors through the stories of their naming, the stories of how to farm, how to deal with difficult situations and how , what and when to celebrate.  At the end of Wisdom Sits in Places, the author Keith Basso asks one of the Apache elders he is with “What is wisdom?” and the elder responds “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. ” (Basso1996: 127).Bosque del Apache scenery


Basso, Keith

1996 Wisdom Sits in Places:Landscape and Language among the Western Apache.

Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.


Subau, Isabelle and  Mircea Sabau

2004 Keith Basso. Wisdom Sits in Places:Landscape and Language among the Western Apache.

Electronic document, http://rmmla.wsu.edu/ereview/62.1/reviews/sabau.asp, 7 June 2013.

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