Wisdom Sits in Places
November 29, 2011 Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache Keith H. Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache delivers a strong message regarding human connections between place, identity, and origins in relation to the idea of place-names. Every place evokes an association to a story and/or a person/ancestor bearing a moral message that allows the Western Apache to shape their beliefs, behaviors, identities, etc. It is through this connection to the land that the Apache begin to define their understanding of their lives.
Along with the connection to nature comes a strong connection to their ancestors. Many of the narratives that come from these places is in reference to wisdom and tradition deeply rooted in the past. It is through an interpretation of the Apache ancestral past that these place-names are able to provide ideas of wisdom and moral behavior. These ideas are used as modes of criticism, warnings for transgressions, and can become an exercise in self-reflection. The Western Apache people have a lot of things to learn and consequently remember, in terms of metaphor and place-names and it would seem that that is enough.
And then the idea of having a smooth, steady mind is introduced by Dudley and suddenly; there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge comes with a greater concern for being able to recall why something is named what it is while wisdom is taking that knowledge and being able to apply it in their daily lives. Wisdom is not something that is easily attained, but for those that are able to, they are highly respected in the community. Basso does a good job in providing an ethnography that is both etic and emic.
However, it comes across at times as though Basso believes place-names to be a universal idea: As roundly ubiquitous as it is seemingly unremarkable, place-making is a universal tool of the historical imagination. And in some societies, if not in the great majority, it is surely among the most basic tools of all (5). Place-making as a tool used by most cultures is true, but at times it seems Basso believes that it is with the same volition of the Western Apache that these cultures rely on place-making.
For example, the Apache do not believe an individual can claim land, which is not a universally shared sentiment. On that same note though, as stated in lecture, ethnography is always: partial, positioned, provisional, and based on dialogue. So, Basso’s stance on place-names being a universal idea is not necessarily a fault in his studies, but instead, his position in his studies and the position of those whom he studies. Wisdom Sits in Places is heavy in its dialogue allowing the readers to make their own interpretations from an etic perspective.
It is through the dialogue that the reader is able to really understand the importance the Western Apache place on the “where” of things that happened, as opposed to, the “when. ” The year something happened is not the driving force behind a place-name, in fact, the year is typically not even mentioned in their dialogues. It seems as far as the Western Apache are concerned, the past need not be mentioned as the past—put the emphasis in the place-name and that is enough to feel connected to the past. “Because nobody knows when these phenomena came into being, locating past events in time can be accomplished only in a vague and general way.
This is of little consequence, however, for what matters most to Apaches is where events occurred, not when, and what they serve to reveal about the development and character of Apache social life. In light of these priorities, temporal considerations, though certainly not irrelevant, are accorded secondary importance. ” (31) “And always these people are thinking—thinking of place-centered narratives, thinking of the ancestors who first gave them voice, and thinking of how to apply them to circumstances in their own lives.
Having passed the point where cautionary narratives are mainly useful for disclosing mental weaknesses, these people now consult the stories as guides for what to do and what not to do in specific situations” (140). It appears in the Western Apache culture that when told of a place-name/story in regards to correcting bad behavior the person with the bad behavior would immediately change their ways. Is this respect for their ancestor’s experiences specific to their culture; is this respect still present? To further my above questions—what happens when a place-name isn’t enough to correct bad behavior?