Wisdom Sits In Places There is a deep relationship between the environment and Western Apache people. The bonds between the two are so strong that it is embedded in their culture and history. Keith Basso, author of Wisdom Sits in Places expanded on this theory and did so by divulging himself into Western Apaches life. He spent fifteen years with the Apache people studying their relationship with the environment, specifically concentrating on ‘Place-names.’ When Basso first began to work with the Apache people, one of his Apache friends told him to ‘learn the names,’ because they held a special meaning with the community. (Cruikshank 1990: 54) Place-names are special names given to a specific locality where an event took place that was significant in history and crucial in shaping morals and beliefs. Through the use of place-names, the environment became a teaching tool for Apache people.
Red Lake, the small town where I grew up, is an Ojibwa place-name. The area dates back 9000 yeas ago when the Stone Age peoples first inhabited the region that is now known as northwestern Ontario. These aboriginals were indigenous people familiar with the properties of the surrounding plants and wild animals. They lived along the waterways and treated their environment with respect and celebrated its bounties through their spirituality. (Web Site #1) According to Ojibwa legend, thousands of years ago, two hunters came across a very large moose standing beside a beautiful clear blue lake.
The Hunters thought the moose was an evil spirit named ‘Matchee Manitou’ and they tried to kill it. One of the hunters shot the animal with an arrow just wounding it. The grand and majestic animal escaped by diving into the water and disappearing forever. A large pool of blood colored the water red, masking the once beautiful blue lake. A creature so huge was never to be seen again.
The hunters named the lake ‘Misque Sakigon’ meaning ‘Color of Blood Lake.’ Years later it became known as ‘Red Lake.’ (Web Site #1) When I heard this story, 12 years ago, it came from the mouth of my father’s good friend, an Ojibwa man, named Henry Meekis. I still remember everyone sitting in front of him while he told the story. His passion for the story permeated the room and we were all captivated by it. The importance of place-name study lies in the light it sheds on the cultural history and heritage of the indigenous people. Many place-names in are drawn from Indigenous languages such as Apache Cree, Ojibwa etc.
Researching place-names of Indigenous origin requires an understanding of Indigenous principles of naming places, of the application of names to geographic areas, and for each name the historical circumstances that have taken place there. Basso came to realize this can all become very challenging due to language barriers, he writes, I foreseen that my failure to pronounce the stubborn Apache place name would be interpreted by him as a lack of respect. And never had I suspected that using an Apache place-name might be heard by those who used them as repeating verbatim – actually quoting – the speech of the early ancestors. (Basso 1999: 10) Basso describes ‘place-names’ as a “universal tool of the historical imagination and in some societies, if not the great majority, it is surely among the basic of all.” (5) The Apache people associate places with events that have taken place in history. Basso describes many of these place-names in his book and each of the stories tells a tale of history and morality in connection with the environment.
I found it extremely interesting that no dates were attached to the stories. I believe this is because time frames take away from the meaning of the story. Old narratives, in a sense, become less important because we think of them as old and out-dated. The Apache people gave places-names in order to inform people of there past, as well as to show respect for the land in which they lived on for so many years. Charles Henry, Bassos friends and Apache informant, describes his ancestors naming process, “this place may help us survive.
If we settle this country we must be able to speak about this place and remember it clearly and well. We must give it a name.” (12) The story behind the place-name ‘Snake Water’ is an exceptional example of how the environment shaped the culture of the Apache people. Snakes water, now a barren piece of bedrock, was once a place where Apache people came for water and the people were very grateful that it was there. They gave offerings of thanks to the water and they said, “this water is good, it is good that it is here for us.” (15) Because of reasons not known, ‘Snake water’ dried up and this greatly distresses the Apache people. Charles speculated that his ancestors were too greedy and wasteful with the water and that is why it disappeared.
Charles tells the story of his ancestors, “Our holy people must work on this for us, they must help us make amends to Water. They must ask Water to take pity on us.” (17) This specific place-name is relevant in expressing the Apaches past relationship they once had with water. It expresses the gratitude they had for water and at the same time taught the lesson of always giving thanks, not being greedy or wasteful with the water in which they were given. Place-name are responsible for giving an identity to the Apache people. The story of ‘Juniper Tree Stands Alone People’ is an example of how Apache ancestors were connected to the places in which they lived. Where the junipers trees grew long ago is the very place where early Apache clans settled.
It was a place where plenty of corn grew and sustained then for many years. This shows that the naming process of the Apache people comes from what they reaped from the environment and by naming it and remembering that name it shows respect for it. Upon revisiting the ‘Juniper Tree Stands Alone’ area, Charles told Basso, “Now they see their corn fields, there is so mush corn .. they are excited and happy .. ‘Juniper Tree Stands Alone’ has looked after us again.” (20) This narrative backs up Bassos theory of a strong bond between the environment and the Apache culture. ‘Juniper Tree Stands Alone’ played a significant role in their history and although it was never on a conventional map, it remained extremely important to the Apache heritage.
In Apache culture, Basso theorizes that there is a connection between oral narratives and the environment. He argues that story telling is a very powerful tool used by the Apache people and it is used to “establish bonds between human beings and features of the landscape.” (Cruikshank 1990: 54) I am particularly interested in the place-name ‘Shades of Shit’, because it taught an important lesson on ‘sharing’. Charles tells the story of how his ancestors once lived in a place called ‘Shades of Shit’ and it was called this because the people who lived there had a lot of corn. Instead of sharing their corn with their starving relatives, they were greedy and kept it all to themselves. Until one day the starving relatives locked their greedy family members into their own houses and they were not allowed to leave, not even to defecate.
(22-26) ‘Shades of Shit’ place-name outlines the simple moral of sharing, especially sharing with the less fortunate. The story behind the place-name ‘Course-Textured Rocks Lie Above In a Compact Cluster’ is interesting from both a historical and moralistic perspective. It is about a man who becomes sexually attracted to his stepdaughter. The young girls uncle catches the step-dad molesting her and kills him. The Uncle drags the dead mans body to ‘Course-Textures Rocks Lie Above in A compact Cluster’ and situated his body with in a pit. There was no wake held for the man.
(53) This is a very interesting historical tale because it deals with the crime of incest among the Apache people. The tale is told through oral narratives, once again displaying the great importance and historical significance of place-names and the effectiveness they have on moral beliefs amongst the Apache people. Apache place-names also tell stories of significant customs which should always be followed. Annie Peaches, another one of Basso’s friends and informants, tells a story toke place at ‘Big Cotton Wood Trees Stand Here and There.’ A mother in law awakens to hear yelling and screaming and she fears that it is her son-in-law tormenting her daughter once again. She calls out to him ‘you pick on my child a lot.
You should be pleasant towards her’ but what the old woman did not realize was that they were being attacked. She was heard by the attackers and killed. (52) ‘Big Cottonwood Trees Stand Here and There’ is a significant place-name because it tells of a custom in which after the first year of marriage, the mother-in-law can not interfere in her daughters marriage. When the old woman did not follow the custom she, in turn, was punished. The story basically states ‘follow the rules or there will be severe consequences.’ It seems odd to read quotes from Bronislaw Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown stating that oral narratives were not relevant.
They declared that, “Narrative accounts had little intrinsic value and served primarily as charters to justify present order; old traditions were often modified to meet such ends.” (Cruikshank 1990: 52) Clearly, through Bassos’ study, and earlier studies done by Frank Boas on Eskimos, we can see the importance of oral histories and the great impact they had on the people in which they were studying. The oral histories behind place-names connected the people to their cultural roots by linking them to their historical environments. Basso found out that in western Apache life, peoples sense of place, history, and present self, are inseparably intertwined Bassos, as well as a number of Apache elders, believed that the disconnection between the land and people is the cause of many problems. Ronnie Lupe, Chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe said, “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 is why some get into trouble.” (38) This confirms that there is a powerful relationship between place-names and the Apache people and when they disconnect from each other problems arise. There is no special ‘model’ nor ‘scientific’ reasoning applied to Western Apache place-names. The significance of place-names can be seen in the following quote given by an Apache named Benson Lewis. I think of the mountain called ‘White Rocks Lie Above In a Compact Cluster’ as it were my own grandmother. I recall stories of how it once was at that mountain.
The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountains name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself.
(38) When I read Wisdom Sits in Places I could feel the importance of place-names through the words of the Apache peoples stories. Events that took place many years ago in a specific areas reiterate the morals and beliefs the Apache people hold near to them. To say that they are anything but relevant to Apache history and culture would be a mistake. Bibliography Works Cited Basso, Keith 1999 Wisdom Sits in Places. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Cruikshank, Julie 1990 Getting the Words Right: Perspectives on Naming and Places in Athapaskan Oral History. Artic Anthropology 27: 52-65. Web Sites 1.