Wisdom Sits in Places

Links Between Language, Wisdom, and Location for the Western Apache

Anthropology 119: Language and Culture
Dr. D. Brinneis
Copyright © B. A. Collie Collier 1996

First Essay Assignment

According to Keith H. Basso, for the Western Apache 'wisdom sits in places.' Efforts to explicate this perception could conceivably use a variety of techniques of greater and lesser obscurity and verbosity. However, it is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Thus this paper will be an exploration of "the ways in which language figures in the complex intersections of wisdom and place among the Western Apache," but it will also be an attempted demonstration of the use of language in story-telling techniques as the Western Apache themselves might use.

Wisdom is a desired objective for adult Western Apache, one that all can cultivate, given time. 'Wisdom' can be roughly described as "a heightened mental capacity that facilitates the avoidance of harmful events by detecting threatening circumstances when none are apparent (p 130)." It is broken down into three main mental characteristics by the Apache themselves: smoothness (an uncluttered, unencumbered mind), resilience (resistance to external fears and alarms), and steadiness (a lack of aggressive personal ambition) [p131-3]. Brevity and clarity of speech are considered a logical outgrowth of the development of wisdom in an individual (p 131). Wisdom is often metaphorically linked with water, as in: both are necessary for living (p 127, 131), or both can be drunk (p 140, 143). In the location stories the Apache people tell these desired characteristics are frequently either exemplified, or the dire consequences of their lack is shown.

The Apache live in a harsh land, and water is sometimes scarce. However, respectful care of the land and compassionate behavior between people will husband the water. This will ensure crops will grow and the Apache people will live and prosper. Equally so in life, prudence and understanding may be scarce, but judicious cultivation of wisdom can forestall disaster and death. Indeed, the words used to characterize the traits of wisdom are all words that tie closely to the lifestyle of the Apache. A smooth and uncluttered mind is receptive, like a cleared field ready for planting. Resilience can be exemplified in a close-woven basket, which resists deformation from jarring outside occurrences. Steadiness is comparable to a fence post firmly seated in the ground (p 132). All these traits are explainable in terms that show the close connection between the people and the land. The Apache location stories exemplify all these above traits, and are passed down from generation to generation. This means not only that Western Apache culture has its continuity ensured, but also that learned wisdom is not lost. The language itself helps in this process: it is the 'speech of the ancestors,' and to speak thoughtlessly or to tell a story carelessly is disrespectful of the wisdom and learning the ancestors have left for their present day children, enfolded in the location stories and the language (p 31). Indeed, there is some worry that outside influences are subtly dissipating this tight association between the land and the people - most notably the new language and culture of the non-Apache world (p 151-152).

This happened not very long ago. This woman, she was looking for wisdom, she thought maybe she'd found it. She had to form it into words, so she could tell other people about what she'd learned. But she wasn't sure how. She was worried. Would she be able to tell them? Would they find wisdom in her words?

Here she comes now. She's found a site. This place, it is clean, white, unmarked. It is a place lacking in character, but it has promise. 'Yes... this could grow, could tell others of what I think I've discovered about wisdom.' She's not sure yet if people will be able to drink from the place she's trying to build; if her words will be like an arrow to them; but she's going to try. She names the place - it's First Essay Assignment Paper.

A sense of history is given by the Apache location stories. The stories relate the past, but are usually told in the present tense. Quotations are frequently used, to invoke a sense of current presence, and the language is concise and avoids redundancy. The prose used is poetic, evocative, involving. The straightforward, heavily descriptive language promotes in its listeners a feeling of connection to the ancestors and to the land the ancestors chose to settle in and become associated with; the listeners are, through the language used, participants in the story. Locations thus have meaning not only as a physical place personally experienced, but also as connectors to the ancestors and their history. The shared language functions in a similar fashion. It is not simply of the people, but also the speech of the ancestors. Unconsciously or not, the people know that wisdom can be found in locations and stories. Consequently, if respectfully used, the language in which the ancestors spoke and the stories are told is also a medium for wisdom (p 33).

The Apache tend to name their physical locations very simply and directly. The names themselves are frequently portraits of the place, and thus when the name is used the place is described. If a listener has never been to that place, the name alone will help the listener to imagine the location mentally; to 'see' it as the story proceeds. In addition, there are places that have changed over time, and no longer fit the description of their name. In these cases, a sense of history is kept - as the people themselves say, the names do not lie (p 16). The language is still clear and true: it is simply that something significant happened here, something that has a lesson implicit in it, to change the land in such a fashion. Location names can also be associated with a noteworthy historical occurrence, usually commemorating some sad or tragic happening. In cases such as these, the moral of the associated story is customarily easily comprehensible. They deal with improper or out-of-control behavior, or demonstrate the benefits of alertness and forethought. The language is lucid and unequivocal in these cases - names are clear, readily recalled, and easily associated with the lesson to be learned (p 28-29). Wisdom can be found in clear thinking and speaking in these stories.

The association between the Apache and the land is strong; the clans name themselves after memorable locations. This tight connection between the people and the land extends not only to how the people name themselves, but also to how they view their environment. The language reflects this attitude. Crops, for example, are the 'children' of the Apache, and require similar care and respect to grow healthy and strong (p 22). The language itself also reveals some of the Apache bias towards socialization, and the consequent sharing of locations and their associated stories. What is important about a story is not when it occurs, but where; the language and the stories alike are meant to be spoken, not written. To the Apache, reading is an isolating event, and the written word neither involves one in the even described, nor describes sufficiently. In contrast to the written word, the Apache stories are not only a shared oral tradition that ties the people to the land (and vice versa), but also moral lessons that each subsequent storyteller can both relate and personalize, embellishing each with their own perspectives and observations (p 33, 40-41). Furthermore, the stories are usually told in a leisurely, colloquial, unhurried fashion. This allows the listeners time to reflect upon the story, and to closely connect both the location and the story in their minds. Since the stories are told almost as verbal thumbnail sketches, with close attention paid to descriptives, they are stories people can imagine clearly and remember easily. This clarity of speech is reflected in the specific style of speaking chosen for the stories, and is promoted as an advantageous objective for which to strive: the person of wisdom uses few words, but uses each word with skill (p 152, 160).

A story can be told as a way of pointing out a mental deficiency or incorrect behavior in one of the listeners. Such stories are spoken of as being like arrows - they strike the intended target with the force of as yet unrealized truth, and stick in the memory forever. Such a 'sideways' fashion of noting someone's deficiencies allows the intended target to not be shamed in public - no fingers are pointed, no direct public humiliation is forced upon them. However, if the story is understood, reflection upon it lets the listener know not only that their behavior is unacceptable, but also occasionally shows how to change the behavior into culturally approved actions. Also, stories are inextricably linked with an actual place. Consequently, every time the listener views that place, the story is recalled in their mind, and there is a mental reminder to continue to behave in a proper fashion. To the Apache, this mental reminder means the place is 'stalking' a person. Since the Apache all live in a (relatively) small physical locale with a mutually shared collection of stories, a person 'shot with a story' has the potential to be frequently 'stalked' by locational reminders of correct behavior. In a similar fashion, every time the story teller is around the listener the 'story like an arrow' is mentally recalled. Thus places can become both verbally and mentally linked not only to correct behavior, but also to wise relatives (p 58-69). The language, and through it the culture, encourages this type of metaphor, as the above examples show.

Now the woman is beginning to plan how to lay out Essay Assignment Paper, her wisdom place. Here she'll put some parts of her knowledge. There she'll put other parts. She must speak plainly and informatively. It has to be pleasing to the eye as well as the mind, so that it's memorable and people will read it and then think and learn. It has to speak clearly.

She nods to herself. She's pleased. This looks like it might work, like it might be good. She wants this to be a place others can reflect upon, a place that will continue to grow as others see it and add their stories and knowledge to it.

The Apache feel that speech should be used with economy. Verbosity is not considered precocious, merely loud. Indeed, careless use of language can be perceived as both rude to the listener and disrespectful of the ancestors. It is considered better to listen, observe, and reflect before one speaks or acts, since extended contemplation allows for deeper understanding (p 10-11). Stories contain wisdom, thus the stories themselves can be 'drunk deep' for wisdom. Since stories are always linked to locations, one can seek wisdom by reflection upon both a physical place, and that place's associated lesson. Indeed, locations can have more than one story associated with them, and thus require considerable reflection to adequately plumb the wisdom each location offers (p 115-120). The cultural norms apply by logical extension to the language as well: one should think before speaking, and one's words should be clear. Children are encouraged to observe before speaking, and travel with a wise elder is a way of teaching both the language and its proper use, as well as the morals of the culture (p 133-134).

When one speaks it is best if something of import is said. Thus a communally shared fund of stories can be used not only to point out mental deficiencies in others, but also to relate entire concepts with a minimum of words. Sometimes the name of the location alone will suffice, for if a group has a mutual collection of stories then both the teller and the listener will know the story and moral associated with a location. This allows discreet speech to another, whether it is intended compassionately, commiseratively, or otherwise. Since compassion is a coveted characteristic, and open criticism of another person is frowned upon, the stories allow a subtle form of discussion and communication of meaning, without direct attribution, which could cause embarrassment, to any of the listeners present (p 78-79, 118-120). The language used is invariably clear and unequivocal; it is the communicated concepts that are more subtly delivered. Furthermore, communication is sometimes achieved with participants speaking to non-human objects rather than the people they are in a discussion with. By this we can see there is no intent to force meaning, either in the spoken words or upon the person being communicated with. Rather, speech is delivered in such a fashion that one may take heed or not, as one wishes.

Indeed, telling any such location story is open-ended: the listeners are not told what conclusion they should come to. Instead the story, like the location it is attached to, simply exists. One can learn from it if one wishes, just as one can observe the associated location with greater or lesser visual acuity. Wisdom is found in cultivation of the learning a location has associated with it, through the stories told of that place. The language has similar characteristics: it exists. One can learn from it, or one can misuse it. Wise use of the language implies that one understands the need for careful attention to proper living, as exemplified in the lessons related in the culture's stories.

The woman struggled long and hard to find the right words. It wasn't easy. The ideas were slippery, sometimes the words wouldn't come. Several times she said to herself, 'Well, this is enough. This is good.' But she knew in her heart it wasn't so, and she remembered how hard her people had worked so she could be here, now, trying to build First Essay Assignment Paper into a place where wisdom could be found. Reflection on her ancestors made her keep trying until it was right.

Slowly, she built First Essay Assignment Paper into something she thought might be good. Then she went to other people she knew, wise people, and asked them what they thought of her place. She took their advice and she changed some things here, she cleared up some things there. After a long while, she stood back and gave First Essay Assignment Paper a long, careful look. 'Yes,' she said to herself, 'this is good. I want this place to be uncluttered, so that the ideas flow smoothly. Here is where I've woven resilience into the words, so that I can speak clearly of many concepts. This is a steady place, one that can stand up to outside criticism but also integrate more learning.'

Thus places become more than just physical locations to the Western Apache. The locations are also repositories of learning and wisdom. The land becomes associated, in the minds of the people that live on it and view it daily, with a multiplicity of objects and concepts. Past occurrences in the lives of the individual people, the history of their ancestors, the relatives and friends that told the associated stories, correct behavior, cultural goals, a connectedness to the land and a sense of place; all are fostered by contemplation of location and all are preserved in the oral stories that are told generation to generation. Such is the tight connection between land, language, and people, that the possibility exists that a community-wide shift to English would slowly and insidiously destroy the Apache sense of place, and by extension the Apache culture (p 151-152).

The culture of the Apache ancestors is tied up in the people, the land, and the language they share. One cannot separate an Apache from the land and still have an Apache; the two are so closely interconnected that some of the Apache themselves talk of their disorientation, their loss of sense of self and place, when they are away from their land (p 38-39). The language, as an implicit tool of the culture, is just as much a part of that interconnected sense of self and place as it is a code of proper behavior. The Apache themselves know this; as Basso's book demonstrates, they are working to keep locations, and through them both the culture and the language, alive and connected to the Apache people.


Last Updated: Mon, Mar 27, 2000