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Indigenous Knowledge Commons

Keith Basso

The bulk of this reader is devoted to short extracts from his article “Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape’" In Senses of Place, edited by Steven Feld and Keith Basso, 13-52. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1996.

Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache This remarkable book introduces us to four unforgettable Apache people, each of whom offers a different take on the significance of places in their culture. Apache conceptions of wisdom, manners and morals, and of their own history are inextricably intertwined with place, and by allowing us to overhear his conversations with Apaches on these subjects Basso expands our awareness of what place can mean to people.

The [book](" is highly recommended to anyone who wishes to do further reading in the course.

Extracts from “Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape’ By Keith H. Basso in Feld, Steven, and Basso, eds. 1996. Senses of Place. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 53-90.

“the concept of dwelling assigns importance to the forms of consciousness with which individuals perceive and apprehend geographical space. More precisely, dwelling is said to consist in the multiple "lived relationships" that people maintain with places, for it is solely by virtue of these relationships that space acquires meaning.” Basso then goes on to make an important point that awareness of place is in part a least a question of state of mind: ‘focused thought and quickened emotion … relationships with places are lived whenever a place becomes the object of awareness. In many instances, awareness of place is brief and unselfconscious, a fleeting moment (a flash of recognition, a trace of memory) that is swiftly replaced by awareness of something else. But now and again, and sometimes without apparent cause, awareness is seized - arrested - and the place on which it settles becomes an object of spontaneous reflection and resonating sentiment. It is at times such as these, when individuals step back from the flow of everyday experience and attend self-consciously to places-when, we may say, they pause to actively sense them - that their relationships to geographical space are most richly lived and surely felt. For it is on these occasions of focused thought and quickened emotion that places are encountered most directly, experienced most robustly, and (in Heidegger's view) most fully brought into being. Sensing places, men and women become sharply aware of the complex attachments that link them to features of the physical world.”

p. 55

“places possess a marked capacity for triggering acts of self-reflection, inspiring thoughts about who one presently is, or memories of who one used to be, or musings on who one might become. And that is not all. Place-based thoughts about the self lead commonly to thoughts of other things - other places, other people, other times, whole networks of associations that ramify unaccountably within the expanding spheres of awareness that they themselves engender. The experience of sensing places, then, is thus both roundly reciprocal and incorrigibly dynamic. As places animate the ideas and feelings of persons who attend to them, these same ideas and feelings animate the places on which attention has been bestowed, and the movements of this process-inward toward facets of the self, outward toward aspects of the external world, alternately both together-cannot be known in advance. When places are actively sensed, the physical landscape becomes wedded to the landscape of the mind, to the roving imagination, and where the mind may lead is anybody's guess.”

Study Question: Basso makes another crucial point; sense of place is socially distributed and for an outsider in a given context it is sometimes possible to gain an understanding of another people’s sense of place by listening to them talk about place or by watching them perform it. Can sense of place be just an individual or personal reaction or feeling? Basso thinks not.

p. 56-7

For it is simply not the case, as some phenomenologists and growing numbers of nature writers would have us believe, that relationships to places are lived exclusively or predominantly in contemplative moments of social isolation. On the contrary, relationships to places are lived most often in the company of other people, and it is on these communal occasions-when places are sensed together- that native views of the physical world become accessible to strangers.

The Apache man Dudley tells Basso (p. 70) "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.

Dudley goes on to say that to be able to make these connections between places, events, and names you have to think in a certain way, to be able to be wise you have to have a smooth mind, a steady mind, a resilient mind. Clearly at this point in the narrative Basso feels he doesn’t understand.

p. 73

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. Contained in stories attributed to the "ancestors" (nowhizaye), knowledge of places thus embodies an unformalized model of 'igoyq'i and an authoritative rationale for seeking to attain it. Although some Apache people embrace this knowledge eagerly and commit it to memory in exhaustive detail, others are less successful; and while some are able to apply it productively to their minds, many experience difficulty. Consequently, in any Apache community at any point in time, wisdom is present in varying degrees, and only a few persons are ever completely wise. By virtue of their unusual mental powers, wise men and women are able to foresee disaster, fend off misfortune, and avoid explosive conflicts with other persons. For these and other reasons, they are highly respected and often live to be very old. Likened to water because of its life-sustaining properties, wisdom is viewed first and foremost as an instrument of survival.”

P 76

The knowledge on which wisdom depends is gained from observing different places (thus to recall them quickly and clearly), learning their Apache names (thus to identify them in spoken discourse and in song), and reflecting on traditional narratives that underscore the virtues of wisdom by showing what can happen when its facilitating conditions are absent.”

Summary: Wisdom consists in linking, places, events and stories, but it is a state of mind not a body of knowledge. It is having a smooth mind, that is to say a clear mind, a carefully prepared mind that can see connections between place and knowledge and that can unreflectively see ‘proper order’, whatever that may consist of.

Further Reading