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In Memoriam, Keith Basso (1940-2013) – Wisdom Sits in Places

Keith Basso Wisdom Sits in PlacesThis page dedicated to anthropologist Keith Basso (1940-2013), with links to tributes and memorials as well as landmark books. Please let me know if I’m missing anything.

Keith Basso–sensitive ethnographer, dedicated fieldworker, perceptive linguist–and always entwined with the Western Apache. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache was one of the first ethnographies I taught. I was recently able to teach “To Give up on Words”: Silence in Western Apache Culture twice in the same semester, since it is anthologized in Applying Anthropology: An Introductory Reader and Making Sense of Language: Readings in Culture and Communication.

In Memoriam: Keith H. Basso (1940–2013), by Cécile R. Ganteaume, Associate curator, National Museum of the American Indian
His work was always theoretically rigorous, yet, in a way uniquely his own, Basso was always able to let the material he was studying maintain its own integrity and shine through his penetrating analyses. As a result, his work could be appreciated on two levels: first, as the immediate and unfiltered words and phrases of individual Apache men and women (that is, their habits of expression), which Basso was especially adept at contextualizing both socially and geographically; and second, through his analyses of their deeper registers. This was Basso’s special gift, and it is evident in all of his work. Basso’s publications influenced scholars far beyond the field of American Indian studies.

Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You: A White Mountain Apache Family Life, 1860-1975, Eva Tulene Watt, 2004
When the Apache wars ended in the late nineteenth century, a harsh and harrowing time began for the Western Apache people. Living under the authority of nervous Indian agents, pitiless government-school officials, and menacing mounted police, they knew that resistance to American authority would be foolish. But some Apache families did resist in the most basic way they could: they resolved to endure. Although Apache history has inspired numerous works by non-Indian authors, Apache people themselves have been reluctant to comment at length on their own past. Eva Tulene Watt, born in 1913, now shares the story of her family from the time of the Apache wars to the modern era. Her narrative presents a view of history that differs fundamentally from conventional approaches, which have almost nothing to say about the daily lives of Apache men and women, their values and social practices, and the singular abilities that enabled them to survive. In a voice that is spare, factual, and unflinchingly direct, Mrs. Watt reveals how the Western Apaches carried on in the face of poverty, hardship, and disease. Her interpretation of her people’s past is a diverse assemblage of recounted events, biographical sketches, and cultural descriptions that bring to life a vanished time and the men and women who lived it to the fullest. We share her and her family’s travels and troubles. We learn how the Apache people struggled daily to find work, shelter, food, health, laughter, solace, and everything else that people in any community seek. Richly illustrated with more than 50 photographs, Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You is a rare and remarkable book that affords a view of the past that few have seen before–a wholly Apache view, unsettling yet uplifting, which weighs upon the mind and educates the heart.

Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, 1996
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. Most of us use the term sense of place often and rather carelessly when we think of nature or home or literature. Our senses of place, however, come not only from our individual experiences but also from our cultures. Wisdom Sits in Places, the first sustained study of places and place-names by an anthropologist, explores place, places, and what they mean to a particular group of people, the Western Apache in Arizona. For more than thirty years, Keith Basso has been doing fieldwork among the Western Apache, and now he shares with us what he has learned of Apache place-names–where they come from and what they mean to Apaches.

Senses of Place, Steven Feld and Keith Basso, editors, 1997
The complex relationship of people to places has come under increasing scholarly scrutiny in recent years as acute global conditions of exile, displacement, and inflamed borders, to say nothing of struggles by indigenous peoples and cultural minorities for ancestral homelands, land rights, and retention of sacred places, have brought the political question of place into sharp focus. But to date, little attention has been paid to the ethnography of place, to how people actually live in, perceive, and invest with meaning the places they call home. In this compelling volume, eight respected ethnographers explore and lyrically evoke the ways in which people experience, express, imagine, and know the places in which they live. Case studies range from the Apaches of Arizona’s White Mountains to the residents of backwoods hollers in Appalachia and the Kaluli people of New Guinea’s rainforests. As these writers confront the dilemmas and possibilities of an anthropological consideration of place, they make an important and moving contribution to our understanding of ourselves.

Portraits of “The Whiteman”: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols Among the Western Apache, 1979
‘The Whiteman’ is one of the most powerful and pervasive symbols in contemporary American Indian cultures. Portraits of ‘the Whiteman’: linguistic play and cultural symbols among the Western Apache investigates a complex form of joking in which Apaches stage carefully crafted imitations of Anglo-Americans and, by means of these characterizations, give audible voice and visible substance to their conceptions of this most pressing of social ‘problems’. Keith Basso’s essay, based on linguistic and ethnographic materials collected in Cibecue, a Western Apache community, provides interpretations of selected joking encounters to demonstrate how Apaches go about making sense of the behaviour of Anglo-Americans. This study draws on theory in symbolic anthropology, sociolinguistics, and the dramaturgical model of human communication developed by Erving Goffman. Although the assumptions and premises that shape these areas of inquiry are held by some to be quite disparate, this analysis shows them to be fully compatible and mutually complementary.

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