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"People Speaking Silently to Themselves": An Examination of Keith Basso's Philosophical Speculations on "Sense of Place" in Apache Cultures

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 26, Number 3, Summer 2002
pp. 460-478 | 10.1353/aiq.2003.0031

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The American Indian Quarterly 26.3 (2002) 460-478

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"People Speaking Silently to Themselves"
An Examination of Keith Basso's Philosophical Speculations on "Sense of Place" in Apache Cultures

Martin W. Ball

[T]hrough a vigorous conflation of attentive subject and geographical object, places come to generate their own fields of meaning. So, too, they give rise to their own aesthetic immediacies, their shifting moods and relevancies, their character and spirit. Even in total stillness, places may seem to speak. But as Sartre makes clear, such voices as places possess should not be mistaken for their own. Animated by the thoughts and feelings of persons who attend to them, places express only what their animators enable them to say... Human constructions par excellence, places consist in what gets made of them—in anything and everything they are taken to be—and their disembodied voices, immanent though inaudible, are merely those of people speaking silently to themselves.
From Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places,108-9

I have initiated this article with the above quote from Keith Basso's book, Wisdom Sits in Places,because I wish to critique the ideas presented therein. 1 Primarily, I am interested in the notions of subject, object, perception, and "sense of place," and thus I will emphasize questions of epistemology and ontology as they relate to Native American conceptions and experiences of sacred lands and spiritual geographies. More specifically, my concern is to highlight why the above philosophical characterization, when applied to an Apache sense of place, is highly problematic in relation to spiritual and religious experience and practice in Apache cultures. I hope to show that when considered carefully, the above quote can be seen to be contrary to Apache understandings of sacred places and the role that they play in the development and continuation of Apache cultures. The result is that Basso has superimposed a philosophical framework upon a culture that does not necessarily share such an understanding of subject and object. To flesh out this critique I will present cultural material [End Page 460] from the Mescalero Apaches and their Mountain Spirit tradition, which I feel presents a strong opposition to many of the ideas expressed by Basso. My aim is to show that Basso is describing an ontology and epistemology that is decidedly non-Apache and therefore is an unsuitable framework in which to contain his presentation on Western Apache sense of place.

From the outset it should be made clear that I am not critiquing the descriptive and ethnographic content of Basso's work. Rather, my concern here is with Basso's philosophical speculations, which are primarily found at the conclusion of the work. Presenting a challenge to these ideas does not necessarily directly pertain to the details of Basso's ethnography. In fact, one could argue that Basso's ethnography could stand on its own without the philosophical framework that he provides. However, given that the philosophical content is related to Basso's ultimate interpretation and explanation of the ethnography, it is highly significant.

What I hope will become clear in the course of this essay is that in some sense Basso's philosophical choices are somewhat arbitrary. He could have chosen a different philosophical perspective or framework without altering his ethnography. I also hope it will become clear that Basso's philosophical choices do not represent what I believe are common views among Apaches, and thus his discussion presents a challenge to Indigenous thought, though in an indirect manner. In other words, Basso's philosophical musings are not employed to engage and grapple with Indigenous philosophy per se. Rather, they serve to provide an explanatory intellectual framework for his ethnographic data in such a manner that the ultimate explanation of the true nature of the events he discusses is left to the ethnographer and not the culture from which the data originates. Certainly Basso is not alone in this approach. Arguably, such a method is standard to anthropology and cultural interpretation.

Basso never claims...