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29 Keith Basso Introduction Keith Basso studied anthropology with Clyde Kluckhohn at Harvard University, graduating in 1962. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University and has served on the faculty of the anthropology departments at the University of Arizona, Yale University, and the University of New Mexico. Basso began his work with the Western Apaches around Cibecue, Arizona, when he was a Harvard undergraduate. He learned their language and over the course of many years came to understand many aspects of their culture. Keith Basso is the author of many books and articles. One of his best-known books, Wisdom Sits in Places, published in 1996 by the University of New Mexico Press, won the Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction that year. Basso is also a rancher whose “spread” is located near the homelands of the Western Apaches in Arizona. In this interview conducted in 2006, Basso reveals a great deal about the relationship of the Western Apaches to their home habitat and the importance of language to cultural continuity. Keith Basso, photo by author 30 / Between Fences and Beyond Keith Basso JL: I’d like to ask you to talk about where you where born and what wove the tapestry that underlies you in your career. KB: I was born in rural North Carolina. My father was an author. I moved from North Carolina to Massachusetts and then, after a short time, from there to Connecticut, which is where I went to school. My undergraduate degree is from Harvard, and it was a course with a Harvard professor named Clyde Kluckhohn, an anthropologist who’d spent a lot of time working with the Navajo, that really interested me in anthropology and indigenous peoples of the Southwest. It was also Kluckhohn who arranged for me, as a sophomore, to go to Arizona on my own and spend a summer in what was then a very isolated Western Apache community called Cibecue, where practically everyone spoke Apache [and] where I understood very little but had an absolutely marvelous time. And it was that experience that persuaded me to continue, as an undergraduate, studying anthropology. I then got a fellowship and spent a kind of insignificant year at the Institute for Aboriginal Studies in Australia, came back to this country, went to Stanford for a Ph.D.—all the while spending as much time as possible on the White Mountain Apache reservation and slowly picking up more and more of the language. As you can tell from Wisdom Sits in Places, mine is a very language-oriented conception of ethnography and cultural description. I bend over backwards to try not to impose my own ideas or models upon indigenous people, simply because they’re irrelevant, basically, and don’t apply. And I think the best way to overcome that is through a careful study of the language because it embodies the conceptual apparatus that they draw upon to make sense of what happens in the world. JL: Your book reflects how you’ve let the Apache people speak for themselves, but you do offer some really interesting wonderful narrative that helps put things into a bigger perspective. Keith Basso / 31 Early on in the book I really got involved in thinking about the way you perceive their sense of place making. Could you talk about that, please? KB: Sure. I draw a distinction between site and place—site being the physical thing itself. You can photograph a site, you can walk on a site. Sometimes a site will have a distinctive smell. Sites are material. Sites are substantial. In contrast, places are sites that have been invested with meaning. You can’t photograph meaning. You can’t taste it or touch it. It’s immaterial. But it is the source from which the significance of places necessarily comes. So the ethnographer’s task is to try to discover what sorts of meanings people attach to different sites in their landscape. What this does, of course, is throw the whole exercise into the area or areas of how meanings get expressed. Language is a primary vehicle for that [expression]. But it’s perfectly clear that the meanings that inform and animate places can be expressed in musical form, in ritual form, in a variety of forms. So whereas I tend to stay fairly closely, at least in Wisdom Sits in Places, to what Apaches actually have to say, I wouldn’t for a minute preclude or underestimate the way in...


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