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common ground

Ruins and Renewal
Summer/Fall 1998, vol. 3(2/3)

Online Archive

*  Wisdom Sits in Places

(photo) Lloyd Masayumptewa, member of the ruins stabilization crew at Wupatki National Monument.

"Ethnic identity is accompanied by ethnic stigmatization, and the [ruins of the] Basque hotels, set within the larger building community that is the West, are reminders of the both the region's cultural diversity and cultural divisions. "

Thomas Carter

by Keith Basso

For Indian men and women, the past lies embedded in features of the earth—in canyons and lakes, mountains and arroyos, rocks and vacant fields—which together endow their lands with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the ways they think. Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one's position in the larger scheme of things, including one's own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person.

As conceived by Apaches from Cibecue, the past is a well-worn "path" or "trail" which was traveled first by the people's founding ancestors and which subsequent generations of Apaches have traveled ever since. Beyond the memories of living persons, this path is no longer visible—the past has disappeared—and thus it is unavailable for direct consultation and study. For this reason, the past must be constructed—which is to say, imagined—with the aid of historical materials, sometimes called "footprints" or "tracks," that have survived into the present.

For [place-makers] Charles Henry and Morley Cromwell, the country of the past—and with it Apache history—is never more than a narrated place-world away. It is thus very near, as near as the workings of their own imaginations, and can be easily brought to life at almost any time. It is history constructed in spurts, in sudden bursts of imaginative activity, and it takes the form of stories delivered in spoken Apache, the language of the ancestors and most of their modern descendants. Answering the question "What happened here?" it deals in the main with single events, and because these are tied to places within Apache territory, it is pointedly local and unfailingly episodic. It is also extremely personal, consistently subjective, and therefore highly variable among those who work to produce it.

In the country of the past, as Apaches like to explore it, the place-maker is an indispensable guide. And this in a powerful sense. For the place-maker's main objective is to speak the past into being, to summon it with words and give it dramatic form, to produce experience by forging ancestral worlds in which others can participate and readily lose themselves. To this engrossing end, as Charles Henry showed repeatedly, the place-maker often speaks as a witness on the scene, describing ancestral events "as they are occurring" and creating in the process a vivid sense that what happened long ago—right here, on this very spot—could be happening now.

Thus performed and dramatized, Western Apache place-making becomes a form of narrative art, a type of historical theater in which the "pastness" of the past is summarily stripped away and long-elapsed events are made to unfold as if before one's eyes. By comparison, Western Apache history of the Anglo-American variety strikes many Apache people as distant and unfamiliar. Unspoken and unanimated, it lies silent and inert on the printed English page; it is history without voices to thrust it into the present.

Removed from the contexts of daily social life (reading, Apaches have noticed, is an isolating activity), it also seems unconnected to daily affairs and concerns; it is history without discernible applications. Detached from the local Apache landscape, it has few spatial anchors, and when places are identified, as often they are not, their names are not their own; it is history loosely situated, geographically adrift. Obsessed with dating historical events, it packs them into tightly ordered sequences which it then may try to explain by invoking abstract forces ("mounting tribal aggression" and "outbreaks of cultural disarray" were two of Morley Cromwell's favorites) in which no one can quite believe; it thus becomes remote, intangible, divorced in suspect ways from the forces of human agency. Commonly qualified and sometimes hotly debated by persons who construct it, it appears to be in search of final historical truths, of which Apaches believe there are very few indeed.

But far more important is the fact that it does not excite. It does not captivate. It does not engage and provoke a measure of wonder. As Charles Henry said once, summing up quite a bit, "It's pretty mainly quiet. It stays far away from all our many places."

"Snakes' Water"

In the slow-moving week that follows (June is now upon us, the heat a relentless foe) we travel with Charles to twelve more places, and at two of these—an open expanse named Nch'íí' Golgaiyé (Bitter Agave Plain) and a dispersion of vertical boulders called Tséé Naadadn'áhá (Scattered Rocks Stand Erect)—he slips into the past and constructs ancestral place-worlds. As before, and speaking often in the same eyewitness voice, he imagines his forebears arriving on the scene, studying it intently, and assessing its potential for helping them survive. Looking out on Bitter Agave Plain, the ancestors marvel at all the grass, tall and thick and laden with edible seeds, and praise it as a sign of ample summer rainfall. Pausing at Scattered Rocks Stand Erect, they wonder with a mixture of fear and curiosity why the boulders are upright, as if rammed into the earth by a gigantic hand. At both localities they make and bestow a place-name, a name describing the place itself, just as it looked a long time ago, just as it looks today.

But more is contained in Apache place-names than frozen ancestral quotes and ageless images of a new and striking landscape. In addition, place-names can offer evidence of changes in the landscape, evidence of major shifts in local climatic patterns.

I knew nothing of these things until I accompanied Charles and Morley to Tliish Bi Tú'é (Snakes' Water), an inactive spring at the foot of a sandstone bluff some miles west of Cibecue. Hidden from view by Monsanto bushes, the spring is survived by a cluster of hand cut rocks, flat and rectilinear, which encircle a pool of whitish sand now the home of delicate purple wildflowers and a motley assortment of weeds. A Budweiser beer can, faded and pock-marked with rust, lies on the ground nearby. Standing alone a few feet away, Charles gazes at the rocks for several minutes, as though waiting for them to speak. And perhaps somehow they do, for he suddenly declares the spring has long been dry, that at some point in time its water went away, and that the result of this is an absence of fit (a "lack of match" is what he says in Apache) between the place itself and the way its name describes it. The name it was given a long time ago shows that it has changed. Snakes' Water, as anyone can see, is no longer the way it was when the ancestors saw it first and made it their own with words. Motionless in denim shirt and sweat-stained Stetson hat, Charles again falls silent. Then, with his eyes still fixed on the barren circle of rocks, he begins to fashion a place-world in which they served an important purpose.

"Now these rocks are lying alone. No one comes to them anymore. Once this wasn't so. Long ago, people came here often. They squatted on these rocks when they filled their containers with water. They knelt on these rocks when they drank water from their hands. Our people were very grateful for this spring. It made them happy to know they could rely on it anytime. They were glad this place was here.

"Now they are coming to get water! They have been working—maybe they were digging up agave—and now they are thirsty. A man is walking in the lead with women and children behind him. The women are carrying their containers. Some have water jugs on their backs. No one is talking. Maybe there are snakes here, lying on these rocks. Yes! Now the man in front can see them! There are snakes lying stretched out on these rocks. They are the ones who own this spring, the ones who protect it.

"Now that man is speaking to the people. ‘Listen to me,' he is saying. ‘All of you must wait here. Don't go any closer. Don't approach Snakes' Water until I talk to them and ask them to move away.' The people obey this man, knowing that he will do things correctly. Now they are waiting together in a group, just as he told them to do.

"Now that man has come here. He is talking to those who protect Snakes' Water, using words they understand and doing things correctly. Soon they move off the rocks. They keep going, unalarmed, until they are out of sight. Now that man is sprinkling something on the water. It is a gift to the ones who own it. He is giving thanks to them and Water, informing them that he and the people are grateful. ‘This is good,' he is saying to them. ‘This is good.'

"Now he is beckoning to the people to come and get water. Some of them are still concerned, hoIding back with their children. Others are arriving now, nervously looking around. Now they see they have nothing to fear—everything was done correctly and they start to fill their containers. Now they are happy and gratefuI, talking amongst themselves. ‘This water is good,' they are saying. ‘It is good that it is here for us.' Some of the women are smiling. They know they have nothing to fear. Now they are kneeIing on these stones, relieving their thirst, drinking from their hands."

A short while later, seated in the shade of a Juniper tree, Charles explains that what we observed at Snakes' Water is not at all uncommon; there are more places like it, scattered throughout Apache country. Many of these places, he says, were named for sources of water. Other localities, according to their names, once gave life to species of plants that thrive under moist conditions, and these plants have either vanished or persist in stunted form. Tl'ohk'aa Sikaadé (Stand of Arrow Cane), where today no cane exists, offers a telling example; so does T'iis Sikaadé (Grove of Cottonwood Trees), where one small tree remains. And these are only a few.

Judging from what happened at these and other places, Charles goes on to say, there can be no doubt that the country was wetter and greener when the ancestors first explored it. After lighting a cigarette and pouring a cup of coffee from the thermos we carry with us, Charles volunteers that no one really knows (he implies with a shrug that no one really cares) when the water began to go away. But it would have been interpreted as a punitive response, wrought by Water itself, to something the people had done. Maybe, he says, the people were greedy, taking from springs and streams more water than they needed; maybe they were wasteful, throwing water away they should have been careful to save; or maybe they ceased doing everything correctly, neglecting in haste or forgetfulness to give repeated thanks to Water for giving of itself. No one knows for sure, Charles says, but no one doubts that the people were greatly alarmed to learn that they were at fault.

Excerpted from Keith H. Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, winner of a Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction as well as a citation from the American Anthropological Association. Reprinted with permission of the University of New Mexico Press.

MJB/EJL