Sunday, March 14, 2010

Other Ways of Knowing, post 1

An Analysis of the Title of Keith H. Basso’s Book, Wisdom Sits in Places

The title of Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places reflects the nature of Western Apache thought. In its brevity and clarity, the title accurately says everything about how places and wisdom are related. The only thing missing from the title is an explanation, e.g. how does it sit in places, why, what, and whose wisdom? This paper is not concerned with matters of explanation, but rather with the meaning of the title.

The meaning of the title is fairly simple. The title states the meaning succinctly and precisely. There is not much to be analyzed with regard to the meaning of the title. Perhaps just word choice is available to be analyzed, then.

Why is ‘wisdom’ chosen, as opposed to knowledge, intelligence, or any other term? Quite simply, this is the term used by the Western Apache themselves to describe the issue. The title itself was stated by Dudley Patterson, “Wisdom sits in places.”(p. 127) Although this was spoken in Western Apache and translated by Basso, I am fairly certain that we can assume that Basso’s translation is based on an Apache translation of their own language. Additionally, we can presume that Apaches that read Basso’s book would have helped to reveal and eliminate any mistakes on the ethnographer’s part.

It could have been translated to any other word that is similar, like ‘understanding, knowledge, insight, perception, astuteness, intelligence, acumen, or good judgment,’ (MS Word synonym suggestions), but it wasn’t. The chosen operative word is ‘wisdom.’ Giving the time at which this text was written, it would be a relatively safe assumption that Western Apache knew English well enough to have corrected Basso if he’d had such a major misunderstanding of the term that became part of the book’s title. So, clearly wisdom is the intended term.

The same analysis can be applied to the rest of the title, drawing the conclusion that the statement made by the title is exactly the one intended. So, now that we’ve ruled out linguistic translational drift, we can address the meaning within the words.

By wisdom, the Western Apache include all synonymous meanings, like the suggestions from MS Word noted above. Their use of the term is loose in descriptive regard, but very constricted with regard to place. The word ‘wisdom’ (or rather, the Apache word from which the translation stems) quite simply does not have any meaning if it is not related to place.

Why does the wisdom sit in places? ‘Sit’ is a very appropriate choice, since when you realize that Apache place-names put the viewer in a particular position, which is where the ancestors perhaps ‘sat’ when the place-name was conceived. “To picture a site from its name, then, requires that one imagine it as if standing or sitting at a particular spot…”(p. 89) Additionally, places “provide points” (p. 109) from which to look out at current life events (while sitting thoughtfully, maybe?).

Wisdom Sits in Places, Keith H. Basso, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1996