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Place-Names: Its Cultural Significance Among the Western Apache Essay

Between 1979 and 1984, Professor Keith Basso of he University of New Mexico conducted a study of Apache places and place-names. Specifically, this stud focused on the ways in which the Apache refer to their land, the legends behind these places, and the ways in which these place-names are used in everyday conversation. Basso’s ethnography can be considered as an attempt to correlate social landscape with culture. Basso attempted to examine the effects of landscape to the everyday social interaction of Apache men and women. The Western Apache construction of history is a ‘worn trail’ created by the tribe’s first ancestors.

It was also the same path that several generations of Apache undertook. It was in these places that ‘special events’ took place. The ancestors gave names to landscapes based on the events that happened there. These place-names were passed down from one generation to another to serve as a bridge between the Apache and their ancestors. It was in every sense, a memorial of the past, a dedication to the ancestors. Even if the landscape changed, its name remained alive in Apache culture. Basso then examined the specifics of the language used by the Apache to refer to place-names.

Basso found that the Apache usually manipulated language (with regard to place-names) in order to elicit acceptable behavior and moralistic values from the members of the tribe. It can be said that the creation of place-names tales was generally moralistic in nature. It was intended to influence patterns of social collectivity. Its purpose was multi-faceted: 1) to provide enlightenment, 2) to criticize, and 3) to warn. The general implied purpose of place-names was to promote the general interest and unity of the Apache tribe.

This is the reason why place-names remained a central force in Apache cultural life. As in every tribe, a historical tale is intended to create a critical and remedial response to specific situations, mostly on the individual level. An individual ho committed crime would have to be judged based on its implied offense to the historical value of place-names. The Apache examined whether such offense created a gap between the individual and the place-names. The landscape, therefore, served as the moral guide of the Apache.

It generally outlined the dos and don’ts of an ethical and moral living. It was in every sense, the Apache view of moral life (a reference to ancestral events that occurred in specific places). The place-names when spoken evoked moral truths. Those who spoke it must know its essence. By judging it to be morally relevant, an Apache was expected to proclaim it from the heart. The process of knowing the truth must be silent and critical. One need not study it. Only an invocation from the heart would provide images of the truth and serve as an infallible guide to moral life.

This “evoking of images” provided a direct form of criticism or advice without so much linguistic references. Thus, it can be said that the value of place-names to Apache life is both direct and indirect. It is direct because it served as a guide to the ideal life. It is indirect because the individual understood it from the heart. It was, in every sense, a bridge not only between the individual and the past, but also between the individual and the society. For example, the place-names of ‘great dog mountain’, ‘pillar of fire’, and ‘hill of discontent’ provided the means by which the individual may connect to the past.

The anchorage of his actions could not be independent of the ‘will’ of these places, since these places are the only ones which give meaning to life. For an Apache, the ‘pillar of fire’ signified the foundation of life and the solitude of existence. The Apache mind rested on the edifice of these place-names both as a testimony to the greatness of their ancestors as well as the worth of its society. Reference Basso, Keith. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.


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