Apache Custom of ‘Speaking With Names’ Gets Lifeline


For generations of Apaches, the path to wisdom came through a highly evolved sense of place.

Every social lesson, every thorny problem, had precedence connected so indelibly to the land that a storyteller needed only to mention the place name for the lesson to be recalled. Apaches call this abbreviated manner of speech “speaking with names.”

But after 37 years of annual research visits to the Fort Apache Reservation, University of New Mexico anthropologist Keith Basso finds that important facts he learned about tribal culture are being forgotten--by the Apaches.

“I haven’t stumbled on people speaking with names in about 15 years,” he says sadly.


As he watched his Apache friends and teachers age and die, taking with them their memories of oral tradition, Basso’s mission--and their legacy--became clear.

“All these men knew they didn’t have forever to live and were concerned that their way of being Apache was changing--place names were being lost,” Basso said by phone from his ranch in eastern Arizona.

The University of New Mexico Press has published Basso’s “Wisdom Sits in Places,” which won this year’s Western States Book Award for creative nonfiction.

“We may think of wisdom as something that comes about as a result of a certain degree of formal education, but the Apache notion is a lot broader. . . . It comes from contemplating what you know of the past,” Basso says. “It’s basically the cultivation of sensitivity, understanding, compassion.”


Fumbling for a concise English definition, he stops in frustration.

“The book is going to have to speak for itself,” he says.

Basso says the reservation 60 miles from the New Mexico border has more than 1,000 place names, each with a story. For example:

* At Whiteness Spreads Out Descending to Water, a boy fell ill after leaving a hindquarter of a butchered deer on the ground to go to waste. The story came to symbolize the wages of waste.


* At Trail Extends Across a Red Ridge With Alder Trees, a newlywed boy became ill after forcing his attentions on his bride during her menstrual period.

* At Line of White Rocks Extends Up and Out, a girl suffered a snakebite after disobeying her grandmother and carrying firewood through a snake-infested area she had been told to avoid.

Basso’s smooth-reading book details how such place names can be used to pass along Apache culture. He writes about a conversation among Apache women discussing the cavalier attitude of a young man--the younger brother of one of the women--who got sick after ignoring an elder’s warning about contact with a snakeskin.

“It happened at Line of White Rocks Extends Up and Out, at this very place!” counsels one wise woman.


Another woman replies: “It happened at Whiteness Spreads Out Descending to Water, at this very place!”

To which the first adds: “It happened at Trail Extends Across a Red Ridge With Alder Trees, at this very place!”

All three place names were invoked as a kind of code, shedding light on little brother’s plight.

“We call it speaking with names,” the wise woman explains. “We gave that woman [the boy’s sister] pictures to work on in her mind. We didn’t speak too much to her. We didn’t hold her down. That way, she could travel in her mind. . . . We gave her clear pictures with place names, so her mind went to those places, standing in front of them as our ancestors did long ago. That way she could see what happened there long ago. She could hear stories in her mind, perhaps hear our ancestors speaking.”


Apache children who do not learn place names tend to have social problems, says Ronnie Lupe, chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, whose home is the Fort Apache Reservation.

“They don’t know the stories of what happened at these places. That’s why some of them get into trouble,” Lupe says from the tribe’s capital of Cibecue, Ariz.

One of Basso’s Apache mentors, Dudley Patterson, says in the book: “Wisdom sits in places.”

And Apaches who forget place names “forget how to be strong,” says tribal member Wilson Lavender.


Speaking with names may be an attempt to protect culture from change and, to some extent, keep people in line, Basso says.

“But change has definitely occurred. Cibecue isn’t the same place it was 35 years ago,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong. Cibecue is one of the most culturally conservative places. The language is alive and well.

“It’s not that all these stories are gone, but the life of Apache children--like that of our own children--is more complex and full of external stimuli than when we were young. There wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll, drugs or ‘How am I going to make a living?’ ”

Speaking with names also shows Apaches’ preference for indirectness and subtlety when they intend to criticize, Basso says.


“They would rather hint at something than come right out and say it--it’s considered good manners; it’s considered wise. These practices contribute to harmonious relations.”

Basso says he still does not speak fluent Apache; he understands it better than he speaks it.

“Like all the Athabascan languages, it’s extremely complex and difficult for outsiders to learn,” he says.

Basso, the son of a writer, was drawn into anthropology by a required undergraduate course at Harvard University.


Anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn suggested he get some field experience, directing him to Cibecue when Basso was 19.

Basso has been coming back every year since, helping the Apaches round up cattle and string barbed wire--and listening to their stories.

After getting his PhD at Stanford University, Basso was teaching at Yale University when he met his wife, Gayle. It turned out her family owned a 200-acre ranch just two hours from Cibecue.

“It’s a small ranch,” Basso says. “I can run a handful of calves. The Apaches turned me on to the joys of ranching.”