Keith Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places

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Keith Basso's Wisdom Sits in Places

There is a deep relationship between the environment and Western Apache people. The bonds between the two are so strong that it is embedded in their culture and history. Keith Basso, author of Wisdom Sits in Places expanded on this theory and did so by divulging himself into Western Apaches life. He spent fifteen years with the Apache people studying their relationship with the environment, specifically concentrating on ‘Place-names.’ When Basso first began to work with the Apache people, one of his Apache friends told him to ‘learn the names,’ because they held a special meaning with the community. (Cruikshank 1990: 54) Place-names are special names given to a specific locality where an event took place that was significant in history and crucial in shaping morals and beliefs. Through the use of place-names, the environment became a teaching tool for Apache people.

Red Lake, Minnesota is an Ojibwa place-name. The area dates back 9000 yeas ago when the Stone Age peoples first inhabited the region that is now known as northwestern Ontario. These aboriginals were indigenous people familiar with the properties of the surrounding plants and wild animals. They lived along the waterways and treated their environment with respect and celebrated its bounties through their spirituality. (Web Site #1)

According to Ojibwa legend, thousands of years ago, two hunters came across a very large moose standing beside a beautiful clear blue lake. The Hunters thought the moose was an evil spirit named ‘Matchee Manitou’ and they tried to kill it. One of the hunters shot the animal with an arrow just wounding it. The grand and majestic animal escaped by diving into the water and disappearing forever. A large pool of blood colored the water red, masking the once beautiful blue lake. A creature so huge was never to be seen again. The hunters named the lake ‘Misque Sakigon’ meaning ‘Color of Blood Lake.’ Years later it became known as ‘Red Lake.’ (Web Site #1)

When I heard this story, 12 years ago, it came from the mouth of my father’s good friend, an Ojibwa man, named Henry Meekis. I still remember everyone sitting in front of him while he told the story. His passion for the story permeated the room and we were all captivated by it.

The importance of place-name study lies in the light it sheds on the cultural...

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...lace-names can be seen in the following quote given by an Apache named Benson


I think of the mountain called ‘White Rocks Lie Above In a Compact Cluster’ as it were my own grandmother. I recall stories of how it once was at that mountain. The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountains name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself. (38)

When I read Wisdom Sits in Places I could feel the importance of place-names through the words of the Apache peoples stories. Events that took place many years ago in a specific areas reiterate the morals and beliefs the Apache people hold near to them. To say that they are anything but relevant to Apache history and culture would be a mistake.

Works Cited

Basso, Keith 1999 Wisdom Sits in Places. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Cruikshank, Julie 1990 Getting the Words Right: Perspectives on Naming and Places in Athapaskan Oral History. Artic Anthropology 27: 52-65.


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