Wisdom Sits in Places (II of III)
Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache
A sense of history is given by the Apache location stories. The
stories relate the past, but are usually told in the present tense. Quotations are frequently used, to invoke a sense of current presence,
and the language is concise and avoids redundancy.
The prose used is poetic, evocative, involving. The straightforward, heavily descriptive language promotes in its listeners a feeling of connection to the ancestors and to the land the ancestors chose to settle in and become associated with; the listeners are, through the language used, participants in the story.
Locations thus have meaning not only as a physical place personally experienced, but also as connectors to the ancestors and their history. The shared language functions in a similar fashion. It is not simply of the people, but also the speech of the ancestors. Unconsciously or not, the people know that wisdom can be found in locations and stories. Consequently, if respectfully used, the language in which the ancestors spoke and the stories are told is also a medium for wisdom (p 33).
The Apache tend to name their physical locations very simply and directly. The names themselves are frequently portraits of the place, and thus when the name is used the place is described. If a listener has never been to that place, the name alone will help the listener to imagine the location mentally; to ‘see’ it as the story proceeds.
In addition, there are places that have changed over time, and no longer fit the description of their name. In these cases, a sense of history is kept — as the people themselves say, the names do not lie (p 16). The language is still clear and true: it is simply that something significant happened here, something that has a lesson implicit in it, to change the land in such a fashion.
Location names can also be associated with a noteworthy historical
occurrence, usually commemorating some sad or tragic happening. In cases
such as these, the moral of the associated story is customarily easily
comprehensible. They deal with improper or out-of-control behavior, or
demonstrate the benefits of alertness and forethought.
The language is lucid and unequivocal in these cases — names are clear, readily recalled, and easily associated with the lesson to be learned (p 28-29). Wisdom can be found in clear thinking and speaking in these stories.
The association between the Apache and the land is strong; the clans name themselves after memorable locations. This tight connection between the people and the land extends not only to how the people name themselves, but also to how they view their environment. The language reflects this attitude.
Crops, for example, are the ‘children’ of the Apache, and require similar care and respect to grow healthy and strong (p 22). The language itself also reveals some of the Apache bias towards socialization, and the consequent sharing of locations and their associated stories. What is important about a story is not when it occurs, but where; the language and the stories alike are meant to be spoken, not written.
To the Apache, reading is an isolating event, and the written word neither involves one in the even described, nor describes sufficiently. In contrast to the written word, the Apache stories are not only a shared oral tradition that ties the people to the land (and vice versa), but also moral lessons that each subsequent storyteller can both relate and personalize, embellishing each with their own perspectives and observations (p 33, 40-41).
Furthermore, the stories are usually told in a leisurely, colloquial,
unhurried fashion. This allows the listeners time to reflect upon the
story, and to closely connect both the location and the story in their
Since the stories are told almost as verbal thumbnail sketches, with close attention paid to descriptives, they are stories people can imagine clearly and remember easily. This clarity of speech is reflected in the specific style of speaking chosen for the stories, and is promoted as an advantageous objective for which to strive: the person of wisdom uses few words, but uses each word with skill (p 152, 160).
A story can be told as a way of pointing out a mental deficiency or
incorrect behavior in one of the listeners. Such stories are spoken of
as being like arrows — they strike the intended target with the force
of as yet unrealized truth, and stick in the memory forever.
Such a ‘sideways’ fashion of noting someone’s deficiencies allows the intended target to not be shamed in public — no fingers are pointed, no direct public humiliation is forced upon them. However, if the story is understood, reflection upon it lets the listener know not only that their behavior is unacceptable, but also occasionally shows how to change the behavior into culturally approved actions.
Also, stories are inextricably linked with an actual place.
Consequently, every time the listener views that place, the story is
recalled in their mind, and there is a mental reminder to continue to
behave in a proper fashion.
To the Apache, this mental reminder means the place is ‘stalking’ a person. Since the Apache all live in a (relatively) small physical locale with a mutually shared collection of stories, a person ‘shot with a story’ has the potential to be frequently ‘stalked’ by locational reminders of correct behavior.
In a similar fashion, every time the story teller is around the listener, the ‘story like an arrow’ is mentally recalled. Thus places can become both verbally and mentally linked not only to correct behavior, but also to wise relatives (p 58-69). The language, and through it the culture, encourages this type of metaphor, as the above examples show.
Now the woman is beginning to plan how to lay out Essay Assignment Paper, her wisdom place. Here she’ll put some parts of her knowledge. There she’ll put other parts. She must speak plainly and informatively. It has to be pleasing to the eye as well as the mind, so that it’s memorable and people will read it and then think and learn. It has to speak clearly.
She nods to herself. She’s pleased. This looks like it might work, like it might be good. She wants this to be a place others can reflect upon, a place that will continue to grow as others see it and add their stories and knowledge to it.