The Stories Of Places

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The Story of the Tonto Apache, Chapter 6

Hiking down the headwaters of the East Verde River I feel embraced by the solitude. As the canyon deepens, the arms of the Mogollon Rim reach around in a motherly embrace. The ponderosa pine forest endows my head with its sweet scents of perfume and vanilla. The soft swish of wind through the boughs whispers words of praise and joy. Springs, set free from the hillsides, splash into the waters of the river and delight my ears with their music. My eyes gladden at the sparkle of dancing water as it runs in rivulets and dives over rocks.

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Metates and North Peak: Metates in rock in Mazatzal Wilderness where Tonto Apache women ground acorns and piñon nuts, while retelling the stories of places within their view.

Suddenly, a snap in the undergrowth startles me! I stop to listen. It is the presence of Apaches. They are here! I know it! This is their land; this is where they harvested the piñon, acorn, and raspberry. This is where they hid when white soldiers invaded their land. This is where every jutting landmark, every stream and ridge, every stand of trees, every streamside field is endowed with a story. Each is gathered up in a descriptive Apache name and has a lesson to teach about what it means to be The N'de.

The spirits of native people are watching me here, because I am the invader. I have come to love this land and use it for my own purposes, but my roots are not as deep as are theirs. I have no real idea of what this land means to them, about its sacredness and how inseparable they are from it. If we who are not Apache are to learn their story and appreciate their culture, we will have to settle for a non-Indian kind of history. Apache history is oral and living, shared in the community and never by the isolated act of reading a book. Apache history is carried in stories, and when they are told, they bring the past into the present. The storyteller with grand imagination gives speech to the mysterious presence of the ancestors.

Apache history has no interest in dates or a sequence of events so important to my European thought process. For them, linear time bends into a circle, and the past is now; the place is everything.

Anthropologist Keith Basso explains this clearly in his book "Wisdom Sits in Places" (University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1996). When the Apache tells a story, the listener enters a world where fact is not as important as truth. Truth is measured by morality and is embodied in the story. Taken together the Apache stories, like the Christian's Bible, chart the way of the good life. The lessons they teach are tied not to time, but to places and the events of those places. The concise and highly sophisticated language of the Apache embodies the story in the place-name. To live in the land is to encounter the places. Those places in turn remind an Apache of how to live, the way that works best, the way given by the ancestors.

For example, Keith Basso tells of a Cibecue Apache girl who attended a sacred ceremony with her hair rolled up in pink plastic curlers. He was present to observe the whispers of disdain from her elders, though no one spoke directly to the girl. She had just come home from boarding school and was probably feeling her independence. The ceremony was the Sunrise Dance, a girl's puberty celebration where the women of all ages are expected to wear their hair free-flowing. Such respect for the accepted customs is vital to the effectiveness of the ceremony. Here the honored girl receives the qualities of character that she will carry as an adult.

A few weeks later, the student who had broken the revered custom at the puberty ceremony had returned again to the reservation to celebrate a cousin's birthday at the camp of their maternal grandmother. Basso was again also present, and observed the significant way the pink-curler girl now received her chastisement. After the meal her grandmother began to tell a story. At a place called Men-Stand-Above-Here-And-There, one of the Apache police arrested a fellow for killing a white man's cow. While the policeman was taking the fugitive to an Army officer at Fort Apache, his mind became confused. On two different attempts he was unable to verbalize a charge against the man he had arrested. Instead, he made meaningless talk with the Army officer. "Something was working with the words in his mind," said the grandmother. Unable to press charges, the policeman took the man back to the place called Men-Stand-Above-Here-and-There, and released him.

When the grandmother finished retelling this story, the rebellious girl rose and left the family circle and returned home without a word. Two years later Keith Basso happened to be talking with this same young woman, and they recalled the previous incident. She admitted that her grandmother had, as they say, shot an arrow at her with that story. She perceived in the story that the policeman had gone against Apache customs in denying one of his own people food. It would have been a good thing for the hunter to feed his family with the white man's cow. The policeman had become subject to some kind of witchcraft which confused his mind because he sided with the white man's law instead of Apache morality. The girl knew in her heart that it would be so with others, who like herself went against the customs of the people.

Upon going home in tears that night she had thrown those pink curlers away, and ever since then the place in the story, Men-Stand-Above-Here-and-There, haunted her whenever she passed by. The place and its story-charged name became a continuous reminder to her of the good way an Apache was to live.

Next: Apache Clans and Bands

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