In Memoriam: Keith H. Basso (1940–2013)
Keith H. Basso (73), a major figure in American Anthropology and American Indian Studies, died from cancer in Phoenix, Arizona, on Sunday, August 4. He devoted his life’s work to understanding and bringing to the appreciation of others the rich cultural traditions of contemporary Western Apache peoples, most notably their linguistic forms of expression—their verbal creativity. He is most closely associated with the White Mountain Apaches who live at Cibecue, one of the more remote communities on the White Mountain Apache Reservation in east-central Arizona.
Basso taught at the University of Arizona, Yale University, and, most recently, at the University of New Mexico, where he was University Regents Professor of Anthropology. He served as president of the American Ethnological Society in 1984 and editor for linguistics of the journal American Anthropologist. Basso also served on the board of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) from 1992 to 1995. Tangential to that work, Basso recently played an instrumental, behind-the-scenes role for the Western Apache NAGPRA Working Group—a consortium representing the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Tonto Apache Tribe, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, and the Yavapai Apache Nation—in their efforts to see their sacred objects repatriated from several U.S. museums, including the NMAI. Basso was in no way a go-between, but he did help facilitate communications, and all parties appreciated his sage and quiet, but authoritative, presence.
Basso was a fluent Apache speaker, as well as a linguist, and his numerous essays and books on the Western Apache reflect his intimate knowledge of their language. His publications also reflect the depth of the many personal friendships that he nurtured and maintained with Western Apaches for over fifty years. Basso started working among the Western Apache as a sophomore in college in 1959 and continued to work with, and for, them for the rest of his life. One of his early books, Portraits of “The Whiteman”: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols among the Western Apache (1979), captured both his delight in witnessing Apaches jokingly imitate “the Whiteman” and his insights into the complexity of their form of joking and what it revealed about Indian–white relations.
His work was always theoretically rigorous, yet, in a way uniquely his own, Basso was always able to let the material he was studying maintain its own integrity and shine through his penetrating analyses. As a result, his work could be appreciated on two levels: first, as the immediate and unfiltered words and phrases of individual Apache men and women (that is, their habits of expression), which Basso was especially adept at contextualizing both socially and geographically; and second, through his analyses of their deeper registers. This was Basso’s special gift, and it is evident in all of his work. Basso’s publications influenced scholars far beyond the field of American Indian Studies. Perhaps his most acclaimed work, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (1996) was awarded the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing, the Western States Book Award for Creative Writing, and the J. I. Staley Prize by the School of American Research.
Basso was deeply engaged in linguistic and symbolic anthropological theory and counted among his academic and personal friends many towering figures in the field of anthropology. Basso included among his close and respected colleagues Alfonso Ortiz (San Juan) and Vine Deloria, Jr. (Lakota), whom he valued for what he called their sagacity and deep moral voice. Basso had countless Western Apache friends and has written many times that they were his real teachers. Educated at Harvard (B.A., 1962) and Stanford (Ph.D, 1967), Basso was brilliant, and his work was always highly sophisticated. But most importantly, Basso had a deep and genuine appreciation for people—Apache peoples—for their everyday existence and for their (culturally constituted) strategies for coping, strategies in which he was able to see humor, poetry, and deep meaning.
Basso was extremely well versed in Western Apache history, religion, language, and culture, and put his knowledge at the service of Apache people. He provided expert testimony in numerous state and federal legal proceedings involving tribal members. Among the many works for which Basso is well known are his essays dealing with Western Apache place names. Stemming from his related field research, Basso worked with the White Mountain Apache Tribe to linguistically remap their reservation and to restore for all tribal members Apache place names for special features in the natural landscape. These toponyms not only have deep cultural significance, but, as Basso revealed, moral meaning as well. Honored to be asked to be involved in the remapping project, Basso once explained, “I began to see how superimposing an Anglo language on an Apache landscape was a subtle form of oppression and domination.”
It is fitting that one of Basso’s most recent works was an oral history by White Mountain Apache elder Eva Tulene Watt (1915–2009), which Basso was responsible for getting recorded and published. As Basso wrote in the introduction, Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You: A White Mountain Apache Family Life, 1860–1975 (2004) is a rare and remarkable book. Based on Watt’s family narratives, it covers a period in Western Apache history that has received precious little attention, let alone from an Apache perspective. Much ink has been spilt over the so-called Apache Wars of the 19th century, but (outside of Basso’s work) little has been written about the lives of Apaches in the 20th century, particularly the first half of the 20th century—which is to say, after non-Native people largely lost interest in Apaches.
Keith H. Basso always took pains to acknowledge in his publications his intellectual debts, and it was immensely important to him to acknowledge by name (when they permitted it) the Western Apache men and women with whom he worked and from whom he learned so much wisdom. Basso is survived by his wife, Gayle Potter-Basso.
Cécile R. Ganteaume is curator,
most recently, of the exhibition Circle
of Dance and also the curator of
the exhibition, An
Infinity of Nations: Art and History in the Collections of the National Museum
of the American Indian (both on view at the NMAI in NY) and the editor of the publication of
the same title. She is a recipient of a 2011 Secretary of the Smithsonian’s
Excellence in Research Award. Photo by R.A.Whiteside, NMAI.