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August 09, 2013

In Memoriam: Keith H. Basso (1940–2013)

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Keith H. Basso. Photo courtesy of the Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico.

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.


CRG—Cécile R. Ganteaume
Associate curator, National Museum of the American Indian

 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.


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Keith is one of my inspirations. I will keep him in my mind for my further work in place names and their deep meaning among not only peasants and fisher peoples in Colombia but also Indigenous people, who are involved in devastating works of development, as damps, all over Latin America.

My most respected and inspirational professor from long, long ago: I became a medical anthropologist and Europeanist, but I still read everything he wrote and employed it in my teaching whenever I could.

i'm not a scholar, academic, but I have an "ordinary" interest in ethnography, especially the apache tribes. I discovered keith basso therefore from this interest. I especially absorb his intermingling with apaches, cowboying, etc. his name is all over the place in apache literature. he's gone too soon.

Keith also taught at the University of Arizona in Tucson in the 60s and 70s. He was well liked and an excellent teacher. We were sorry to see him leave for another job.

A day of solitude, reminiscing, deep in thought as precious memories of the past comes rolling in...radio on XM 56 WILLIE'S Roadhouse ... with it comes tears of deep sorrow in memory of all who have gone on and as my friend Keith Basso joins them I can just see him being greeted by those he loved...those who had left much too soon just as he has done. As regrets of lost time which can never to be reclaimed...of precious moments when I should have asked more questions...when I should have done this...should have done that....if only I knew...is the frustration ...if only I could have given him one more hug...We take things/people for granted ..a mistake we make thinking that they will always be here.
KEITH my friend... when you see and greet all your "aash" who have gone on...you have once again become a part of the Apache people of the other side...la'zshee neh'go ndee sinleeh ... No words for goodby ...Nizhoo go na'da doleh.

Keith Basso was an original. He was smart, funny, committed to all the right things, and a damn fine scholar to boot. But more than all things, he was a warm, genuine, centered person, and it was always a very good thing to be in his intellectual orbit and an even better thing to be in his presence. Your friends have been waiting on the other side, Keith, and at least one of them will be there to josh with you about the Denver Buncos... But the rest of us will miss you. A lot.

Usen -blessing to my friend as he journeys to you in the spirit world. He's right there with Granny Goodwin, Morris Opler, John Rope and many others. We sat down together many times with stories about the old ones and our own shortcomings. Rode together on the old trails of San Carlos Apache Rez (Point of Pines). Usen -blessing to his wife Gale and all his friends. Just be with my brother. AHO,DELMAR BONI-tudilhil inde from the head waters of the Black River (Eastern White Mountain)

He was an incredible man and his work with we Apaches will forever be immortalized in his essays and books. I am glad to have met Keith and have a talk with him about our Apache language. How he talked about my people and language showed how much love he had for Apaches. I did not see him as a "whiteman" he was an Apache, the depth of understanding he has for my people and reverence for our ceremonies proved him to be a part of us. I will miss seeing him in town visiting and as Judy said there are no goodbye's in our language just a simple, aku inaa'godzih ateeh "will see you there." Bik'ehgo'ihi'dan be with you all. Gozhoo doleel

I echo many of other commenters in offering my gratitude to Keith Basso as a mentor and role model. To his students, he quietly conveyed his deep respect for the Western Apache; he showed this beyond words through his lifelong commitment to mastering the language and understanding its deepest embedding of Apache ways of seeing and being. I came to appreciate his rather odd, halting way of speaking as a reflection of something he internalized in his decades in Arizona: the high value placed on mental and spiritual discipline -- on precision and care taken in thought and speech and action -- as an essential component of spiritually correct conduct. The depth of his work made it clear to all who encountered his writings and lectures that what he learned from Western Apache elders was of supreme importance not only for them, but for all of us. My sincere condolences to his wife, family, and community.

I was among the first graduate students Keith taught upon his arrival at the U. of Arizona in 1967. With a fresh PhD from Stanford we were all in awe of him. His ideas about how language impacted culture inspired several of us who took his classes. We soon learned, however, that he was not just smart and knew a whole lot about the Apache, but he was also a nice guy. He not only taught us, he worked with us on graduate projects. After graduating with an MA, I went to Papua New Guinea and collected data among the Samo in the Western Province. Anthropologically, the data did not make sense, so I sent material to Keith with my many questions. He always responded with suggestions, things to try, unconventional ways to consider the data. This was always refreshing, and welcome interaction which eventually led to my own PhD with a linguistic focus on understanding a kinship system traditional anthropology considered impossible. Thanks for the ideas Keith! You were an inspiration and a friend. I will miss you!!

Adios Keez. You were such an incredibly special and unique inspiration. I count our 25 year friendship and the chance to collaborate on Senses of Place among the high points of my working life in the worlds of Anthropology and indigenous affairs.

My tribute to Keith is posted at the UNM Dept. of Anthropology homepage.


Basso left us as an inspiration. He was focused and amazing to bring western trend.

I have an interest on ethnography, and the work of Keith has always inspired me.

Too soon to let us alone.

Great Person!!!

My most respected and inspirational professor from long, long ago. Perhaps i'm not a scholar, academic, but I have a lot interest in ethnography, especially the apache tribes.

He is a real loss to the industry. :(

This is good article about history of Keith H. Basso.

nice blog

Hi teaching has taught me many things. We may not always be on the same thought as anyone else, but we agree on most of them. Thanks Keith!

I do agree with your points. As I am a teacher so I can understand better. Teaching the kids and the process itself is a awesome to make this world a better place.

Keith Basso became my favorite anthropologist in my undergrad mostly because of his writing style, which featured uncut stories of conversations he had with Apaches, usually featuring himself as the bumbling, non-understanding white guy, afterwhich followed a beautiful explanation of the cultural worldview behind such conversations. These uncut stories helped me a lot as I lived overseas for over ten years and experienced similar bumbling and non-understanding. Good journey Pr. Basso. I wish I could have met you, but thanks for your stories.

Education is must for all.

World proud of you Keith H. Basso.

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