The Department reports the passing of Distinguished Professor Emeritus Keith H. Basso

Departmental News

Posted:  Aug 15, 2013 - 12:00pm

The Department reports the passing of Distinguished Professor Emeritus Keith H. Basso on August 4, 2013.

UNM Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Keith Basso passed away peacefully on August 4, 2013. His loss is as deep as his presence was luminous for many friends and colleagues and fellow travelers in diverse worlds, both surrounding Western Apache history, language, and cultural affairs, and the fields of linguistic ethnography and ethnographic writing. No two ways about it, Keith’s fifty-plus year commitment to Western Apache people, and the essays and books he wrote about his encounters with them, stand out loudly in anthropology in terms of integrity, creativity, modesty, and interdisciplinary brilliance. We at UNM are indeed fortunate that after teaching stints at the University of Arizona and Yale University, Keith spent half of his teaching career here, serving from 1989 to 2006 as Regents Professor, and then as Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, titles that clearly acknowledge his extraordinary regional, national, and international reputation.

Born in 1940 in North Carolina, Keith mostly grew up in Connecticut, but his mother, Etolia Simmons (a teacher), and father, Hamilton (a novelist, essayist, and editor, notably at The New Yorker) were originally Southerners. Like his parents, Keith enjoyed writing from an early age, and some of that story is told in his own words in a book about his father, Inez Hollander Lake’s The Road From Pompey’s Head: The Life and Work of Hamilton Basso (LSU Press, 1999).

Keith’s interest in the Southwest was first kindled in Clyde Kluckhohn’s anthropology classes at Harvard University, where he completed an undergraduate degree in 1962. Before he did, though, he spent a summer in Arizona in 1959, and that is when his passion for horses, history, and the language and lives of White Mountain Apaches gave him a life’s calling.

Keith’s 1967 Stanford Ph.D. dissertation concerned Western Apache witchcraft, and it was published in 1969 in the Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona. Three additional books on Apachean culture, language, and history quickly followed: first a brief contemporary ethnography, The Cibecue Apache, in 1970 for the Holt, Rinehart and Winston general ethnography series (republished by Waveland in 1986), and in 1971, two edited volumes, one with Morris Opler on Apachean Culture History (also in the Anthropological Papers of the University of Arizona); a second, with the University of Arizona Press, compiling and editing Greenville Goodwin’s work on Western Apache Raiding and Warfare.

In addition to ethnography and history, Keith was closely engaged with Apache language matters at this early point in his career. His rather instantly classic linguistic essays from the time include “Semantic Aspects of Linguistic Acculturation” in American Anthropologist, 1967, a piece that maps the extension of Apache body part terms to automobile anatomy, and, his most formal linguistic componential analysis, “The Western Apache Classificatory Verb System,” in the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology in 1968. But for ethnographers and linguistic anthropologists more broadly, the distinctly more influential Basso essay from this period is “‘To Give Up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture,” published in the Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, in 1970. This piece made clear the significance of silence as a communicative act, and it forever changed simplistic stereotypes about Native American speech practices.

Through the 1970s Keith further honed the style he developed so articulately in this essay, of simultaneously demonstrating the centrality of linguistic knowledge to deep ethnographic writing, and the centrality of ethnography to deep understandings of language in practice and to the critique of formal linguistic theory. His next best-known, and deeply masterful piece, “‘Wise Words’ of the Western Apache: Metaphor and Semantic Theory” was written for a School of American Research Advanced Seminar that Keith organized with Henry Selby in 1974. Meaning in Anthropology, the resultant book, appeared with SAR Press two years later, and it was widely cited and widely taught in anthropology courses. It would not be an overstatement to say that the book’s essays were central to many conversations in cultural and linguistic anthropological theory for years to come. (The book also featured such now-classic essays as Clifford Geertz’s “’From the Natives Point of View,’” and Michael Silverstein’s “Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description.”)

After the Advanced Seminar, Keith spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and then further developed his relationship with New Mexico during a SAR resident fellowship year in 1977-78. It was then that he completed the project he started at Princeton, another among his most-widely read works, the book Portraits of ‘The Whiteman:’ Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols among the Western Apache (Cambridge University Press, 1979). With poignant cartoon accompaniments by the Apache artist and humorist Vincent Craig, the book unpacks both the linguistic structure and performance of Apache jokes about Anglos, and with them, a reverse anthropology of just how “whiteman” behaviors appear to their Apache observers. Indeed, as Dell Hymes put it in the book’s preface, “Until now only Apaches could share these portraits. Now those who sat for them can see them too.”

In the 1980s Keith got involved in the study of Apache naming practices and the performance of story-telling through and about place names. His newly emergent theory of imagining place in and through verbal performance of place-names was first laid out in a 1981 American Ethnological Society Proceedings piece on “Western Apache Placename Heirarchies,” and then in the more widely-read and influential essays “‘Stalking with Stories,’” in Text, Play, and Story, a 1984 American Anthropological Association collection edited by Edward Bruner, and then “’Speaking with Names,’” originally published in Cultural Anthropology in 1988.

Keith presented a version of this last piece at the University of Texas at Austin in 1987, and that is when he and I began to talk seriously and quite regularly about the anthropology of places, the linguistics of place-names, and the expressive forms and forces that forge the two into indigenous environmental philosophies. Six years later, those conversations evolved into an SAR Advanced Seminar that we convened, and the results were published in our co-edited book Senses of Place (SAR Press, 1996). Keith’s contribution to our seminar and book was the early version of the essay “’Wisdom Sits in Places.” And just about the time of the SAR book release, UNM Press published Keith’s magnum opus ‘Wisdom Sits in Places:’ Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. An instant success and instantly recognizable work of great originality and ethnographic dialogue, the book received the Western States Book Award for Creative Nonfiction in 1996, then the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing in 1997, and then the School of American Research J.I. Staley Prize in 2001.

With humility, subtlety, and vivid writing, ‘Wisdom Sits in Places’ makes a major contribution to our understanding of senses of place in human history and the modern world. A clear demonstration of the best integration of contemporary linguistic and cultural anthropology, Keith’s four essays on the construction and enactment of place show how language, from the level of words in the form of place-names, to the level of discourse in performed narrative and dialogue, is central to ways Western Apache imagine and implement their world. Avoiding direct polemic, Keith lets Apache placenames –“like tiny imagist poems” in his memorable phrase, make their eloquent case for the moral authority and agency of a community, its members, their heritage. In doing so he created a work that speaks powerfully to indigenous communities as well as anthropologists, linguists, environmentalists, lawyers, historians, archeologists, and others concerned with land rights, cultural equity and repatriation, and the resilience of the past in shaping the social realities of the present.

Coming full circle, back to Apache community and cultural history, but this time through story-telling and first person narrative, Keith’s last major project was assisting Apache elder Eva Tulene Watt by recording, editing, and annotating her life history book Don’t Let the Sun Step Over You: A White Mountain Apache Family Life, 1860-1975 (University of Arizona Press, 2004). This was a very long, but deeply satisfying project for Keith, both because of the stunning and revelatory content and power of the narrative, and the way it spoke to his abiding interest in presenting the intelligence, wit, wisdom, and authority of Apache voices and Apache ways of knowing.

Those who knew Keith during his UNM years are well aware that he became more deeply, but always quietly, involved in the larger world of Native American affairs and particularly Western Apache advocacy. From 1992 to 1995 he was on the board of the National Museum of the American Indian. Also from the early 1990s, Keith worked tirelessly with the Western Apaches to articulate NAGPRA claims for repatriation requests from several museums. He also worked as a tribal consultant, and as an expert witness, on several Western Apache land and rights cases. Like his scholarship, Keith treated these activities as serious responsibilities to his interlocutors and by now longtime friends and neighbors. And like his scholarship, he tended to just do and enjoy the work, and steadfastly avoid any resulting limelight.

That leads me to the real irony of writing this memorial tribute, an irony that gets to the heart of Keith the man. The fact is that he would never have approved of what I have said here, nor of the way I’ve said it. He could be profoundly self-effacing in his humor, and profoundly hostile to anything that smacked of what he once called “the stock market in academic success.” That’s why I was never able to tell Keith that I nominated ‘Wisdom Sits in Places’ for the Staley Prize, or that I wrote an equally glowing nomination letter for him to be promoted to Distinguished Professor at UNM. That he never touted his own accomplishments was one thing; that he was not even comfortable with gently promotional efforts by his friends yet another.

A story that summarizes: last Spring Keith graciously accepted to do a Q and A class session with the students in my Expressive Culture course after we read ‘Wisdom Sits in Places.’ His class visit was wonderful, his demeanor all of charming, funny, attentive, generous, patient, and, as ever, deeply thoughtful and measured in each and every answer. After he left town I sent him thanks in the form of a book I like, Edmund Carpenter’s Chief and Greed, about the shocking history of accession and de-accession practices at the Museum of the American Indian in New York City. We had several good phone conversations about its argument in the months following. Each time we spoke about it Keith thanked me for the opportunity to visit with the class. But when I mentioned that his visit was noted as the course highpoint on many student evaluations, he just blew me off: “You know Steve, wisdom doesn’t sit in celebrity places.”

Keith often said that once he came back to the Southwest to spend a semester each year at UNM, his greatest pleasure was simply life with Gayle at the Halter Cross Ranch in Heber, Arizona, where they were in such close proximity to many longstanding Western Apache friends. Keith loved the cowboy life, tending to horses, mules, fields, and fences with the same rigor and style as he could craft a memorable sentence. And for some twenty years he especially enjoyed braiding rawhide horse gear. It was another skill at which he excelled, to the extent of becoming a collectible artist of the trade (yet another brag he would seriously dislike and dismiss).

Adios, Keez. And a big, big thanks for your generous display of integrity. It enriched so many lives, certainly mine.

Steven Feld