Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Apache | Excerpts from an ethnographer's diary

Digital montage © Roy R. Behrens
Keith H. Basso, "Strong Songs: Excerpts from an Ethnographer's Journal" in Daniel Halpern, ed., Antaeus. No. 61, Autumn 1988, pp. 26-37. These are fragments from a diary kept by a Yale anthropologist while living on the Apache reservation in Arizona during the summer of 1960—

July 11. I spent most of the afternoon practicing my meager Apache vocabulary. It has grown a bit during the last two weeks but my confidence to use it has not. This morning, while Dudley and Ernest [Apache friends] were here, a grasshopper crawled across the floor. I pointed to it and spoke the word for "insect." Dudley burst into laughter. What I had said, he informed me, was "vagina."  He went on to point out that the difference between grasshoppers and vaginas was quite considerable, an astute observation which prompted a broadly grinning Ernest to ask me if I were a virgin.

July 16.…I will attend the ceremony [an Apache healing ritual] with Dudley Patterson and Ernest Murphy. Although I am eager to see what happens, I know [as a White outsider] I will feel conspicuous and self-conscious. When I asked Dudley how I should conduct myself, a quizzical expression crossed his face. "Show respect," he said. Then he grinned. "And don't talk to nobody about grasshoppers."

July 17. Today, I produced my first comprehensible sentence in Western Apache. Sitting outside with Alvin Quay [an Apache boy], I pointed to my horse and said, "That horse eats grass." Alvin, who turned six last week, glanced at the animal, fixed me with a disbelieving stare, and responded in his own language, "Horses always eat grass."  Although my observation failed to impress Alvin, I thought the fact of its delivery—and of his responding to it in Apache—was nothing short of astonishing. Perhaps there is hope for me after all.