Summary of “‘To Give up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture” by Keith H. Basso

In “‘To Give up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture” by Keith H. Basso, the author discusses his research of situations where silence is encouraged and used in Western Apache culture. Basso then attempts to defend his hypothesis that in situations where the Western Apaches use silence are in situations where there is uncertainty or unpredictability in social relations. He then goes on to compare the use of silence in Western Apache culture to other cultures, like the Navajo Indians in the American southwest. There were six situations where Western Apaches choose to remain silent. The first being when meeting someone for the first time. Silence is used then to essentially try to observe the other person and decide whether they seem trustworthy enough to form a friendship. The second situation is when two people are courting. The reluctance to speak typically stems from the couple being shy or self-conscious around each other since they are still unfamiliar with one another. The third situation is when children come home from boarding school or long stays outside the reservation. Parents stay silent when children come home in order to examine the changes their children may have gone through being away from home and see if their child feels happy being back home. The fourth situation is when a person is being cussed out. The person being cussed out remains silent in order not to provoke the angry person because when a person is enraged, the Western Apaches believed that they are “crazy” and not in their senses. The fifth situation is when being around people who are sad. Usually, most of the people on the reservation know of the circumstances that have taken place that has made the person mourn, so there isn’t a point in speaking about it to further make the person sad. The last situation where silence is encouraged is around a person who sings. The medicine man has to heal the sick patient, so silence is needed in order not to mess or distract the healing process. The evidence all show clear examples using stories and quotes from Western Apaches regarding silence within certain situations, defending the author’s hypothesis. In each situation, there is a level of uncertainty either for another individual or unpredictability of how a person might react. 

Often times literature has portrayed American Indians to be quite silent and that their lack of talking makes them appear cold to outsiders. Basso writes this article in an attempt to correct these misleading assumptions and stereotypes. What is interesting about the silent situation examples Basso brings up is that it shows how much Western Apaches and Navajos (whose silent situations are every similar to the Western Apaches) are careful when it comes to forming social relations or interacting with one another. I guess a question to bring up would be, knowing the brutal history American Indians have had with foreigners, have silence in certain situations always existed in many American Indian cultures, or did it come about after interactions with foreigners which could have made them very cautious and hesitant to form social relations and also learn how to control and handle themselves around certain people? Overall, the author did a good job shining a light on the linguistic choices of the Western Apaches and putting to rest many stereotypes of the quietness of American Indians.

Basso, K. H. (1970). ‘To Give Up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology26(3), 213–230.

One thought on “Summary of “‘To Give up on Words’: Silence in Western Apache Culture” by Keith H. Basso

  1. The first couple sentences do an excellent job of giving an overview of the topic and the hypothesis/argument. I’m not sure the comparison to Navajo is as important in this article as your summary makes it sound, though?

    Your overview of Basso’s evidence is complete, concise, and says explicitly why this evidence supports the author’s argument. Nice work.

    The critical discussion here is top-notch. You offer a compelling reason why this article is important and corrects misleading assumptions, and you go even further to bring up a very interesting question that might be raised in light of what this article says.

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