I was surprised by this ethnography. I think as an anthropology minor I have had to read several traditional and some not quite traditional ethnographies, and none were like this one. Maybe it was the fact that Basso was trying to write for a non-anthropological audience that made it so different.
First, he focuses so heavily on narrative from the Cibecue people. This is a technique that I think could be used more often in anthropological studies because this allows one to see how the people view themselves and their traditions. And then he also provides a guided interpretation for the reader to follow, which would help all people not familiar with the Cibecue way of thinking. However, I was wary when Basso would indirectly quote the people who were speaking. Not that I think he had evil intentions, but just because one can heavily interpret the meaning of something said without even realizing it. And so this skewed (slightly or enormously) view gets transferred to the reader as truth.
I also didn’t like that he pretty much only talked about the idea of place naming and “placehood.” I understand that that was his thesis, but it would have been nice to have a general introduction to the people first. Are they matrilineal? Patrilocal? How do they live? What is their sense of religion? We do get hints of these facts throughout the novel, but it would have been enormously helpful to summarize these important facets right at the beginning so as to have a general idea of where these people are coming from. I do like that he has a focus though. It is incredibly difficult to summarize a totality of a people within a book because then you are trying to say that you have summarized them.(However, several paragraphs of summarization admit its brevity and therefore its non-thoroughness.) So a tight focus is a smart way of attacking a part of the culture.
One other thing that I thought was quite controversial was his admitted universalism. I do think that the idea of place naming or at least “sensing of place” might be quite universal, but I don’t think that it is appropriate to extend one culture’s idea of placehood to all cultures. I know for myself that the Cibecue sense of place doesn’t apply, and while it is interesting and perhaps even higher in sense of environment, I don’t care to personally imitate it. I don’t feel that in my culture, whichever that may be, it is important to learn lessons of wisdom from places and from the ancients. While it is worthwhile to look back upon the ancients and see what mistakes were made and how they were corrected, I do believe that wisdom comes from within, from personal experience of events and from personal conclusions about people. Maybe these stories and places help this culture understand their idea of wisdom, but I don’t think that it is a universal trait of mankind.
I liked his personal plea for more studies of the idea of place within societies. I think that anthropology could benefit from this, but I would not value it as the most important aspect of a culture. And I think that it would only be valuable in cultures that are almost completely settled in one traditional area. For the transient cultures, maybe a comparative of their lack of connection would be interesting. However beneficial these studies might be, I still am personally not that interested. That might be why there haven’t been that many studies about it to this day, people might find it uninteresting, or too particular. It seems like a very small and particular field, a specialization for a few anthropologists.
It is obvious why this was considered for a best nonfiction award though. It is beautifully described, the people, the events and the landscape. He obviously doesn’t come across as too academic when one considers the traditional enthographies (especially of the past). The events and the stories that are told are interesting and well picked for his purpose. He admits his faults in the speaking of the language and guides us through our combined ignorance of the deeper meanings of place names. And then we are also there when he experiences his epiphany under the large cottonwood tree in the final chapter. So even though I felt some resistance to some larger parts of the book based on theory or method, I enjoyed reading the book and definitely felt that I now can appreciate the Cibecue place names and stories better.