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Musings on The Human-Ecology Imaginary



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Contemplating events at the Oceti Sakowin Camp in Standing Rock, South Dakota, many people have found it hard to connect Indigenous values with their own beliefs about their relationships to the land on which they live. I am no sage, nor was I raised in an Indigenous culture. However, in the name of creating community among Reflections readers, and emerging from my concerns arising from the dispute concerning possible use of sacred Sioux Tribal land for an oil pipeline in South Dakota, I am stimulated to share a recent personal epiphany regarding my understanding of the sacredness of land.

I periodically drive south from Virginia into Tennessee and travel Interstate 26 as it winds its way into North Carolina, and I am always intrigued by the many Native American sounding names on the road signs. I find myself wondering what I might discover in the Watauga watershed and what the names Unicoi, Okolona, and Unaka signify in historical terms.  When did Sycamore Shoals State Heritage Park and Winged Deer Park, near Johnson City, Tennessee, come into being and what was there before the land was set aside as public parks?

As I zip by in my car at 70 miles-per-hour, I wonder what stories this land and these waterways could share. And, yet, as intrigued as I am year after year, I never take time to stop and learn more about this area or the specific places that have long captured my attention. I never delve into the history, the stories or the traditions, past and present, of this portion of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. I simply speed by, in my time-pressed existence, to my destination.

However, recently, while in Asheville, North Carolina visiting friends, I read Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (Basso, 1996) and it occurred to me that these sites I pass every few months and whose names always strike me, are likely attached to the language of my Native American and Appalachian ancestors who lived in these regions. I found myself wondering whether there were, and possibly still are, family stories about these locations. On a recent trip, I mused about why this possibility had not previously crossed my mind; why I had not sought out the wisdom surely contained in these places.

As I continued to reflect, I found myself asking what it would mean to live in a world that actively drew on the knowledge represented by places. Would such a society treat land as a sacred being sought out for companionship? Would residents of such a society rethink elements of their otherwise currently technocentric lives? Would our public policies be different? Would we disavow today’s reigning dictum of profit over place?

Anthropologists, such as Basso who authored the book on the Western Apache, dedicate their professional, and often personal, lives to exploring and sharing the stories and cultural understanding of diverse groups that are otherwise too often not given voice. These analysts may be viewed as agents who help us see our collective assumptions. They do so by acknowledging the complexity of the woven fabric created by the cultural stories told and documented by Indigenous peoples and by recognizing that those narratives are recounted with supreme facility generation after generation to teach, heal and preserve shared beliefs.

But their work also points to something still deeper concerning human beings and their relationship to the land they inhabit.  Indeed, it suggests something so deep that it could penetrate my analytical, pragmatically trained mind and force me to recall the knowing that surely is, under the many layers of modernity, within each of us.  It is about this abiding, deep seated awareness that Basso astutely observed, “Inhabitants of their landscape, the Western Apache are thus inhabited by it as well, and in the timeless depth of that abiding reciprocity, the people and their landscape are virtually as one” (1996, p.102, emphasis in original). That is, the Western Apache belief system highlights the intersubjectivity of human-land reciprocity. Basso’s book offers many more strikingly perceptive and thoughtful statements synthesized from conversations with Western Apache tribe members during a more than 30-year period. Each such observation, like the “arrows” discussed by the tribe members, pulled me deeper into thoughts about the symbiotic, communicative relationship between nature spirits and human beings, or as it might also be regarded, the human-ecology imaginary.

The interviews and stories Basso recounted also prompted me to reflect on how our society considers the constructed relationship between space and time. The Western Apache portray that linkage in healing ceremonies that transcend the concept of time. Their ontology stands in direct opposition to modern life and science. To the broader public, such a perspective is either not in its collective consciousness or is ignored or denied as unorthodox. Perhaps for this reason, few researchers cross the boundary of “appropriate” inquiry to share such views that were born in a time before science came to dominate our individual and collective sensibilities. For this reason, too, individuals, Indigenous or not, often do not share their non-conforming views concerning relationships to land, space and time in public venues.

Nonetheless, I found myself wondering how dominant societal norms might change if ancestral voices, via ancient stories of land and nature, were widely employed to teach morality, identity and resiliency? How could we open individually and collectively to the offers of healing such a possibility would represent? How could individuals with no Indigenous affiliation enter into such relationships? Could this be done without unethical appropriation or cooptation of Native beliefs and customs?

These substantial questions only begin to scratch the surface of the potential insights offered by the Western Apache and other Indigenous peoples. From the Western Apache tradition, I have been pondering the belief that wisdom arises from three antecedent conditions: bíni’ godilkǫǫh (smoothness of mind), bíni’ gontŁ’iz (resilience of mind) and bíni’ gonŁdzil (steadiness of mind) (Basso, 1996, p. 131). Basso revealed that, for the Western Apache, steadiness of mind is achieved by looking inward and eliminating all inner incongruences, whereas, resilience of mind is attained by learning how to cope with and recover from external forces. Once these attributes are attained, a person may develop smoothness of mind, “the primary mental condition required for wisdom” (Basso, 1996, p. 131). I find it deeply intriguing that the Western Apache believe:

none of these conditions is given at birth, each must be cultivated in a conscientious manner by acquiring relevant bodies of knowledge and applying them critically to the workings of one’s mind. Knowledge of places and their cultural significance is crucial in this regard because it illustrates with numerous examples the mental conditions needed for wisdom as well as the practical advantages that wisdom confers on persons who possess it (Basso, 1996, p. 130).

I was struck by this contention because the Western Apache beliefs felt so profoundly relatable to my life. The tribe teaches that the knowledge of place aligns individuals with their highest potential for wisdom. For this reason, I became convinced that I owe it to myself to further explore eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina and seek to learn from the places located there that still retain their Native names. My first steps toward developing a relationship with the area follow. My knowledge to date is paltry and must be supplemented by sustained efforts to come to know this terrain first hand, but it represents a start.

  • Okolona: A marker along the highway within Johnson City, Tennessee simply states the name without descriptors. However, the term most likely comes from the Chickasaw word Okalaua, meaning peaceful, yellow or blue water. Interesting, it has been proposed that tribal people who were moved with the 1887 Dawes Act were taken from Tennessee and placed into, what was later called Okolona county, Mississippi.
  • Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area: European settlers proclaimed a town in this area in 1772. The “Transylvania Purchase” of 1775 transferred Cherokee lands to those colonizers, which resulted in a series of attacks on the incomers by the tribe. Tennessee established the park in 1976 on the grounds of Fort Watauga, constructed 200 years before, in 1776, to protect settlers from continuing Cherokee attacks. The Watauga River runs through the area, creating shoals prime with fish and wildlife.
  • Unaka: The name Unaka is rooted in the Cherokee language symbols ᎤᏁᎦ, and term unega, meaning “white,” and is the historic name of the subrange of the Appalachian Mountains bordering Tennessee and North Carolina. They are said to be comprised partly of white stones/quartz. The Cherokee National Forest and the Pisgah National Forest protect sections of the Unaka Mountains; the Appalachian Trail traverses their crest. Unaka is also the name given to an unincorporated community in Cherokee County, NC, located within the Nantahala National Forest.
  • Unicoi: The Unicoi Mountains run through the small town of the same name nestled near the Cherokee National Forest. The name Unicoi also comes from the Cherokee root word unega. In this context, it refers to the low-lying clouds and fog that often drape the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the early morning or on humid or moist days. Unicoi is a main resupply point for Appalachian Trail hikers and Nolichucky River enthusiasts. It is also a hub and home to workers of the CSX railroad. The community’s first post office opened in 1851.
  • Watauga watershed: The name’s meaning is lost to history, as reported by John Preston Arthur in his 1915 classic ethnology of the region (Arthur, 1915). The Tennessee portion includes parts of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington Counties in the northeast part of the state and drains approximately 614 square miles into the Boone Reservoir. The region contains two Designated Natural Areas: Watauga River Bluffs Designated State Natural Area, a 50-acre site, and Hampton Creek Cove Designated State Natural Area, a 693-acre reserve. The watershed contains 123 documented rare plant and animal species.
  • Established in 1991, Winged Deer Park, near Johnson City, is a 200-acre district park. The Robert Young Cabin, built in the early 1770′s, is the oldest building on the property. The park also commemorated the Massengill Monument to honor Henry Massengill Sr. and Mary Cobb, who in the 1760s were considered the first permanent European settler family to the area.


Arthur, John Preston. (1915). A History of Watauga County, North Carolina: With Sketches of Prominent Families. Richmond, VA: Everett Waddey Co.

Basso, Keith. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. (1996). Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press.

City of Johnson City Tennessee (n.d.) Winged Deer Park. Retrieved January 16, 2017 from

Cooper, A. (2015, June 12). Native American Tribes & the Indian History in Okolona, Mississippi. Retrieved February 2, 2017 from,_Mississippi

n.a. (n.d.) Henry Massengill and Mary Cobb. Retrieved February 2, 2017 from

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. Watuaga Watershed. Retrieved January 16, 2017 from

Van West, C. (2009). Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Retrieved January 16, 2017 from

Wikipedia sites, accessed February 2, 2017:,_Tennessee,_Tennessee

Rachael Kennedy

Rachael Kennedy is a Doctoral Candidate/ABD in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education.  She is particularly interested in the concept of community viability as it relates to regions’ ability to develop and sustain community food systems. She is exploring this concern both domestically and internationally by means of a sociological perspective that highlights the catalysts of initiation, community engagement, leadership style and power structure. Kennedy embraces a social justice stance that honors participatory research and community-based programming. She is intrigued by interdisciplinary approaches to major social problems and. was inducted into the Virginia Tech chapter of the Interdisciplinary Research Honor Society in 2013, which she now serves as President. Kennedy won a Fulbright Scholarship to Turkey for 2015-2016 and learned much from the Turkish people during her time in that country.

Publication Date

February 7, 2017