Spaces that Speak: What Apache Indians and Coworkers Have in Common

And that ravine over there, […] Its name is Naagosch’id tú hayigeedé (Badger Scoops Up Water). Badger lived there a long time ago, next to a spring where he went to drink. There was no daylight then and the people were having a hard time. Badger and Bear wanted to keep it that way – they liked the darkness – but Coyote outsmarted them. He gambled with them and won daylight for the people. -Dudley Patterson (Western Apache horseman)

Lots of funny things happen here, a good example is the haircut. One of my coworkers […] asked me if her friend could come to Mutinerie to give haircuts. I needed a haircut at the time, so I said OK and told everyone about it. The atmosphere was funny because it happened just here in the bathroom, the door was open so everybody saw us getting our hair cut. -Antoine van den Broek (Founder of Mutinerie coworking)

So, what on earth do Western Apache Indians and coworkers have in common?

I’d like to suggest a very peculiar answer: wisdom. Wisdom gained from the formation of communities through places, and the formation of places through communities.

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Specifically, the kind of wisdom I’m thinking of is called ‘igoy’qi. This Apache term describes shared knowledge gained in the lived experience of everyday environments. This ‘wisdom’ is neither the wisdom of Socrates and Plato (the Greek philo-sophia, “love of wisdom”), nor is it the wisdom of Paul the Apostle and Thomas Aquinas (wisdom – or in Latin prudentia – as cardinal virtue).

Apache wisdom does not come from people at all. Neither does it sit in books. Instead, as Dudley Patterson (a Western Apache horseman) once described it, “wisdom sits in places.” Even stranger: one does not learn or teach wisdom as if from a text or in a lecture hall. To become wise, one must “drink from places.” Thus, the idea is this: both Apache and coworker communities “drink” from places to acquire a kind of wisdom that only places can provide.

But this “drinking” is not a one-way process. The key aspect of this Apache concept is that a place becomes the result of a community just as much as the community becomes the result of a place.

To “drink” from a place is to sense a place: to connect physical landscape to landscape of the mind. Places are not simply collections of atoms; they are patterned with steep mountains and wide lakes, or small villages and open plains as much as they are filled with espresso machines and streetlights, or mobile phones and wine bars. Places give rise to fields of meaning, where people gather to “re-create” and “re-present” them to each other in conversation, in campfire stories or in Tweets.

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Giving Life to Places

Take the two stories at the start of this article. Each one demonstrates how places – whether a steep ravine or a coworking space bathroom – really come alive.

Dudley describes a ravine in central Arizona. This place is one of an uncountable number that Western Apaches refer to using elaborate titles (others include “Trail Goes Down Between Two Hills,” “Slender Red Rock Bridge,” “Whiteness Spreads Out Extending Down To Water,” “Line of Rocks Circles Around,” “Big Willow Stands Alone,” etc). From childhood, Apache children are told many detailed narratives that give these titles their meaning. Elders and parents recite them over and over again to help boys and girls contextualise places in terms that are relatable and understandable – in stories: tales of loss, comedic trickery, sexual exploits, moments of conflict, dangerous accidents and more.

Antoine talks about the bathroom of a Parisian coworking space. This bathroom – much like the ravine and hills of the Apache – forms part of the ‘background’ of daily life. It is a mundane place, one that not many people actively consider except for their usual bodily rituals. But in this case, the bathroom comes alive through a particular event: the temporary introduction of a hairdresser. And while we might not end up calling this place “Open-Door Leads To Hairdresser,” it is also “re-created” and “re-presented” through a communal telling and re-telling that goes on between coworkers in the space, on the street and over social media networks.

A place becomes the result of the community as much as the community becomes the result of a place.

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Giving Life to Communities

In both examples, places and their meanings merge in everyday life, anchored in physical geography (a ravine and a bathroom) yet full of social and cultural significance. But the trick here, and the reason that Apache and coworker communities are so uniquely similar, is that these places are lived intimately in the presence of others. As the anthropologist Keith Basso writes, “places are sensed together” – alongside Apache elders, graphic designers, expert hunters, computer programmers, skilled horsemen, entrepreneurs and ritual priests.

When places are experienced together, they are understood together. They begin to echo with mutual memories and are mythologised over beers after-hours. Coworking spaces are made up of the communities that inhabit them, just as Apache places are made up of the communities that traverse them. In each case, places take on a unique character, or a shared spirit that is told and retold through community socialising, eventually to become a mundane part of the shared background of social life in social(ised) space.

And this quiet comfort of being in a familiar place is exactly the source of Apache wisdom (‘igoy’qi). Stories of thirsty women or overly confident medicine men, or tales of coworker romance or satirical misunderstandings reveal ways of being in places and ways of being part of the communities that bring them to life. Apache communities themselves are a result of how they relate to and “re-create” their environments, much like coworking communities are a result of how they “re-create” their environments to each other through storytelling, gossip or jokes.

It is in this way that valleys and mountains “speak” to Apache like workspaces (and their bathrooms) “speak” to coworkers. “Even in total stillness, places seem to speak” back to those whose communities – Apache or Parisian – give them voice in the first place.

[This blog post references and is inspired by the anthropological work of Keith H. Basso, “Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape,” originally published in Senses of Place (eds. Steven Feld and Keith Basso, pages 53-90, 1996).]

Michael Melia

Chief of Communications & Community Building at Copass
Michael is an anthropology PhD student at the University of Oxford. A new team member at Copass, you'll see him copassing in Paris, London, Oxford and beyond.

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