Personal Note: I have to say, before you begin reading, that having stumbled across the book, 'Ishi In Two Worlds' by Theodora Kroeber the story of Ishi and what became of him not only captured my imagination but also my heart. If you like what you read here, then I would suggest trying to find this book. Published by University of California Press, 1961. Last print 1967.
He was a member of the Yahi tribe, which was considered part of the Yana people, who numbered as many as 3,000 in the 1840's. The arrival of white settlers in California spelled the end of the Yana's way of life, which relied on native plants and animals. The white settlers brought cattle which destroyed the land and gold mining which destroyed the streams and rivers.
It was under these circumstances that the Yahi fled into the hills, avoiding the whites.
Ishi's small tribe dwindled. After his mother died and two other tribe members fled further into the forest to escape white pursuers, Ishi, starving and lonely, was forced to take refuge in town.
He was taken to San Francisco by T.T. Waterman and Alfred L. Kroeber (famous California anthropologist) and lived in the University of California Anthropological Museum for four and a half years.
In his four years living in San Francisco, much was learned about Native American ways. Saxton Pope, his doctor and friend, wrote after his death:
"And so, stoic and unafraid, departed the last wild Indian of America. He closes a chapter in history. He looked upon us as sophisticated children--smart, but not wise. We know many things, and much that is false. He knew nature, which is always true. His were the qualities of character that last forever. He was kind: he had courage and self-restraint, and though all had been taken from him, there was no bitterness in his heart. His soul was that of a child, his mind that of a philosopher."
merely want to insist here that the last survivor, who fell into my hands
in 1910, was still a stone-age Indian, as unaccustomed to the ways of civilization
as could well be imagined.
I should like to tell something of my acquaintance with Ishi, especially those incidents which illustrate the character of the man and shed light on his peculiar viewpoint. I may begin by speaking of railroad trains. Our friendship started at Oroville, California, where loneliness and hunger had driven Ishi to come into a slaughterhouse near town. In bringing him down to the University, where his home was to be for the rest of his life, it was necessary to take the train. Behold Ishi and myself, an attendant Indian, and some hundreds of interested palefaces, waiting on the platform for the train to come in. As Number Five appeared in the distance and came whistling and smoking down the humming rails in a cloud of dust, Ishi wanted to get behind something. We were standing some distance from the track as it was, for I felt that he might be afraid of the engine. My charge however wanted to hide behind something. He had often seen trains. Later he told us in his own language that he had in his wanderings seen trains go by in the distance. But he did not know they ran on tracks. When he saw them he always lay down in the grass or behind a bush until they were out of sight. He visualized a train as some devil-driven, inhuman prodigy. Security lay not in keeping off of the right-of-way, but in keeping out of its sight.
Here is another fact that illustrates his personal attitude. To a primitive man, what ought to prove most astonishing in a modern city ? I would have said at once, the height of the buildings. For Ishi, the overwhelming thing about San Francisco was the number of people. That he never got over. Until he came into civilization, the largest number of people he had ever seen together at anyone time was five! At first a crowd gathered around him alarmed him and made him uneasy. He never entirely got over his feeling of awe, even when he learned that everybody meant well. The big buildings he was interested in. He found them edifying, but he distinctly was not greatly impressed. The reason, as far as I could understand it, was this. He mentally compared a towering twelve-story building not with his hut in Deer Creek, which was only four feet high, but with the cliffs and crags of his native mountains. He had something in some way analogous stored up in his experience. And to see five thousand people at once was something undreamed of, and it upset him.
Which is to be considered more interesting
and surprising, per se, an ordinary trolley car or an automobile ? For Ishi,
the trolley car, every time. I stupidly expected him to grow excited over
his first automobile, as I did over mine, in the year 1898. For Ishi, of
course, both were plain miracles. Both the auto and the streetcar were agitated
and driven about by some supernatural power-one as much as the other. The
street car, however, was the bigger of the two, it had a gong which rang
loudly at times, and moreover was provided with an attachment which went
"shoo!" and blew the dust away when the airbrakes were released.
Ishi would watch trolley cars by the hour.
Airplanes, by the way, he took quite philosophically. We took him down to Golden Gate Park to see Harry Fowler start to fly across the continent. When the plane was trundled out and the engines started, the Indian was surprised and amused at the uproar they created. The machine was finally launched, and after a long circuit, soared back above our heads. As it came overhead we particularly called his notice to it. He was mildly interested. "Saltu?" he said interrogatively, nodding toward the plane a thousand feet skyward, "White man up there?" When we said yes he laughed a bit, apparently at the white man's funny ways, and let it pass. Either he was ready to expect anything by that time, or else his amazement was too deep for any outward expression. Like most "nature-people," he was inclined to preserve his dignity in the face of the unfamiliar or the overwhelming, giving very little sign. Under equivalent stimulation of course the paleface dances about and squeals.
Ishi was however jarred completely out of his equanimity, amazed past speech or movement, by a window shade. On the morning of his second day at the Museum, I found him trying to raise the shade to let the sunlight in. It gave me a queer feeling to realize that never in his experience, either in his canyon home or in the Oroville jail (the first thirty hours of civilization he spent as an honored guest at Butte County's penal establishment) had he encountered the common roller shade. He tried to push it to one side and it would not go. He tried pushing it up and it would not stay. I showed him how to give it a little jerk and let it run up. The subsequent five minutes he utilized for reflection. When I came back at the end of that time, he was still trying to figure out where the shade had gone.
Concerning foods he had certain prejudices which he was never able to overcome. For example he politely asked to be excused from gravies and sauces. He did not take at all kindly to the notion of boiling food. Fried, baked, roasted, broiled, or raw he could understand. He did not like those processes which lead to semiliquids. No milk if you please for Ishi, and no eggs unless they were hard boiled. All such things, he said, lead to colds in the head! The real basis of his dislike seemed to be their aesthetic effect. I have often wondered since just how far our eating habits may be considered messy. He wanted his food dry and clean appearing. For drink he liked only transparent beverages, that could not have anything concealed about them. Tea was his idea of the proper drink.
should like to say that in all his personal habits he was extraordinarily
neat. At his first dinner he behaved as many another man has done under
similar circumstances. He waited patiently until someone let him know, by
setting the example, whether a given dish was to be consumed with the aid
of a spoon, a knife, some kind of a fork, or with the plain fingers. Then
he calmly did likewise. His actions were always in perfectly good taste.
Even during his first days in civilization, he could be taken comfortably
into any company. He had a certain fastidiousness which extended to all
his belongings. His effects were kept carefully in order. Not only his apparel,
but his arrow-making appliances, his bow, and his other impediments, were
always in perfect array. During the time he lived at my home a certain member
of my family constantly urged me to model my own behavior in such respects
after the Indian's shining example.
Ishi, moreover, was remarkably clever with his hands. In his own way he was a fine workman. He made bows of perfect finish. He could chip arrowpoints to perfection out of any of the materials which give a conchoidal fracture-obsidian, flint, agate, or bottle glass. Some of his handsomest specimens were made out of bromo-seltzer bottles. No more beautiful arrow-points exist than the ones he made. His finished arrow-point, shaft, and feathering - is a model of exquisite workmanship.
the whole he took very kindly to civilization. He seemed apprehensive at
times that we would send him back ultimately to his wilderness. Once when
we were planning with much enthusiasm to take him on a camping trip, to
revisit with him his foothill home, he filed a number of objections. One
was that in the hills there were no chairs. A second was, that there were
no houses or beds. A third was, that there was very little to eat. He had
been cold and gone empty so often, in the hills, that he had few illusions
left. In camp, however, he proved to be a fine companion. He could swim
and wash dishes and skylark with anybody, and outwalk everybody.
He convinced me that there is such a thing as a gentlemanliness which lies outside of all training, and is an expression purely of an inward spirit. It has nothing to do with artificially acquired tricks of behavior. Ishi was slow to acquire the tricks of social contact. He never learned to shake hands but he had an innate regard for the other fellow's existence, and an inborn considerateness, that surpassed in fineness most of the civilized breeding with which I am familiar. His life came to a close as the result of an over susceptibility to tuberculosis, to which he was at some time or other exposed, and to which he never developed the slightest immunity. He contributed to science the best account he could give of the life of his people, as it was before the whites came in. To know him was a rare personal privilege, not merely an ethnological privilege. I feel myself that in many ways he was perhaps the most remarkable personality of his century.
Ishi in Two Worlds
UC Press 1976
Ishi Laid to Rest, But His Story Doesn't Die
Eighty-four years after his death, Ishi is finally in his proper resting place.
Last month, a small group of leaders of the Pit River tribes – descendants of Ishi’s extinct Yahi Nation through the Yana tribe – reunited and buried his remains somewhere in the Northern California foothills of Mount Lassen.
This was Ishi’s homeland, the place his people believed to be the center of the world.
The ceremony was private, and the exact burial site was kept secret. That is how the tribal leaders -- who spent three years to remove Ishi from a spiritual limbo – wanted it.
"That’s quite appropriate," says Nancy Rockafellar, a research historian in the UCSF department of anthropology, history and social medicine. "Through the actions of the community of California Native Americans, Ishi’s spirit has now been treated with dignity according to his own cultural traditions."
It was Rockafellar who helped trace Ishi's brain -- which, despite his wishes, had been autopsied by pathologists at UCSF in 1916 -- to a storage vault at the Smithsonian Institution.
A report by Rockafellar the following month set in motion a repatriation process mandated by the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires federally funded institutions to return Native American remains in their possession to the individual's lineal descendants or cultural affiliates. After an often frustrating year and a half, which included red tape delays and pressure from California legislators, the Smithsonian finally turned over the brain to California Indians.
Although Ishi's burial on Aug. 10 ends a chapter, it perhaps does not close the book, says Rockafellar. The story of "California's most famous Indian" or "the last wild Indian" is well-known to generations of fourth-graders studying California history. But the curriculum needs to be updated, she says, to recast the Ishi story in terms of the events of the past three years.
It was in August of 1911 when the near-starved Ishi emerged from the wilderness near Oroville. He was jailed by the local sheriff before being turned over to anthropologists at UCSF. They learned that he was a member of the Yahi tribe, which was massacred by white bounty hunters during the Gold Rush era. His father was killed in 1865, but Ishi and a handful of Yahi survived in hiding for more than 40 years.
He refused to divulge his given name because doing so would have been a breach of tribal etiquette, so anthropologists gave him the name Ishi, the Yahi word for "man." He would live the rest of his life at the Parnassus campus, which at the time housed the UC anthropology museum. Here, he readily became part of the medical community, befriending the doctors, nurses and patients. He worked as a janitor in the museum for $25 a week. Ishi taught anthropologists about his language and tribal arts. On Sundays, he thrilled museum visitors who came to watch him start a fire with sticks, chip arrowheads and demonstrate his bow and arrow. Anthropologists Thomas Waterman and Alfred Kroeber befriended Ishi and attempted, in their way, to protect him from excessive exploitation. But in the years before effective antibiotics they could not protect him from a disease that devastated California's Native Americans after the arrival of Europeans. In 1916, Ishi died of tuberculosis in a bed in the old UC Hospital. And his friends could not protect him from scientific zeal, as Rockafellar's report in February 1999 would reveal. When he died, UC physicians performed a routine autopsy and his brain was removed and preserved. Wrongly believing cremation was part of the Yahi custom, the rest of Ishi's body was cremated with artifacts thought meaningful to him -- a quiver of arrows, a basket of acorn flakes and a purse of tobacco. The ashes were poured into a small black jar, and on it the words were inscribed: "Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, died March 25, 1916." Less than a year later, after determining it could not be put to scientific use in California, Ishi's preserved brain was shipped to the Smithsonian. While it was well-known that Ishi's ashes were placed in Olivet Memorial Cemetery in Colma, the mystery of the brain and its storage for eight decades at the Smithsonian was not solved until Rockafellar's report, which included some embarrassing truths and lessons. "The inconsistency of cremating Ishi's remains and some of his belongings without the brain, in the face of their knowledge of his beliefs, reveals an odd rationale on the part of Pope, Gifford, Waterman, and Kroeber [the scientists who cared for Ishi]. As Gifford wrote at the time, they were truly attempting a 'compromise between science and sentiment,'" Rockafellar wrote. "The lesson here is not merely an indictment of anthropologists and physicians of the past, but a harsh reminder of the destructive power of hubris," reported Rockafellar. "All participants in academic life must recall the historical context of individuals like Pope, Kroeber, and Waterman -- and remember that the source of their conviction that they were 'doing the right thing' was the scientific certainty of the day." "This may be one of the most egregious cases of violating a Native American," Rockafellar last month told U.S. News and World Report. "He was a real friend to the white man. He spent virtually all his waking hours telling us about his culture and he was anxious to return to the land of the dead when he passed away." But Ishi was perhaps more valued as an informant, scientific specimen and anthropological treasure than as a wonderful human being, says Rockafellar, who feels it is her role -- and that of other historians -- to amend and retell Ishi's story. "Like all Anglo accounts of the story of Ishi that are based upon written documents and photographs produced by whites, we fall short of the mark in attempting to 'know' Ishi," Rockafellar said in her report, which also looked at the primary documents produced during Ishi's lifetime. "We are forced to see him through the recollections of his white companions in the early 20th century."
Yet, Ishi’s reburial has brought a new dimension to his story. Last weekend, the Pit River tribes and the Redding Rancheria hosted a repatriation celebration at Mount Lassen National Park, inviting all who were involved to honor Ishi once again "in a good way." The event included a salmon and venison feast, as well as traditional Yahi and Yana songs and ceremonial dances. Thomas Killion from the Smithsonian, park rangers, and UC Berkeley faculty and students attended. Rockafellar came as a UCSF representative and reported "a strong message of reconciliation between the Native American people and white people of California. I got a feeling for the preciousness of the songs and dances that had been passed down the generations in spite of white attempts to stamp out Indian culture. And now Ishi had come home to a very vibrant world of traditions and honors." The return of Ishi to his homeland steered attention back to Rockafellar's 1999 report and recommendations, which, she says, still apply. The saga and events of the last three years provide an opportunity to "enhance and consolidate the record of Ishi's story," says Rockafellar. She has put together an "Ishi Chronology" listing relevant dates, from 1840, when about 400 Yahi existed in California, to Ishi's time at UCSF and the events leading to reuniting of his body parts. The chronology could soon be available via the library's Ishi history website. She also suggests that the campus, through its connections with teachers in the San Francisco area, aid in the rewriting of curriculum and refurbishing and distribution of classroom materials once used to teach youngsters California history. Teaching kits from the Phoebe Hearst Museum, for example, contain Ishi photos and tapes of Yahi songs he recorded, but they are not used much today and require some restoration. Her report also suggests a center or reading room at UCSF that could serve as a place for reflection and study of the complex story of Ishi. One of the stark realities revealed by her report was the utter helplessness of the UCSF medical community in the face of infectious disease in the early 20th century. She recommends that the campus explore establishing a scholarship fund for Native American students, and utilize current outreach and care programs to expand work done on behalf of Indian health and tuberculosis prevention. And although Ishi is finally at rest, she says, the issue of American Indian repatriations is far from resolution. The Ishi affair it turns out is an exception. Ten years after Congress ordered the return of Native American remains, federal records show only 10 percent of the 200,000 remains estimated to be in public collections are accounted for.
To understand the total shock that must have assaulted the senses of Ishi please read a little about the Yahi in the History section.