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Ishi - The Last Yahi Indian
Winter Steel ^ | FR Post 7-24-02 | Editorial Staff

Posted on 07/26/2002 5:10:10 PM PDT by vannrox


 The Last Yahi


In August 1911, Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yahi Indian tribe, walked out of the foothills near Mount Lassen... leaving behind his Stone Age world... and entered twentieth-century California society. From 1911 - 1916, Ishi resided at the Anthropology Museum of the University of California Affiliated Colleges on Parnassus Heights in San Francisco (now the site of the University of California, San Francisco), sharing knowledge about his culture and beliefs with Anthropologists Alfred L. Kroeber and Theodore T. Waterman, as well as Surgeon Saxton T. Pope. Graciously collaborating with the anthropologists, Ishi provided insight about his language, a dialect presumed lost until his emergence from the Mill Creek region of California. Free to return to his homelands, Ishi chose to remain at the museum as a living interpreter of his culture. Exposed to a society hosting diseases foreign to the Yahi, Ishi contracted tuberculosis and died on March 25, 1916 at the medical college on Parnassus. Ishi left behind a legacy of invaluable information about his people, and provided a shining example of a courageous human spirit bridging the divide between two worlds.

However, this was not all that Ishi left behind... A California Indian's preserved brain accentuates his tragic and mysterious life... and death...

Inside a sealed tank in a Suitland, Md., warehouse rests a brain that, for the past 86 years, has refused to die. The lump of preserved tissue doesn't pulsate or glow like the gory centerpiece of some late-night monster movie. Rather, it reaches out and grabs people because it's infused with the symbolic power of a real-life horror story... the near-destruction of several Native American tribes by white California settlers in the late 1800s.

This is Ishi's brain. Officials at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where the brain was sent in 1917 by one of anthropology's most eminent practitioners, hope to return it soon to the two surviving Indian tribes most closely related to Ishi. Once legal and logistical hurdles are cleared, the tribes will conduct a traditional burial uniting Ishi's brain with his cremated body, now held in a California cemetery.

The reappearance of this long-forgotten brain, which surprised even some Smithsonian scientists, has ignited fierce debate over the ethics of the researchers who befriended and studied Ishi. It has also focused scientific and public attention on the ongoing repatriation process, by which anthropologists return skeletal and cultural remains to Native American groups.

Moreover, the saga raises questions about how much can ever really be known about Ishi, a man who has attained near-mythic status among anthropologists, Native Americans, and others, especially in California.

"Ishi has become an icon of our guilt and regret about past mistreatment of Native Americans," says Nancy Rockafellar, a medical historian at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). "He's been admired for his resilience and heroism, and now he's a symbol of the repatriation struggle. There are many Ishis."

In August 1911, only one Ishi existed, and that just barely. Starving and almost naked, he straggled into the northern California town of Oroville. In a wicked irony, he took shelter in the local slaughterhouse. Most of the approximately 400 members of the Yahi tribe to which he belonged had been massacred by white vigilantes and bounty hunters.

The 1849 California gold rush had set off bloody attacks on Indian tribes in mining areas, many occurring in the years just after Ishi's birth around 1860. From 1870 to 1911, Ishi and 5 to 20 Yahi hid in wooded areas not far from Oroville. As apparently the last surviving member of that hardy band, a desperate Ishi crossed into the white world. The sheriff turned him over to University of California anthropologist Thomas T. Waterman, who on Sept. 4, 1911, took Ishi to live at his institution's anthropology museum, then located in San Francisco.

Waterman and his colleagues, including anthropology department head Alfred Kroeber, took an immediate liking to their outgoing, intelligent boarder. So did the general public. In his first 6 months at the museum, 24,000 visitors watched Ishi demonstrate arrow making and fire building. Kroeber referred to him as the last Stone Age Indian in North America.

Ishi also spent much time demonstrating archery techniques to Saxton Pope, the UCSF surgeon who became his personal physician. Famed linguist Edward Sapir worked with Ishi to document the Yahi language.

Ishi, whose life story was first described in the popular book Ishi in Two Worlds by Theodora Kroeber (1961, University of California Press), died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. Theodora Kroeber, the wife of Alfred Kroeber, notes in her book that Ishi's brain was removed during an autopsy, although she makes no mention of what happened to it.

The issue drew little notice until 1997, when four Maidu Indian tribes in northern California's Butte County formed a committee to campaign for the return of Ishi's remains for reburial in the Yahi homelands. They knew that his ashes were stored in a cemetery just south of San Francisco. Upon learning that his brain had ended up elsewhere, they launched an effort to find it.

Rockafellar and other UCSF officials joined the search after seeing a June 6, 1997 Los Angeles Times article suggesting that UCSF still held the brain.

The UCSF investigators eventually ran across clues that their quarry had ended up at the Smithsonian. After getting a tip from an emeritus anthropologist familiar with Ishi's story, Rockafellar telephoned JoAllyn Archambault, director of the Smithsonian's American Indian Program. Rockafellar quotes Archambault as saying that Ishi's missing brain "is old folklore, and it doesn't exist."

Later in 1998, anthropologist Orin Starn of Duke University in Durham, N.C., combed through Alfred Kroeber's letters held at UC Berkeley. In a letter dated Oct. 27, 1916, Kroeber offered to ship Ishi's brain to Ales Hrdlicka, then the Smithsonian's physical anthropology curator, to include in his studies of links between brain size, body weight, and race. Hrdlicka had quickly sent back a letter of acceptance.

Armed with these documents, Starn met with anthropologist Thomas Killion, director of the Smithsonian's Repatriation Office, on Jan. 27, 1999. At that meeting, Killion confirmed that Ishi's brain was stored in a Smithsonian facility.

With the search over, the repatriation process began. Killion and his colleagues worked with the Butte County committee to identify, as required by law, the closest living relatives to whom the Smithsonian could return Ishi's brain. On May 7, 1999, Smithsonian officials announced that they would return the preserved tissue to the Redding Rancheria and Pit River tribes in Butte County. These groups contain descendants of a larger Yana culture to which Ishi's Yahi belonged, as well as the Maidu.

The two tribes still await final legal approval from the state of California to retrieve Ishi's cremated remains from the cemetery. Tribal deliberations continue on where to hold the burial and how to conduct it. After resolving those matters, representatives of the tribes will retrieve the brain from the Smithsonian.

"Things are going slowly, but that's how we want to handle it," says Mickey Gemmill, spokesman for the two tribes. "The way we see it, [Ishi's burial] will happen when it's supposed to happen."

Although Native American groups were heartened by the Smithsonian's quick action on their repatriation request, they're upset that it took so long to locate Ishi's brain, Gemmill notes. For her part, Rockafellar wonders why Archambault at first denied the brain's existence and why Smithsonian officials who knew the location of the brain did not seek out the Butte County committee once its well-publicized search began.

Killion and anthropologist Stuart Speaker, who works in the Smithsonian's Repatriation Office, say that repatriation workers knew the whereabouts of Ishi's brain all along, even if anthropologists in other Smithsonian departments didn't. After decades during which Ishi's brain attracted virtually no attention and underwent a couple of location changes, its official documentation had become muddled.

In fact, when the Smithsonian distributed an inventory of remains for possible repatriation to California Indian tribes in 1998, Ishi's brain wasn't on the list. "That was an unfortunate oversight that we corrected after meeting with Starn," Speaker says.

He adds that he doesn't know why Archambault denied the brain's existence to Rockafellar. Archambault doesn't recall talking to the UCSF historian. However, she says that because she had no knowledge of its presence at the Smithsonian, she told several callers who inquired on separate occasions around that time that Ishi's brain had never been sent there.

"This is a big place and people [from different departments] don't talk to each other much," Archambault says. "I found out that Ishi's brain was here when the story came out in the press [in early 1999]."

That's when the Berkeley anthropology faculty found out, too. The news led some to feel that their discipline and their founding department head had done a disservice to Ishi.

In the April 1999 Anthropology Newsletter, published by the American Anthropological Association, Berkeley anthropologist Jonathan Marks expressed puzzlement at what motivated Kroeber to "objectify a friend" and allow Hrdlicka "to add a pickled Indian brain to his macabre collections."

Marks notes, however, that Ishi died while Kroeber was in Europe. Upon learning of the loss, Kroeber immediately sent a letter to an associate declaring that no autopsy should occur. The letter arrived too late.

Marks also scolds the Smithsonian for hesitating "longer than the blink of an eye" to repatriate Ishi's brain.

His views echo those of a statement issued by the Berkeley anthropology department on March 29, 1999, and published in the May 1999 Anthropology Newsletter. The statement described relations between Ishi and the researchers as "complex and contradictory." It concludes that Kroeber "inexplicably arranged" to send Ishi's brain to the Smithsonian.

Some Berkeley anthropologists, such as George M. Foster, staunchly objected to the department's statement. Foster, who has conducted field research since 1937 and was a student and colleague of Kroeber's, defends the actions of the late anthropologist in the October 1999 Anthropology Newsletter.

Ishi had comfortable, permanent living quarters at the San Francisco museum, where he enjoyed a longer and healthier life than he would have if he had been sent to an Indian reservation, Foster contends. The Yahi survivor was a source of information for researchers, but he probably didn't feel exploited by them, Foster adds. He suspects that Ishi, like Native Americans Foster has worked with, was pleased to record his language and culture.

Foster also describes Kroeber as having had "genuine affection" for Ishi. Kroeber's reasons for sending Ishi's brain across the country are unclear, Foster holds. Kroeber apparently spent months pondering what to do with the unexpected "bottled brain of a close friend in his office," Foster says.

Hrdlicka, who had a large collection of primate brains, may have presented an acceptable solution to Kroeber's predicament with a bonus of what appeared to be a scientific payoff. Nonetheless, Hrdlicka never published any measurements of Ishi's brain or included it in any studies.

In a letter accompanying Foster's written comments, Kroeber's son Karl, a humanities professor at Columbia University, says that the Berkeley departmental statement ignores the mutual respect and friendship that developed between Ishi and those with whom he worked at the museum.

Rockafellar and Starn coauthored a comment on this matter in the August-October 1999 Current Anthropology. Kroeber and his fellow researchers truly cared for Ishi, "but he was an object to them as well as a friend," they state. They argue that Ishi's dual status encouraged Kroeber to send the preserved brain off for scientific analysis rather than add it to the rest of the deceased Yahi's ashes.

Whatever Kroeber's motivation for forwarding Ishi's brain to Hrdlicka, Smithsonian officials say that the final outcome of the case demonstrates that the repatriation process is working. It took only about 2 months to respond to the formal request to repatriate Ishi's brain and offer the remains to the appropriate tribes, Killion says.

Since 1991, he adds, the Smithsonian's Repatriation Office has returned more than 4,000 sets of remains to more than 40 Native American groups. An additional 30 repatriation requests are pending.

The Repatriation Office's intensive investigation of Ishi's roots put to rest the notion that he was "the last Yahi," Speaker says. It also found evidence that Ishi and his Yahi comrades did not lead an isolated, Stone Age existence. For instance, Ishi liked to make arrowheads from glass obtained from bottles gathered at white towns and camps.

Yet for all that has been written and said about him, Ishi remains a puzzling figure. Even the arrowheads he fashioned to such acclaim while in San Francisco leave questions unanswered.

Ishi's arrowheads most closely resemble those of the Wintu tribe, a neighbor of the Yahi, according to Berkeley archaeologist M. Steven Shackley. In his youth, Ishi may have learned to make arrowheads from a Wintu relative or might even have lived among the Wintu, Shackley suggests.

Killion doubts those scenarios. Ishi and other Yahi, however, probably interacted with other Native American groups to a greater extent than has been appreciated, he says.

"A lot of what we think is known about Ishi's life is rather fragmentary," Speaker asserts. Ishi made it clear to Waterman, Kroeber, and others from the beginning that he didn't want to talk about his family or his feelings about what had happened to them. In fact, he didn't even divulge his real name, probably due to a Native American belief that it's disrespectful and potentially dangerous to reveal one's name to strangers, Speaker says.

Consequently, he was dubbed Ishi, the Yana word for man.

"Ishi's story is one of the most slippery that I've ever encountered," Rockafellar remarks. "We have his complete medical records at UCSF, but he's still a mystery. Science couldn't penetrate Ishi."


There he stood ... tearfully straddling two worlds, bridging two cultures. For him there were three realities ... yesterday, today, tomorrow. Looking back he saw life; his youth, family, home, ... his world. Pondering the present he could only feel confusion, emptiness, and grief. The future, as far as he could imagine one, offered loneliness and fear; an unknown world into which he must walk if he was to live. But he was to walk it alone. There was no one by his side, no one to guide him, no one to give comfort. They were all gone. He was the last of the ...

Here we can see two men. One is he who walked the moccasin trails of James Fenimore Cooper's imagination ... Chingachgook, the noble man of "The Leatherstocking Tales", the Last of the Mohicans. In Cooper's fictional account of the fate of the Mohican people, Chingachgook was the lonely figure left behind by his people. Slowly they all died; vanished ... until Chingachgook was left as the sole inheritor of his people's legacy.

The second man was he who walked in the shadows of northern California's rugged high country. Unlike Chingachgook, he was real. His was not a tale of fiction, but the reality of the darker side of humanity. He was a son of his people ... the Yahi. Like Chingachgook, he was the lonely figure left behind in a world strange and frighteningly different. His people had all died; vanished ... he too was the sole inheritor of his tribe's legacy. He, Ishi, was the last of the Yahi. And he was to bequeath his legacy to the world so all would know that the proud Yahi once flourished in this world

Who were Ishi's lost people? Who were the Yahi? They were the southernmost people of the Yana tribe whose homeland had been the Mount Lassen Foothills of northern California. The Yana ancestors had once inhabited the fertile upper Sacramento Valley, at a time when there was but one single Hokan language (one of six North American linguistic families). It is believed that 3 to 4 thousand years ago, Hokan, like all languages, evolved into a dozen new tongues spoken by the various Hokan people who continued to occupy these valleys, living the life of hunter-gatherers, for millennia. They harvested wild roots, berries, bark, and foliage. They fished the numerous streams. The surrounding hills and mountains were bountiful hunting grounds. Deer and other game were tracked as they made their seasonal migrations to the high grounds and harvested by bow and arrow. Food sources were abundant in the game laden hills, valley forests, streams, and meadows. Such was the undisturbed Yana way of life for 2 to 3 thousand years.

Having flourished in the rich valley for ages, the Yana were dispossessed as others have been since time immemorial. They were victims of the powerful, numerous Winton. Desiring the fertile valleys of the Sacramento, the invading Winton drove the Yana from their homes. The exiled people were driven into the hill country and forced to adapt to this new environment. Adapt they did and here they would stay for a thousand years. The exodus forced an instant cultural evolution, from valley to hill people. The new country, formerly Yana hunting grounds, was situated east of the Sacramento River, south of the Pit River. Present day Red Bluff, California, along I-5, stands just 6-10 miles west of the Yank's territory. It was not the fertile lowlands they were accustomed to. It was not as bountiful as the valley. Life was much harder to sustain in the high country, but the Yana were a strong people ... Isolated, independent, resilient, and self-interested, they would fight to survive. They were proud and they were deeply rooted. Tribal history was infused into their hearts and burned into their minds. They knew where they came from, what they were, and who they were. They were Yana.

The bordering environs were of no great consequence to the Yana. They gave no indication they wished to leave the foothills of Mount Lassen, nor did the neighboring peoples covet the harsh, nearly desolate lands they possessed. Though isolated, the Yana were not immobilized in their country. They moved freely about, maintaining friendly relations and trade with some tribes; engaged in hostile clashes and raids with others. Rugged, strong, and fierce fighters, the Yana terrified their enemies, most especially the Winton who had the dubious honor of being the primary target for Yana raiding. In a somewhat bitter irony, the Winton, who first drove the Hokan-Yana people from their Sacramento homeland long ago, were now the recipients of Yana terror. And it was primarily the Wintu who influenced white settlers' perception of the Yana with tales of being victimized by "wild Indians" who swooped down upon them, carrying off captives and raiding their villages. Though the conflict was a mutual affair, the picture painted by the Wintu was one of a fierce, war-like people who must be eradicated from the region. The image was to remain in the minds of many settlers who took up the task with less than honorable enthusiasm.

Whatever the relationship to other tribes, the Yana's one constant concern was the Yana. Having survived as a people for thousands of years, their culture, history, families, and future were paramount to all else. Whatever occurred in "other" worlds mattered little to them, as long as Yana country was preserved. They had no interest in discovering or exploring the mysteries beyond their borders. In Theodora Kroeber's words, they were "provincials" ... and the provincial proud Yana continued on, with little change to their way of life, into Ishi's life. This traditional Yana culture was the world he was born into during the latter half of the 19th century. At once the same, and yet different. Life within Yana country remained as it was for generations and generations, but the world around them was rapidly altering, pushing, restructuring. It was in a state of immense transition. Changes were in the wind for the Yana Yahi and the boy Ishi was destined to bear the full weight of those winds.

In the late 1840's, the end of the Yahi was set in motion by events which took place far from Yahi lands. The 1848 land grants by Mexico ended the Spanish-Mexican era (which had little effect upon the Yana) and ushered in the Anglo-Saxon era. The exchange of land claims, augmented by the discovery of gold in the riverbeds along the foothills of California's high country, set the stage for the tragic demise of the Yana. The wheels of time were spinning wildly into their world.

There were, at this critical time in northern Californian history, approximately 2 to 3 thousand Yana in a 2,400 square mile homeland, comprised of four sub-tribes. Differing in language, these four each had their own separate territory ... the Northern Yana, the Central Yana, the Southern Yana, and the Yahi. At the time of Ishi's birth (c. 1862), daily life remained much as it had been for thousands of years. However, an external element had begun to pierce Yana life. Immigrant people were encircling, then entering the hill country; hunting, land staking, pasturing livestock. The world was growing smaller; the Yahi were no longer their own concern. Game and vegetation were becoming scarce while hunger was a frequent visitor. The mounting pressure from without was exacting a heavy toll within. Yana population numbers plummeted. Within a decade, as little as 30 Northern and Central Yana were believed to be alive. No Southern Yana were left at all, and the southernmost band of the Yana, Ishi's Yahi, were thought to be entirely gone. What happened to these Hokan people who had occupied and survived the rugged terrain of northern California's hill country for a millennium? ... Tragedy struck with lightning swiftness.

The discovery of gold brought to the California hills a frenzied, unbridled, ruthless group who flooded the "new" territory by the thousands. Unrestrained by authorities (as were the Spanish-Mexicans), these new arrivals to California came bearing an entirely different perspective on the native people. Simply put, they were a breed apart. They weren't interested in co-existing or establishing friendly relations with the inhabitants of the hills. These were, for the most part, callous, hardened men ... miners, trappers, hunters, adventurers, and criminals. Many of the immigrant families that followed, though not necessarily psychotic, were equally hardened ... transformed from who they once were prior to their western trek. (Not all who migrated westward were ruthless killers. Unfortunately, those who were left a greater mark.) Just as LOTM's Magua was embittered and traumatized by life's cruelties, so too were these semi-nomads. Hardship, heartache, tragedy, and despair disallowed their humanity to flourish or respond to pleas for help. (There were numerous accounts of travelers who, upon reaching the rough mountain passes, abandoned sick family members, including children, to their own fate.) By journey's end, many who came seeking a new life had changed; they were perverse, ruthless, twisted ... willing to stand by while others died, or all to eager to abandon even their loved ones if the inconvenience proved too great. They came, whether or not it was consciously understood, to dispossess those already there. To this new breed of immigrants, the Yana were to be either exploited or exterminated. In the course of a boy's lifetime, they achieved both.

As more ranchers sought pasture land, and more families cleared claims and hunted game, Yahi survival became that more tenuous. Hunger often drove Yahi to take cattle or sheep. Anger often drove ranchers to take Yahi. They were hunted down, killed, kidnapped, and enslaved. Scalping suddenly became a home business. Villages were attacked without provocation, leaving 30 or 40 dead at a time. Despite the enormity of the enemy's numbers, the Yana resisted. In a spirited last stand that rivaled the defenders of the Alamo, of all the Yana it was the Yahi who offered the greatest resistance. They raided the ranches and farms; they killed whites and ransacked cabins. Stories of murdered children (a few were true) spread wildly across the new settlements, inciting vigilante groups to seek their own justice. Murder for murder. Raid for raid. Brutal retaliation was the name of the game. Diseases ran rampant. The Yahi declined with horrid rapidity. It was among the bloodiest wars of the western frontiers and the outcome was never really in doubt. Nonetheless, despite the tragedy of this clash, there is something heroic and admirable in its events. It was at one time hauntingly sorrowful and yet inspiring. The will ... the spirit of resistance... the determination to protect, defend, and survive is a tribute to the Yahi people. This spirit was personified in Ishi ... the real-life counterpart to the Mohican Chingachgook.

Just as the Mohicans in the eastern frontiers were hopelessly caught in territorial conflicts, so too were the Yana. The greatest differences were duration and fate. The Mohicans had engaged in a defense of their lands for two centuries; the Yana for twenty two years. The Mohicans survived as a people; the Yana vanished. Like the fictional Chingachgook, Cooper's grieving last Mohican; Ishi was destined to be an historic grieving last Yahi.

Recalling once again Cooper's tale of tragedy and destruction, we find the story of Chingachgook and his son Uncas riveting, touching. They are running out of time, struggling to hang on, but the Mohicans begin to vanish. One by one they are gone, until only a father and his son remain. We feel the weight on Chingachgook's shoulders as he vainly attempts to steer life's canoe to placid waters. In the end, he can not fight against the current and finds himself coasting along the turbulent water alone. It is an American tragedy that Cooper speaks of ... one he knew full well to be much more than a fictional work. Yet even Cooper's great imagination could not have foreseen the likes of an Ishi stumbling out from a stone age world into the 20th century.

While still a child, Ishi's own father was killed in a village massacre. The boy and his mother escaped by jumping into a nearby river. On and on it went. The Yahi were being slaughtered, until only a remnant band of 40 remained. Unbelievably, the survivors of this tiny band hid successfully for nearly a half century, undetected by the outside world. It was firmly believed, even by locals who went up into the foothills of the Lassen, that the Yahi, or "Mill Creek Indians", were a people of the past. Gone. No record of their history, origins, culture, or language having survived. In time, however, the world would be forced to confront and rediscover the Yahi.

Living in the Shadows of Life

In November of 1908, a surveyor team hired by the Oro Light and Power Company, accompanied by guide Merle Apperson traveled to Deer Creek, the heart of Yahi country. Assuming the country to be uninhabited, the crew went about its business with not a thought to the former occupants. Two of the group were returning to camp one day when they had an unexpected run in. What they unwittingly and carelessly stumbled upon was an Indian man fishing in the creek. They hurried back to relate their tale of a "wild Indian", but most brushed it off as nonsense. Not Merle Apperson. The following morning he led the way along Deer Creek to where he suspected there may have been a camp. He was right. The surveyors walked into the tiny village. As far as they could tell, it was inhabited by three "wild" Indians ... an old man, an old sick woman, and a younger woman. The man they had seen the day before was not visible. These were Yahi ... Ishi's mother, "sister", and the elderly man. This small remnant of the 40 Yahi had been hiding for years, eluding capture or detection by living in their cunningly hidden settlement like trapped animals. Their existence was drab ... depressing. Starvation, fear, illness, grief ... such was their daily burden. The younger woman and the old man fled to hide as the intruders approached the village, but the old woman could not run. She had been covered with blankets in the hope that she would not be noticed.

The men entered the hideaway and surveyed it well. They poked around, eyeing whatever goods were present. They then shook the blankets and discovered the Indian. Her mourning was obvious by her shorn hair. Her deer thong wrapped legs were swollen and she could not walk. She was weak, sick, and in pain and she shook with fear as the strangers looked her over. An attempt was made to communicate but with no success. What a moment of terror this must have been for Ishi's mother. Incredibly, after seeing with their own eyes the pitiful state this woman was in, the intruders ransacked the village, taking with them every last thing that could be carried out. Everything, even food. With that, they coldly walked out of there, leaving the woman to die. According to Apperson, he alone was appalled at his companions' actions and protested the thievery. He claims he pleaded with the others that they should at least transport the woman to their camp for care. His protestations fell upon deaf ears. What these men had done with such chillingly casual ease was strip four terrified, starving people of their meager possessions, including items they needed to find food. They had handed down a death sentence, with no mercy or cause, to the last four surviving members of a people who had inhabited, thrived, and survived the northern California region for thousands of years. In a fateful moment, brought on by the actions of callous men, the Yahi people apparently had come to an end.

After the departure of the thieves, Ishi returned. No food, tools, utensils, or comforts were left. It was he and his mother ... alone. The other two never returned, nor was Ishi able to find any sign of them. They were gone. Dead. Ishi reasoned they had either drowned during their desperate escape, or had been eaten by one of the numerous predators in the back country. What a tragic, sad end to people who managed to survive so long against desperately fatal odds. Before long, even Ishi's last living Yahi relative, his mother, was dead. He was now truly, truly alone. It is chillingly haunting to even attempt to hear in one's mind the death song Ishi must have sang for his companions, for his mother. What a mournful sound must have risen from the cliffs along Deer Creek in 1908.

Imagine if you can, bearing the burden of grief that Ishi bore. From the time he was a child, he witnessed the systematic slaughter of his people. He lived his entire life in fear. Always hiding, always running. He watched helplessly as his friends and relatives were killed, lost, or died of hunger. He struggled to survive while his world grew smaller and smaller. His tiny circle of companions, his last connection to the Yahi and their long tradition, disappeared. They dwindled away before him and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Everything was gone. His world had vanished and he had not one soul to turn to, to talk to, to walk with. He was the only Yahi speaking person alive in the world. No one else, they were all gone, but he ... Ishi. He was the finale.

Crossing the Rubicon Trail

Miraculously, Ishi survived the death sentence of 1908. With no home, shelter, tools, food, or friend he somehow found a way to live. Grief was his constant companion, loneliness his curse, ... but despair never overtook this last Yahi. He went on despite life's tragic burdens. His survival is a beautiful tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit. Ishi, though broken hearted, starving, lonely, and scared ... wanted to live. Yahi history; its beginnings, events, culture, language, and its people was alive and infused into one last soul. As long as Ishi lived, the Yahi lived. Thousands of years had rolled by in its momentous course until they had climaxed into one last, single moment ... one person. Ishi WAS Yahi.

Three years had passed since the raid on his village and the death of his family. It had been that long since he had heard a single utterance from the lips of another Yahi. Nearly dead from starvation, and perhaps desperate for human companionship, Ishi made a decision. Knowing he would die if he stayed at Deer Creek, and fearing he would be killed if he left, Ishi took a chance. A chance on life. He would depart the Yahi world and enter the world of the whites. Maybe he would die, maybe he would live. He had to try.

On the morning of August 29, 1911, in a slaughter house corral, two miles from the town of Oroville, a nearly dead "wild man" is discovered. He is emaciated, exhausted, frightened, and starved. The sheriff takes the Indian into custody, but is baffled as to what to do next. Locked in a cell, unable to communicate with any number of Indians brought before him, the traumatized man awaited his yet unknown fate.

In a carnival atmosphere, Ishi, the "wild man" caught the imagination and attention of thousands of onlookers and curiosity seekers. News of his discovery reached two professors of anthropology at the University of California, Alfred L. Kroeber and T. T. Waterman. Both men had an interest in the human saga being played out in Oroville for several reasons. Beyond the obvious general anthropological interest, they had been searching for the lost "wild man" that had been sited three years earlier by the surveyor crew a few miles north of Oroville ... in the Deer Creek region. They wondered if this could be him.

Two days after Ishi's discovery, Waterman was on a train to Oroville to assume responsibility for the "wild man." Kroeber and Waterman became guardians of Ishi, the last Yahi. For nearly five years Ishi lived at the university's museum while teaching the professors whatever he was able to communicate about the Yahi people. There was no other speakers of his tongue so communication was difficult and tedious. Kroeber persevered and managed to learn and communicate in 'conversational' Yahi, while Ishi learned about life in 20th century America.

The bond that developed between Kroeber and Ishi was, by all accounts, a close one. They both came to depend upon one another, not only for the pursuits of study they were engaged in, but on a personal level. For Ishi, this relationship must have been especially precious, for he had been alone for so long. (It was Kroeber who named him "Ishi", which is Yahi for 'man'. Yahi tradition prevented Ishi from speaking his own name or the names of the dead.)

As Ishi told the Yahi story, Kroeber became anxious to see the country of which he spoke. The village sites, the spots they frequented for food, ... the place where Ishi and his mother parted for the last time. At first, Ishi resisted, afraid to revisit the places at which he had experienced both joy and sorrow. Eventually, he did agree. Ishi was going home. The results of the 1914 excursion to Yahi country are invaluable. Kroeber drew maps, marking crucial sites of Ishi's life, and recorded the place names as the Yahi knew them. There were also photographs taken of both locations and of Ishi demonstrating the Yahi methods of crafting arrow heads, arrows, bows, spears, etc. In a strange way, Kroeber was actually recording the past through living history in the present for the future. It was as if he had reached back in time, pulled forth a man of another age, and asked him; "Please show me what life was like long ago." Ishi was physically contemporary, though culturally and socially antiquated. That alone bears reflection.

The record of Yahi history ... its people, language, beliefs, etc. , that we now have is the result and gift of Ishi's survival and entrance into the modern world. Though he had been cruelly left behind as the sole survivor of his people, Ishi was able to offer his people's legacy and mark to be remembered forever. How close we came to losing knowledge of the Yahi altogether! Through him we have language, Yahi beliefs and myths, cultural information, and most poignantly, a first hand account of what happened to the Yahi in their final chapter. A detailed personal story of tragedy, resilience, determination, and pain. Had the world not known Ishi, the Yahi would have passed away, remembered as nothing more than the fierce, troublesome "Mill Creek Indians" who had a brief and violent appearance on the stage of American expansion.

Ishi's contributions to the search for the Yahi were incomplete. Though he had offered a massive, exhaustive quantity of knowledge, time which had been generous thus far, was running out. Four and a half years of research, demonstrations, instruction ... and still there were so many questions. But the only source of Yahi life could not stay forever. After battling several illnesses during the course of his years at the museum, Ishi eventually contracted tuberculosis. He was exhausted, unable to fight this one last battle. While his friend Professor Kroeber was away in New York, Ishi died on March 25, 1916 in his bed. The last Yahi had departed this world. There was no one left to sing his death song.

Was Ishi the last? Is is possible that somewhere, in some remote area, as yet untouched by man... maybe not in the United States, but elsewhere... there are other remnants of the Pre-Colombian Western World? Who knows? Certainly the Jungles of South and Central America hold primative peoples... Certainly the islands of the South pacific have their share of "Stone Age" Cultures... When will one of these... last remnants of an earlier era... walk out to face the uncertainty of the modern world, and unlock for us the mysteries of our own past?


TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Extended News; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: affairs; anthropology; archaeology; economic; ggg; godsgravesglyphs; history; indian; ishi; lithics; past; studies; washington; yahi
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To: another cricket
nasty, brutish and short

But Hobbes knew nothing of love!

41 posted on 07/27/2002 10:51:28 PM PDT by Pistias
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To: Pistias
The starving part is the big part and as you learn more about these societies you learn that at least one moon a year was referred to as "Starvation moon" Everybody got very hungry although not all died.

A free life, wandering with one's family and friends, with no needs but the barest and a life where people sing and death means nothing.

I think you have the gypsies confused with the Indians. And there was no more revelry then usual and as for the disregard for pain, get real. No one likes to be hurt. Things like the sun dance were meant to remove the weak and useless from the tribe because one non-producing person could mean the death of all. Death did not mean nothing.

I wonder if you would find it so appealing the first time you had a child born with a handicap and you had to take him out into the forest to die?

Life it what you make of it. If you are "stultifying in urbanity" it is by your choice and you would soon do the same in the wild. If you find moments of happiness and joy now then you would out there too. And moments are all we have.

I would bet however that you are a guy and so your viewpoint of this lifestyle is going to be a lot rosier then mine. Also you haven't seen and lived a subsistence lifestyle.

42 posted on 07/28/2002 7:57:47 AM PDT by another cricket
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To: another cricket
as for the disregard for pain, get real. No one likes to be hurt

LOL, they used to torture themselves to restore the land! I call the Sun Dance disregard for pain; and I'd be curious as to the numbers on the deaths at the Dance. I'm under the impression that the strongest and bravest young men underwent the ritual torture, not the old and weak.

you haven't seen and lived a subsistence lifestyle

Well, you don't know that. But not for long, anyhow.

I wonder if you would find it so appealing the first time you had a child born with a handicap and you had to take him out into the forest to die?

Was that common? I know the Spartans did that, but I've never heard of a tribe that did. I have heard of Hopi that had cripples live to fifty, and an Australian aboriginal tribe that carried a legless woman for her entire life.

43 posted on 07/28/2002 2:47:42 PM PDT by Pistias
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To: another cricket
I would bet however that you are a guy and so your viewpoint of this lifestyle is going to be a lot rosier then mine

You must be a mother. Yeah, I'm a young man. Must be wanderlust.

44 posted on 07/28/2002 2:48:15 PM PDT by Pistias
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To: Pistias
The Hopi were a settled tribe. Farmers in fact. Don't know about the Aborigines. They are not my area of expertise.

The nomadic tribes on the other hand could not afford to have constant drains on the tribal resources. As to the sun dance it wasn't a disregard for pain but a social custom that would identify the strongest and bravest for reproduction. You had the scars you got the girl. Or girls as the case may be.

For the old warriors there was the custom known as "Staking" where they would tie an old warrior to a stake with a lead for his last battle. His positions were then divided and his widow(s) left to die unless one of her daughters took pity on her and could talk her husband into giving her a place in her tent. Or if they were young enough to be taken in by other men in the tribe as second wives.

I don’t have any kids but I have helped a few into this world and help raise them under the most primitive of conditions. Give me the 21-century to raise kids any day. It may not be perfect and what is? But it beats the devil out of raising them in primitive conditions where they die from diarrhea or from stepping on a piece of sharp stone.

Sort of the reason that men may invent but it is the families that are the motivation for the inventions.

45 posted on 07/28/2002 3:18:00 PM PDT by another cricket
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To: another cricket

I can't help but admire that. To go out like that, in battle...foolish youth, perhaps. I seem to recall something about the Lakota (?) war parties having a custom that the Ten Bravest (Ten Dogs?) would stake their black sashes into the ground with a ceremonial arrow at the start of battle and would sooner die than remove them, only being able to retreat if a comrade unstaked them as they retreated.

That's something we lose of necessity in our kind of's certainly safer, but just as the lowest elements of such a soul are raised, the highest are lowered. Seems like a raw deal, but I guess I just want to have my cake and eat it too.

I have helped a few into this world and help raise them under the most primitive of conditions

Really? Peace Corps?

46 posted on 07/28/2002 3:49:34 PM PDT by Pistias
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To: Pistias
You might want to go out like that. I doubt your wife however would be all that thrilled with her role. ~smile

but just as the lowest elements of such a soul are raised, the highest are lowered.

Life is, once again, what you make of it. The highest part of your soul will always rise if that is what you want.

Missionary kid. South America for the most part. Helped with my first birth when I was twelve. No doctor, no painkillers, no one to call if things went wrong, just my mom and me to help her. That one went all right. Mother and child survived. Others didn't. I always thought of America as the most wonderful place in the world because women didn't die in childbirth and their kids lived too.

47 posted on 07/28/2002 4:14:14 PM PDT by another cricket
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To: another cricket
your wife

Suppose not ;)

The highest part of your soul will always rise if that is what you want.

Yes and no. A prodigious effort can overcome the effect of a corrupt regime on the individual soul, but by and large prodigious efforts become more rare in our kind of democratic republic simply because of the ease of life. And that ease can enervate the soul so that it won't want to rise.

because women didn't die in childbirth and their kids lived too

It is a lot better on the family, that is for sure.

48 posted on 07/28/2002 4:27:41 PM PDT by Pistias
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To: Pistias
"Was that common? I know the Spartans did that, but I've never heard of a tribe that did. I have heard of Hopi that had cripples live to fifty, and an Australian aboriginal tribe that carried a legless woman for her entire life."

I read something maybe 25 or 30 years ago, I think it was in National Geographic, about a tribe somewhere (Borneo? South America? Can't remember!), where the tradition was that when you reached a certain age, your son would carry you out into the woods and leave you there to die.

In the article, the writer saw this happen, and he tried reasoning with this guy who had his dad sitting on his shoulders, being carried out of the camp for his death trip. He pleaded with the guy not to kill his father, using "western logic" (for lack of a better term) on him. He said stuff like hey, he's your father, he raised you, he provided for you, he protected you, it's not right for you to cart in out to the woods and leave him to die!

The guy, after hearing this, agreed! He turned around, and put his dad down.

But then the other tribesmen saw this, and started ridiculing him and laughing at him. At that point, he picked his father back up, gave the American writer a dirty look (as if to say "you idiot, how could I have been so stupid as to listen to your twaddle!"), and carted the old man out to die.

The old man, of course, never protested in the least.

There are strange, sad, even disgusting things that happen in this world. Humans are capable of some pretty nasty stuff -- and, doing so with no guilt whatsoever. Witness the atrocities committed in "the most civilized nation on earth" a half century ago.

Anyway, to answer your question, I don't know if it was common, but it was certainly not unheard of.

49 posted on 07/28/2002 4:59:26 PM PDT by Don Joe
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To: Pistias
A prodigious effort can overcome the effect of a corrupt regime on the individual soul, but by and large prodigious efforts become more rare in our kind of democratic republic simply because of the ease of life. And that ease can enervate the soul so that it won't want to rise.

If easy corrupts then cruelty corrupts much faster and is more deadly to those around you. You would be trained to kill from a young age. You would torture captured enemies to death maybe over two or three days. It would be your job to keep the slaves in line and I know of no tribe that did not take slaves. You would have to punish those of your own tribe who expressed individuality because it endangered the tribe.

How long before you came to enjoy the screams and the pain? How long before you lost your soul and became cruel not from necessity but for your pleasure?

Corruption is with us always. Life is choice. But if you can't withstand ease you would fall quickly before cruelty.

"If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, Then how can you compete with horses? If you fall down in a land of peace, How will you do in the thicket of the Jordan?”

50 posted on 07/28/2002 5:48:44 PM PDT by another cricket
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To: another cricket
if you can't withstand ease you would fall quickly before cruelty

I disagree. Sometimes the easy road is more dangerous--a moment of revelation is, I should think, more likely standing over the body of a dead squaw than sitting in a cubicle.

51 posted on 07/28/2002 5:58:48 PM PDT by Pistias
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To: Pistias
Maybe. Personally doubt it as once people get a taste of it they learn to justify it to themselves. But even if so, at that point someone is dead. Someone else just paid a high price for your revelation.

How do you balance the scales on something like that in your own heart and soul?

52 posted on 07/28/2002 6:27:51 PM PDT by another cricket
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To: another cricket
Well, if the God of Abraham is in the equation, then that high price is really not that high, if the victim's soul was in order. But yes, I know what you mean about the taste for violence. But I think a parallel could be seen in a comparison of a heroin addict and a fanatical bridge player.

Sure, the heroin addict ruins his life; but by that very fact he may come to see his own penury. If bridge can come between a person and the duty of that person to God, then the effect is the same, no? And the bridge player might be in far worse trouble, because after all, "it's just a night with the ladies from the Club," isn't it?

53 posted on 07/28/2002 6:40:10 PM PDT by Pistias
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To: Pistias
Well, if the God of Abraham is in the equation, then that high price is really not that high, if the victim's soul was in order.

And if not? And this price is still too high. Higher for the slaying of the innocent then the guilty. Would you be able to face it? Or would you rationalize it to yourself and thereby slip deeper into the pit.

Monsters are not born but self created bit by bit.

(How on earth did we end up here?)

54 posted on 07/28/2002 7:12:32 PM PDT by another cricket
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To: another cricket
And this price is still too high

If it leads to a repentance that will save the killer?

LOL, no clue how we came so far afield.

55 posted on 07/28/2002 8:08:10 PM PDT by Pistias
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To: Pistias
The effects of culture are subtle but omnipresent. I have been around Indians all of my life and it is difficult to discern the familiar. I have farmed with Cherokee, drank with Souix, hunted with Apache and ridden with Navajo. Most are, at best, an ungainly fit in cubicleland. Put them in the back country, though, and they fit seemlessly with the ages. I am, or I was, a very good tracker. I could match them with skills but they made it seem easy. They did effortlessly what I had to work hard at. They are five generations away from the necessity but the culture that developed to foster the skills still fosters them.

I do not share your enamorment with Indian culture. The people who we now refer to as "raiders" and "warriors" were nothing more than brutes who would bash your brains out with a rock, cut your pecker off and stuff it in your mouth or torture you for hours with fire. Look what happens on FR when some moron barbecues a cat. Yet we ideolize a people who did a thousand times worse with human beings.

Still, Indian culture is distinct and at some time in the future our society may find a need for their cultural attributes. Indian kids run much freer than our suburban
kids. (This is a characteristic which draws every scumbag pedofile to reservation schools.) There is a certain charming naivete to their Huckleberry Finn upbringing but someday we may find a need for these kind of people to compensate for our cultural lapses. They can improvise and think and act independently where our kids can't. If they can find that niche then Indian culture will survive and thrive in our world. If they can't find that niche, Indian culture is a dead end street.
56 posted on 07/29/2002 2:07:34 AM PDT by MARTIAL MONK
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To: andysandmikesmom
Thanks for this reminder of that book...I need to go look for it now, among all the books I have kept over time...its worth a reread...

Yes, my copy is an old one one too, that I was lucky to get in some second hand book store years ago. I have it sitting out where I can often just look at the cover as I'm walking by, and it reminds me again of what a remarkable story it is. I love the old photos in it, and sometimes wonder what Ishi thought of it all.

57 posted on 07/29/2002 8:21:33 AM PDT by texasbluebell
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To: Pistias
If it leads to a repentance that will save the killer?

Saving would be God's business not mine, as would the judging of the soul. I still would personally consider the price too high even if there was repentance. But I do not see repentance happening. If the person killed was a slave they would not have been considered human in the first place. So why repent? The thought would not have crossed your mind.

If they were a member of the tribe then you would not have time, most likely, to repent because you would be considered a danger to the tribe and you would be quickly removed.

Remember you are still thinking as Westerner would and not as a hunter gather would.

Careful that you don’t end up like Miniver Cheevy.

58 posted on 07/29/2002 3:26:03 PM PDT by another cricket
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They can improvise and think and act independently where our kids can't

Exactly. And given the choice, there's something in me that would rather be a capable savage than a civilized slave.

59 posted on 07/31/2002 12:04:44 PM PDT by Pistias
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To: another cricket
Miniver Cheevy


60 posted on 07/31/2002 12:05:21 PM PDT by Pistias
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