One hundred years with Ishi, the "last wild Indian" of North America
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the public debut of a man called Ishi. Ishi was Native American, a Yana from the Deer Creek area, about 150 miles northeast of Berkeley. And for the past century he’s been known as “the last wild Indian in North America.”
In some ways, he’s famous: The anthropology department building at UC Berkeley is named for Alfred Kroeber, the scholar who worked closely with Ishi, and Dwinelle Hall’s outdoor enclosure is named Ishi Court. UC Berkeley’s anthropology community held a conference in September dedicated to Ishi’s memory, and the California Museum in Sacramento has a yearlong exhibit featuring some of his possessions.
So, who was Ishi? And how could Ishi have been the so-called “last Indian” when close to a million Native Americans live in California today? Reporter Terria Smith – who is also California Native American – tells us Ishi’s story.
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TERRIA SMITH: Imagine spending three years alone in the woods of California. You’ve lost your entire family, and all of your close friends, to war, disease, and starvation. Every day you fish and hunt to feed yourself, and try to avoid being spotted by other people. Then, one day, you wander into a place that’s slightly foreign. A town. And everything changes.
This is the story of Ishi, perhaps one of the world’s most famous Native Americans of California Indians. He was first found 100 years ago on August 28, 1911, near an Oroville slaughterhouse. The sheriff took Ishi to the jail, saying it was “for his own safety.” Ishi was barefoot and wearing hide and canvas clothes. It wasn’t long before curious Looky Lou’s started coming to see the “wild man.” Many years later, this episode was dramatized in a TV movie called “Ishi: The Last of His Civilization.”
There was no TV at the time, but the newspaper created a sensation. One headline, from the San Francisco Call, read, “Ishi, The Last Aboriginal Savage in America.”
CHRISTIAAN KLIEGER: Which he wasn’t of course. The story was really largely fabricated.
Christiaan Klieger is an anthropologist and the curator of an exhibit at the “California Indians Making a Difference” exhibit at the California Museum in Sacramento.
KLIEGER: Ishi was alone by the fact that he and his family had been hiding for 40 years because of the massacres of Indian people. A lot of Indian people went up into the hills and they hid, rather than stay, in town and suffer the prejudice and the difficulty of living with white society.
This was during a time when native people of North America were referred to in animal-like terms. Newspapers and military correspondence, for example, generally called men “bucks,” while women were referred to simply as “squaws.” Countless tribal people, including Ishi’s, were killed during confrontations over land and resources. But when Ishi became a public figure, white society’s desire was to marvel at him rather than destroy him. Local newspaper The Oroville Register summed up the feeling this way.
ARTICLE EXCERPT: “Not a single word of English does he know, nor a single syllable of the language of the Digger Indians, the tribe which lived around here. Where he came from is a mystery. The most plausible explanation seems to be that he is probably the surviving member of the little group of uncivilized Deer Creek Indians that were driven from their hiding place two years ago.”
Word of Ishi spread quickly. And as soon as the news hit San Francisco, it was academia to the rescue... sort of. Again Christaan Klieger.
KLIEGER: Alfred Kroeber down at Berkeley, asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs if he could take possession of Ishi and bring him to the new museum of anthropology in San Francisco.
At that time, native people weren’t considered citizens in their own homeland. Instead they were wards of the federal government and were overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal office that still exists today. The bureau granted Kroeber’s request to keep Ishi with him, rather than allow him to live on a reservation. For the next five years Ishi was measured, weighed, questioned, and recorded in an ongoing exploration of his life and culture. Beginning in September, 1911, the San Francisco Call published an article every week about what was going on with Ishi, like this one published on November 11 of that year. T.T. Waterman was a colleague and fellow scholar of Kroeber.
SAN FRANCISCO CALL ARTICLE EXCERPT: “Ishi, the last of the Yana tribe, who was brought here by Professor T. T. Waterman, curator of the museum of the affiliated colleges, San Francisco, had his first ride in an elevator today. The aborigine was the second member of the party to enter. He seemed to enjoy the ride skyward and a broad grin was on his face. In the afternoon Ishi sang an Indian song at a meeting of the Indian Association of Northern California. Professor Waterman apologetically, remarked that some Indian songs are pleasing, but that Ishi's voice needed considerable cultivation.”
That’s how Ishi would spend the rest of his life: teaching his culture to scholars and the public – kind of like a living museum exhibit. Ishi shared traditional songs, stories, and demonstrated tool-making. He lived at the university and worked as a janitor until he died of tuberculosis in 1916 – just five years after being “discovered.” A number of newspapers, including the San Mateo Labor Index, wrote about his funeral.
SAN MATEO LABOR INDEX ARTICLE: “The body was accompanied to the cemetery by several of U. of C. scientists: Professor T. T. Waterman, E.W. Gifford, assistant curator of the anthropological museum, A.W. Warburton, L. L. Loud, and Dr. Saxton Pope of the University of California medical college.”
One of those who officiated as pallbearer made a few remarks at the cemetery, commenting upon the value Ishi had been to anthropologists in helping to complete the history of the tribe, incomplete until he was found.
Not everyone agreed on Ishi’s importance to anthropology – or on the nobility of UC Berkeley’s study of him. What follows is part of a commentary in the Chico Record written after Ishi’s death.
CHICO RECORD ARTICLE: “He furnished amusement and study to the savants at the University of California for a number of years, and doubtless much of ancient Indian lore was learned from him, but we do not believe he was the marvel that the professors would have the public believe. He was just a starved-out Indian from the wilds of Deer Creek who, by hiding in its fastness, was able to long escape the white man’s pursuit. And the white man with his food and clothing and shelter finally killed the Indian just as effectually as he would have killed him with a riffle.”
During his years at the university, there were some things Ishi kept control over – like his personal identity. Ishi is actually the Yana word for “grown man.” He never told anyone his real name. So that died with him.
But there were other things he did not have control over. Before his death, Ishi requested that his body not undergo an autopsy. He had significant spiritual fear of the practice. But after he died, the autopsy happened anyway. And that wasn’t all: Ishi’s brain was kept in formaldehyde for 83 years after his death, and passed from the university to the Smithsonian Institute before it was finally given back to his descendants to bury. In April 2000, the San Francisco Chronicle gave an account of when Ishi’s brain was returned.
SAN FRANCSICO CHRONICLE ARTICLE: “Leaders of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River tribes, which trace their bloodlines to Ishi's extinct Yahi Nation through the Yana tribe, promise to never reveal where they buried him. They're not saying when they will do it, either – just that they're landing in California today and that they want to be left alone to shepherd their departed elder's spirit away in peace.”
So what is Ishi’s legacy? For some, the study of Ishi was part of the beginning of a change in the practice of anthropology, into something more inclusive of native people. Mari Lyn Salvador is director of the Hearst Museum at UC Berkeley.
MARI LYN SALVADOR: Members of these communities are becoming anthropologists and becoming museum professors. And it mitigates against objectifying others.
Salvador oversaw a conference at UC Berkeley this past September that brought close to 300 students, anthropologists and history enthusiasts to discuss “A Century of Ishi.”
SALVADOR: We’ve changed. We’re including people as colleagues and professors and teachers, not only as museum directors who are coming from Native American communities all over the country.
But for many people, Ishi’s story represents the common tragedy of Native Americans. Jessica Valdez – whose ancestors were from the Caddo, Comanche, and Apache tribes – is a young anthropologist who recently graduated from college.
JESSICA VALDEZ: If we don’t stand together as a community and make ourselves visible, we’re going to fall victim to the people who conquered us. That’s how I feel when I think about Ishi who was exploited, he wasn’t taken seriously. His native culture was just undermined.
Today Ishi lives in the many books, films, and articles made about him. His ashes, along with his brain, have finally been buried. But it’s not simply the memory of Ishi that lives on his culture and the descendants do too. Again, Christaan Klieger.
KLIEGER: That he was the last, that there were no more. Therefore, California Native people, also must be extinct. That’s absolutely not true. People are still here.
And these days, young native anthropologists like Jessica Valdez are around to make sure those people’s cultures remain alive.
VALDEZ: Initially, I became interested in my upbringing as a native person. I just wanted that to be a part of future generations to come and I thought that would be in my best interest to perpetuate my culture.
And after 100 years, Ishi himself remains alive, in a sense. His voice, which was recorded with his permission, has been digitized from the old wax cylinders it was originally recorded on, and preserved in the Library of Congress.
In Berkeley, I’m Terria Smith for Crosscurrents.