Published on December 6, 2010 by John
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Ishi (ca. 1860 – March 25, 1916) was the last member of the Yahi, the last surviving group of the Yana people of California. Ishi is believed to have been the last Native American in Northern California to have lived most of his life completely outside the European American culture. At about 49 years old, in 1911 he emerged from the wild near Oroville, California, leaving his ancestral homeland in the foothills near Lassen Peak.
Ishi means “man” in the Yana language. The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber gave this name to the man when he discovered Ishi had never been named. When asked his name, he said: “I have none, because there were no people to name me,” meaning that no tribal naming ceremony had been performed. He was taken in by anthropologists at the University of California, Berkeley, who both studied him and hired him as a research assistant. He lived most of his remaining five years in a university building in San Francisco.
Prior to the California Gold Rush, the Yahi population numbered approximately 400, but the total Yana people numbered about 3,000. The gold rush brought tens of thousands of miners and later settlers to northern California, putting pressure on native populations. Gold mining damaged water supplies and killed fish; the deer left the area. The northern Yana group became extinct and the central and southern groups and Yahi populations dropped dramatically. Searching for food, they came into conflict with settlers.
Ishi is estimated to have been born about 1860-1862. In 1865, when he was a young boy, Ishi and his family were attacked in the Three Knolls Massacre, in which 40 of their tribesmen were killed.Approximately 30 Yahi survived to escape but shortly after, cattlemen killed about half of the survivors. The last 15 survivors, including Ishi and his family, went into hiding for the next 40 years.
In the fall of 1908, a group of surveyors came across the camp of an elderly woman, elderly man, and young girl. The latter two fled and the former hid herself in blankets to avoid detection, because she was sick and could not run. The surveyors ransacked the camp and took everything. The elderly woman, Ishi’s mother, and his other relatives soon died. Ishi lived a few years alone, as he was the last of his tribe. Starving and with nowhere to go, at the age of about 49 in 1911, Ishi walked out into the white man’s world.
After the native was noticed by townspeople, the local sheriff took the man into custody for his own protection. The “wild man” caught the imagination and attention of thousands of onlookers and curiosity seekers. Professors at the University of California, Berkeley Museum of Anthropology read about him and brought him to their facility, then housed on the University of California, San Francisco campus in an old law school building. Studied by the university, Ishi also worked with them as a research assistant and lived in a flat at the museum for most of the remaining five years of his life. In the summer of 1915, he lived temporarily in Berkeley with the anthropologist Thomas Talbot Waterman and his family.
Waterman and Alfred L. Kroeber, director of the museum, studied Ishi closely over the years and interviewed him at length to help them reconstruct Yahi culture. He described family units, naming patterns, and the ceremonies which he knew, but much tradition had been lost because of the few survivors with whom he was raised. He identified material items and showed the techniques by which they were made. Ishi provided information on his native Yana language, which was recorded and studied by the linguist Edward Sapir, who had previously done work on the northern dialects.
Ishi died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. It was then an incurable disease. His friends at the university arranged a burial ceremony in what they knew of the Yahi way: they cremated his body with burial goods, including “one of his bows, five arrows, a basket of acorn meal, a boxful of shell bead money, a purse full of tobacco, three rings, and some obsidian flakes”. Ishi’s remains were interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery near San Francisco.
In 1996, M. Steven Shackley of UC Berkeley announced work based on a study of Ishi’s arrowheads and those of the northern tribes. He had found that arrowheads made by Ishi were not typical of those recovered from historical Yahi sites. Because Ishi’s production was more typical of arrowheads of the Nomlaki or Wintu tribes and markedly dissimilar to those of Yahi, Shackly suggested that Ishi may have been only half Yahi and of mixed ancestry, related to another of the tribes. He based his conclusion on a comparative study of the arrowheads which Ishi made and others held by the museum from the Yahi, Nomlaki and Wintu cultures. Among Ishi’s techniques was the use of what is now known in flintknapping circles as an Ishi stick, used to run long pressure flakes. As it was a traditional technique of the Nomlaki and Wintu tribes, the finding suggests Ishi may have learned the skill directly from a male relative from one of those tribes. Also small groups, they lived close to the Yahi lands and were traditional competitors and enemies of the Yahi.
In 1994 Shackley had heard a paper by Jerald Johnson, who noted morphological evidence that Ishi’s facial features and height were more typical of the Wintu and Maidu. He theorized that under pressure of diminishing populations, members of groups that were once enemies may have intermarried to survive. To further support this, Johnson presented oral histories from the Wintu and Maidu that told of the tribes’ intermarrying with the Yahi.
If Ishi was descended from both of the tribes and grew up with members of both, it may help explain his adaptive abilities, as his circumstances, essentially from birth, would have been different from the cultural norm of his people.The debate on this has not been definitively settled, however, and the circumstances of his birth probably died with him.
The anthropologist Theodora Kroeber, also the wife of Alfred Kroeber, popularized Ishi’s story in her book Ishi in Two Worlds (1961), p. She worked with her husband’s notes and comments to create the story of a man she had never met, publishing it after Alfred’s death.
Robert F. Heizer and Theodora Kroeber edited Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History (1981), which contained additional scholarly materials.
In 2003, anthropologists Clifton and Karl Kroeber, sons of Theodora and Alfred Kroeber, edited Ishi in Three Centuries, the first scholarly book on Ishi to contain essays by Native Americans. Native writers, such as Gerald Vizenor, had been commenting on the case since the late 1970s.
The Duke University anthropologist Orin Starn updated Ishi’s story in his book, Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian (2004). He recounted his quest for the remains of the last of the Yahi, while interpreting what Ishi meant to Americans then and modern Indians today. (In 2000 Ishi’s brain was reunited with his cremated remains).
The Ishi Wilderness Area in northeastern California, believed to be the ancestral grounds of his tribe, is named in his honor.
Due to a campaign by Gerald Vizenor, the courtyard in Dwinelle Hall at the University of California, Berkeley was renamed “Ishi Court”.
In popular culture
1964, Theodora Kroeber published a shorter, partially fictionalized version of the story as Ishi: Last of His Tribe.
Lawrence Holcomb published a novel titled The Last Yahi: A Novel About Ishi (2000).
Ishi: the Last of His Tribe, with Eloy Casados in the title role, telecast on NBC December 20, 1978
The Last of His Tribe (1992), with Graham Greene as Ishi, was also produced as a TV movie.
Jed Riffe created an award-winning documentary film Ishi: The Last Yahi (1992).
Ishi (2008), a play written by John Fisher, was performed from July 3–27, 2008, at Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco. He also directed it. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle said the work “is a fierce dramatic indictment of the ugliest side of California history.”