In 1911, the last Native American known to be living “in the wild” and the last member of the Yahi tribe, surrendered to white civilization and mesmerized the nation, a living “relic” of a bygone era.
For tens of thousands of years, his people had lived in the beautiful country that would someday become northern California, among the mountains, meadows rich in bulbs, nuts and berries, forests glutted with big game and grizzlies, rushing rivers choked with salmon. The Yahi were a prosperous people, but as whites flooded into their ancestral land, they were decimated first by disease and then by guns. The 19th-century California genocide nearly wiped out the Yahi, and their parent tribe the Yani. Settlers set bounties of 50¢ a scalp and $5 per head for dead Yahi.
In 1865, when Ishi was five years old, his village was attacked in the Three Knolls Massacre, and 40 tribe members were killed. Only 33 survived, but cattlemen then murdered half of the survivors. The small group of last remaining Yahi, including Ishi and his family, hid in the mountains for the next 44 years.
In 1908, surveyors happened upon a camp with two older men and two old women. They were Ishi, his sister, mother and uncle. They fled but Ishi’s mother was very old and ailing and died. The surveyors ransacked the camp.
Ishi lived in the wilderness three more years, but after his uncle and sister died and forest fires decimated much of the area, Ishi began to starve because of loss of vegetation and game. On August 29, 1911, Ishi—nearly starving—decided to walk down from the mountain wilderness into a white settlement that had a slaughterhouse. Wearing a loin cloth and carrying his bow and quiver, he quickly caused a commotion and the sheriff arrested Ishi and put him in handcuffs. Ishi, it was said, smiled and complied with the sheriff’s demands. The local townspeople in nearby Oroville flocked to see the “wild man” from the wilderness. Soon curiosity seekers were coming from far-flung areas and the sheriff displayed the Yani Indian like a freak show speciman.
News of the sheriff’s “exhibit” reached university anthropology professors at University of California at Berkeley. Professor Alfred L. Kroeber removed the Yani Indian from the jail and brought him to the university to live and, not surprisingly, to be studied and exhibited.
When Kroeber asked his name, the Indian replied: "I have none, because there were no people to name me." According to Yahi custom, others had to introduce him to strangers. So Kroeber named him “Ishi,” which meant “man” in the Yani mother tongue.
Kroeber soon discovered that Ishi was amazingly intelligent and dignified. Kroeber wrote that he assimilated into the new white culture and the “ordeal of civilization” with preternatural grace. Ishi lived University of California's Museum of Anthropology, where he worked with linguists who were studying his language. On the weekends, he gave demonstrations to San Francisco crowds of his lifeways and survival skills, making bows and arrows, sparking a friction fire, building huts for shelter.
Kroeber marveled at Ishi’s confidence and independence. He held the rapt attention of the public that came to see him and his demonstrations were educational rather than carnival performances. Ishi told Kroeber that he liked instructing whites, whom he considered “sophisticated children—smart but not wise.”
Ishi’s intelligence and ebullient personality were so engaging that other anthropologists, scholars and filmmakers were anxious to meet him. In Februrary 1915, during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Ishi was filmed by Hearst-Selig News. (The film has since been preserved.)
In June 1915, Ishi was invited to live in Berkeley with anthropologist Thomas Talbot Waterman and his family. And in the summer of 1915, Ishi was interviewed and recorded by linguist Edward Sapir. (Those wax cylinders have since been recovered and restored.)
Professor of medicine Saxton Pope of UCSF also became close friends with Ishi, often hunted with Ishi and learned how to make bows and arrows in the Yahi way. Dr. Pope was also Ishi’s personal physician and realized too late that Ishi did not have the immunity’s to white diseases. Ishi contracted tuberculosis and died in 1916, only five years after he had come in from the wilderness. Saxton Pope was at his bedside when he died. He reported that Ishi’s last words were: “You stay. I go.”
Ishi had requested that his Yahi funerary tradition be respected and that his body remain intact for the afterlife. Some of his friends tried to protect his wishes, but the medical school performed an autopsy before friends could prevent it. Ishi’s brain was removed and sent to the Smithsonian. (It was not repatriated to until August 2000, when it was sent to the descendants of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River tribes to be re-united with the rest of Ishi’s remains and buried in a secret place.
So ended the final encounter between an ancient Paleolithic culture thousands of years old and the white industrial juggernaut in North America. Typical to the end, whites could not be trusted to keep their word. Ishi’s dignity, nevertheless, remained intact, even if his remains did not....
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“Ishi, The Last Wild Indian” was first published on May 15, 2021 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com .
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