Throughout the west, prospectors and settlers clashed with native people, diminishing the populations of tribes greatly reduced by disease. By the 1850s, it was believed that all Native Americans were "civilized," before those in the young field of anthropology were able to record first-hand accounts of native people in their own elements. In 1853, a lone native woman was found on a remote island off the coast of southern California, but she contracted dysentery and died after she had been on the mainland for only seven weeks. Then in 1911, a bedragled native man was found in a farmer's slaughter house corral in rural Northern California. He was the last of his people
, and he lived to share a glimpse of an ancient way of life, in his five years spent living amongst anthropologists, doctors, and linguists. He was Ishi, the last Yahi
(Snagfilm; also on Hulu
, and Amazon Instant
).Transfer of titular control of California from Mexico to the United States started in 1846
, but it was the gold rush a few years later that brought a significant number settlers into California. With the increased number of settlers, there were more clashes between native tribes and newcomers. Between 1850 and 1860, California spent more than three million dollars on "Indian Wars," and campaigns of 1855-59 resulted in 100 Indians being killed by soldiers and 200 more by the citizens
In a limited range along the west side of the central Sierra Nevada range, there were four small tribes, related yet separate. The Yana were broken into Northern, Central, and Southern Yana, and the Yahi furthest south
. Their plight was similar to other tribes throughout California, pushed to fight for their survival, with conflicts becoming about revenge instead of justice. While some people were escorted out of their native lands into reservations elsewhere in the state, others perfected methods for hiding in the most rugged and remote territory. In the 1840s, there were some 400 Yahi
. That number was reduced by half in four separate battles, and by 1870, the Yahi were considered be extinct, with little record of their culture remaining.
Over the next four decades, there were stories from farmers and cattlemen of "wild people" seen in the hills or evidence of their passing, but none of these tales came with solid evidence. Then in 1908, some surveyors came across a small group of native people in a very remote camp. When they saw the surveyors, they scattered, leaving behind a sick, old woman wrapped in a blanket. The surveyors took some items from the camp and told others of what they found. On returning to the camp site, the Yahi were nowhere to be found, and continued to elude discovery for the next years. It wasn't until 1911 that the last of the Yahi, in an act of final desperation, went into a rural farm on the outskirts of the city of Oroville
to scavenge whatever he could find. Barking dogs gave him away to ranch hands, who turned the docile man over to the sheriff.
The mysterious man understood no English, Spanish, or any other language spoken by people in the area. Native speakers were called in from far and wide, but it wasn't until anthropologists Alfred Kroeber
and Thomas Talbot Waterman
became the guardians of the native man. Kroeber, Waterman and others began to communicate with the native man wth the help of a Central Yana man, Sam Batwa, and later anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir
. Early in conversations, it was clear that the unnamed man would not share his name with people not close to him, as was Yahi custom. The name "Ishi" was chosen, meaning "man" in Yahi.
Ishi quickly adopted "modern" practices, such as wearing a shirt and pants, though he was never comfortable wearing shoes, and rarely did. In a staging of Ishi's initial encounters with civilization, he declined to undress and wear skins
, choosing instead to roll up his pants legs to hide them under his native dress. Ishi was adapting to his new surroundings as he and the last of his tribe had. Glass supplanted obsidian for arrowpoints, cotton fabric was used for clothing and utensils, iron nails formed the points of salmon spears and awls
. Although Ishi and his family tried to avoid the invading culture, they spent much of their lives coming to terms with it, exploiting it for their own benefit when they could.
Over the next four years, Ishi provided much information about the life of Yahi people, both in stories told and in items crafted. Although nominally employed at the Museum as a janitor, Ishi spent much of his time making artifacts.
Some were intended for the Museum collections, while others were given away to visitors. Ishi primarily made tools for hunting, often using modern supplies and non-native materials, "only returned to his primitive ways when requested to show the processes he formerly performed," as observed by Dr. Saxon Pope
, a medical researcher at the University of California in San Francisco.
Dr. Pope was one of the men who became friends with Ishi, along with Kroeber and Waterman. Ishi told Pope stories of his people, and passed along their methods of making and using the bow and arrow
. Amongst the works published by Pope are The medical history of Ishi
, and Yahi archery
. Ishi is credited with being the origin of the US rebirth of traditional archery
, with a number of archery enthusiasts coming to visit Ishi and study his techniques and methods.
On March 25, 1916, Ishi succumbed to tuberculosis
. His body was cremated with with elements of a traditional Yahi funeral, including bow and arrows, acorn meal, shell-bead money, tobacco, jewelry and obsidian flakes. Kroeber, the head of the anthropology department, was away in New York, but sent a strongly worded letter
to a departmental colleague:
"I must ask you as my personal representative on the spot in this matter, to yield nothing at all under any circumstances. If there is any talk about the interests of science, say for me that science can go to hell. We propose to stand by our friends.”
Unfortunately, the letter was not received until an autopsy was done, and Ishi's brain removed and stored before the body was cremated. His brain was sent to the Smithsonian, but this fact was forgotten until 1997
. The brain was located in 1999, and Ishi's remains were repatriated in 2000
, returned to his closest relatives, the Redding Rancheria and Pit River Indian Tribe of California.
Ishi's legacy lives on in various forms, through various recordings
, a historical landmark erected in 1966
, and the area where Ishi and his people lived became the Ishi Wilderness in 1984
. There is ongoing research and celebrations of the Yahi and Ishi
, with an annual Annual Ishi Gathering & Seminar at the end of August
in Butte County.
The most well-known book on Ishi is Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America
(Google books preview), by Theodora Kroeber
, wife of Alfred Kroeber. She is a writer and anthropologist, and she also helped to compile and annotate Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History
(Gb preview) with Robert F. Heizer
. Two of Theodora Kroeber's children, Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber, edited a subsequent book, Ishi in Three Centuries
(Gb preview). Theodora's daughter is Ursula K. Le Guin
, author of novels, children's books, and short stories, mainly in the genres of fantasy and science fiction.