Ishi, last of the Yahi: of two worlds, and in three centuries
August 8, 2012 12:27 PM   Subscribe

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, Netflix, 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.
posted by filthy light thief (20 comments total) 86 users marked this as a favorite
On a similar tangent: The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, found (and died) in 1853.

A lone native woman was found on San Nicolas Island, a small, remote island, located approximately 75 miles west of Los Angeles and 25 miles from the closest adjacent island. San Nicolas Island was the home of the Nicoleño tribe, who had been under attack from Russian-led Aleutian fur trappers since the early 1800s, and in the 1830s, local mission padres had the remaining members of the tribe escorted off the island. In 1835, the last ship sailed away, when a mother realized her child had been left behind. She returned to the island, but the ship didn't come back for her and her child. She wasn't seen and was believed dead until 1853, when an otter hunter spotted a woman on the island. She spoke a language that none of the local mainland native people understood. She contracted dysentery and died after she had been on the mainland for only seven weeks, without anyone recognizing what could have been her name. She was baptized conditionally with the Christian name Juana Maria, and now little is left of her, except Some observations on the material culture of the Nicoleño (Google quickview; original 9 page PDF) and a recording of a song she sang, recorded and performed in 1913, 60 years after she died.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:47 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

In 1853, a lone native woman was found on a remote island off the coast of southern California

That would be Juana Maria who was the inspiration for Island of the Blue Dolphins.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 12:48 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I remember reading Island of the Blue Dolphins quite vividly. That girl and her cormorant cloak.
posted by jillithd at 12:51 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ishi was also an inspiration for the novel Earth Abides
posted by ocschwar at 12:52 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was broadly familiar with the Ishi story, but I was unaware of the LeGuin connection. Fascinating stuff, thanks.
posted by Forktine at 12:52 PM on August 8, 2012

Recently Discovered Accounts Concerning the "Lone Woman" of San Nicolas Island from the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology.
posted by jillithd at 12:54 PM on August 8, 2012

This explains at least one set of Ursula K Le Guin's books set in California and the undercurrents that run through the rest of the Ekumen galaxy.

Thank you for this carefully crafted post, filthy light thief, for shining a light on the hidden corners of our world.
posted by infini at 12:54 PM on August 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

I grew up in Berkeley, home to the Kroeber Museum, so knew a little about this story, but this post is superb and I look forward to going through it. Thank you.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 2:03 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

What a great post! Archaeologists owe a great debt of gratitude to Ishi because he taught us more about how actual people make and use stone tools than anyone else. There's even a flintknapping tool named after him, the Ishi stick.
posted by TungstenChef at 2:21 PM on August 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thanks for giving me something to do this evening.
posted by mudpuppie at 2:42 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

The story of Ishi is one of the most heart-breaking stories of all time. I did know about him. He fascinated me.
I wish I could have met him.
Thanks so much for this post!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:16 PM on August 8, 2012

I had the book Ishi in Two Worlds and read it several times because it's an interesting tale. Eventually, I gave it away as it was just too much to contemplate rereading again. Such a sad story. He had to have been a strong man, mentally, to continue on after his world crumbled.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:30 PM on August 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I enjoyed Ishi in Two Worlds. It's well written and I learned a lot, but I don't think I can read it more than once. I kept imagining being the last of my people. I tried to contemplate adapting gracefully the way Ishi did. I got stuck on raging and then getting depressed at the unfairness of what happened to him and countless others. Learning in my Canadian elementary school about The Last Beothuk made a huge impression on me.

One more opportunity to practice meditation or remember the Serenity Prayer or whatever along those lines, I guess. While continuing to speak up for peoples who are getting shafted and, as IIRC the Dalai Lama said regarding China, let paralyzing anger go but "take strong counter-action" against those who would fuck them up.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 4:08 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Omg, what a powerful and moving story. Thanks for this generous and wonderful post.
posted by nickyskye at 4:46 PM on August 8, 2012

Ishi's Long Road Home, by Bruce Bower (link goes to a pdf).
posted by gudrun at 6:23 PM on August 8, 2012

Theodora Kroeber also wrote Ishi: last of his tribe, apparently for children. As a child who grew up learning about the missions and going on field trips to look at the rocks where people once ground acorns, I vastly preferred this story--it's fictionalized but clearly based on a real person--to that of Juana Maria and Island of the Blue Dolphins. I'm intrigued to get the not-so-fictionalized background on the man known as Ishi; thanks for this thoroughly researched post!
posted by librarylis at 7:32 PM on August 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow, thank you for this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:39 PM on August 8, 2012

There was also an Ishi: The Last of His Tribe movie that we watched in school, starring the cowboy from the Great Western Savings commercials (but this may be too 1980s Bay Area specific.)
posted by ActingTheGoat at 11:00 PM on August 8, 2012

I read Ishi in Two Worlds a few years ago and enjoyed it immensely. Now I look for used copies and give them away to friends and acquaintances.
posted by neuron at 12:19 AM on August 9, 2012

Theodora's book about her husband Alfred manages to be a good history of a certain period in the US as well as an engaging biography.

Fantastic post.
posted by latkes at 4:34 PM on September 6, 2012

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