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Ishi: America’s “Last Wild Indian”

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Yahi people lived as hunter-gatherers in northern California and they belonged to the Yana tribe. Their territory was close to the California Gold Rush land, so settlers and miners set about wiping them out. In 1911, the last surviving member of the tribe, called Ishi, was found frightened and starving.

The Yahi Genocide

The California Gold Rush of 1849 triggered the influx of 300,000 people to the territory, close to land already occupied by Indigenous people. However, as happened all over North America, when Indians got in the way of what white folk wanted they were pushed aside or killed.

The Yahi band probably numbered about 400 souls and their tragic fate became part of the bigger picture of mass killings of Indians.

The first misfortune to hit the Yahi was the loss of their major food sources. Silt from gold mining poisoned the salmon streams and cattle grazing forced deer to move away. Starvation stalked the Indians so they started raiding cattle ranches.

California law forbade Indians to own property, carry a gun, hold office, attend public schools, serve on juries, testify in court or intermarry. Indian children were kidnapped and sold to settlers for $50 or $60.”

Mark R. Day

The settlers decided on a more pro-active of ridding the area of Indigenous people than starving them. Armed posses were sent out to hunt down and kill them under the leadership of a man called Robert Anderson, whose job title was “Indian hunter.” The Yahi only had bows and arrows with which to defend themselves.

In 1865 and 1866, three massacres of Yahi Indians took place; Workman with 40 dead, Silva in which 30 were killed, and Three Knolls with 40 lives taken. Ishi, then about five years old, and his mother survived that last massacre. There were then probably only about 30 Yahi still alive.

The National Park Service continues the narrative: “The remaining Yahi escaped to a remote and relatively safe spot in the hills, but four cattlemen using dogs eventually found the survivors. They killed about half of the Yahi, but the rest found safety farther up in the hills. The surviving Yahi went into a period of concealment and silence that lasted some 40 years.”

The tiny remnants slowly died off until 1908 when Ishi’s mother died and was became the last member of the Yahi band. For three years he lived alone.

Ishi Is Found

On August 29, 1911, several butchers from Oroville, California found Ishi hiding near their slaughterhouse.

He was taken to Oroville and put in the jail by the sheriff. The discovery of a man living essentially in a Stone Age culture caused a media sensation.

Two anthropology professors at the University of California, Berkeley heard about Ishi. Alfred L. Kroeber and T. T. Waterman decided he should be taken to the Museum of Anthropology, where they could study him.

Theoretically, Ishi could return to his homeland but it’s unlikely he would have survived among his hostile neighbours. He made the decision to stay and worked as a museum janitor.

Randy Alfred on Wired reports that Ishi that the anthropologists learned about his language, one that had been thought to have gone extinct, and his culture and beliefs. Also, “He identified objects in the museum collection (baskets, arrowheads, spears, needles, etc.) and demonstrated how they were made and how they were used.” Visitors to the museum would come to watch Ishi make stone tools and arrow heads.

But, he was not a healthy man. A couple of months after being found in an emaciated condition he was hospitalized for a respiratory infection and then bronchopneumonia. Late in 1914, he was in hospital again, when doctors found he had tuberculosis. The disease killed him on March 25, 1916. He was in his mid-50s.

Alfred L. Kroeber (left) with Ishi.

Alfred L. Kroeber (left) with Ishi.

Ishi and the Kroeber Family

Once a media sensation, Ishi had been pushed off the news pages altogether and pretty much forgotten until 1961. That was the year Theodora Kroeber, widow of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, published her book Ishi in Two Worlds.

The book was a huge success and became part of the California school curriculum as, for almost the first time, it chronicled the systematic extermination of California’s Native People.

However, the resurrection of Ishi’s story raised questions about how he had been treated by Prof. Kroeber. Times change, and anthropology in the 1960s was a field of science vastly different from 1911, when it was in its infancy.

There is no indication that the anthropologist ever treated Ishi with other than the greatest respect. However, one criticism was that Kroeber’s relationship with Ishi was too close to allow for objective study.

The controversy blew over until 1999. That’s when Duke University cultural anthropology professor Orin Starn found that Kroeber had had Ishi’s brain removed and sent to the Smithsonian for dissection and study.

Ann Japenga (Los Angeles Times) reports that “At the time, some scientists believed there was value in studying the brains of primates, geniuses, and so-called exotics like Ishi.” There was censure anew dumped on the late Professor Kroeber, because he had not honoured Ishi’s request, according to his cultural beliefs, to be cremated intact.

In 2000, Ishi’s brain was brought back to California and buried along with his ashes.

Bonus Factoids

  • Ishi never revealed his real name―the word “ishi” simply means “man” in his language.
  • According to Indian Country Today, “The state of California paid more than a $1 million to militias to hunt and kill Indians. It paid 25 cents for each Indian scalp and $5 for an Indian’s head.”
  • Today, the last redoubt of the Yahi band is part of the Lassen National Forest. Forty thousand acres of canyons, cliffs, and streams are known as The Ishi Wilderness.
  • Two archaeologists, Jerald J. Johnson and Steven Shackley, have challenged the notion that Ishi was the last Yahi. They say that Ishi’s facial features and the way he made flint arrowheads suggest he was of a multi-ethnic background. They theorize that as Indian tribes shrank because of the murders committed by white people they joined together to survive. The hypothesis remains unresolved.

Sources

  • “A History of American Indians in California: Ishi’s Hiding Place.” National Park Service, November 17, 2004.
  • “Ishi’s Life: A California Genocide Primer.” Mark R. Day, Indian Country Today, March 25, 2016.
  • “March 25, 1916: Ishi Dies, a World Ends.” Randy Alfred, Wired, March 25, 2011.
  • “Revisiting Ishi.” Ann Japenga, Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2003.
  • “The Story of Ishi: A Chronology.” Nancy Rockafellar, University of California San Francisco, undated.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

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