Ishi, who was described as the last surviving member of the Native Amercain Yahi tribe, is discovered in California on August 29, 1911.
By the first decade of the 20th century, Euro-Americans had so overwhelmed the North American continent that scarcely any Native Americans remained who had not been assimilated into Anglo society to some degree. Ishi appears to have been something of an exception. Found lost and starving near an Oroville, California, slaughterhouse, he was largely unfamiliar with white ways and spoke no English.
READ MORE: 20 Rare Photos of Native American Life at the Turn of the Century
Authorities took the Native American man into custody for his own protection. News of the so-called “Stone Age Indian” attracted the attention of a young Berkeley anthropologist named Thomas Waterman. Gathering what partial vocabularies existed of northern California Native dialects, the speakers of which had mostly vanished, Waterman went to Oroville to meet Ishi. After unsuccessfully hazarding words from several dialects, Waterman tried a few words from the language of the Yana Indians. Some were intelligible to Ishi, and the two men were able to engage in a crude dialogue. The following month, Waterman took Ishi to live at the Berkeley University museum, where their ability to communicate gradually improved.
Waterman eventually learned that Ishi was a member of the Yahi people, an isolated branch of the northern California Yana tribe. He was approximately 50 years old and was apparently the last of his people. Ishi said he had wandered the mountains of northern California for some time with a small remnant of the Yahi people. Gradually, accident or disease had killed his companions. A white man murdered his final male companion, and Ishi wandered alone until he reached Oroville.
For five years, Ishi lived at the Berkeley Museum. He and Waterman became close friends, and he spent his days describing his tribal customs and demonstrating his wilderness skills in archery, woodcraft, and other traditional techniques. He learned to understand and survive in the white world, and enjoyed wandering the Bay area communities and riding on the trolley cars. Eventually, though, Ishi contracted tuberculosis. He died on March 25, 1916, at an estimated age of 56.
READ MORE: Native American History Timeline
Ishi discovered in California - HISTORY
Ishi's Hiding Place
Ishi's Hiding Place is located at the corner of Oak Avenue and Quincy Road, at the site of the old Ward Slaughterhouse about two miles east of Oroville. The foundation of the slaughterhouse is extensively deteriorated because of weathering. Several residences sit on the upper part of the one-acre site, while the slaughterhouse remains are on the lower portion of the property. An oak tree stands where Ishi was first seen.
Ishi, a Yahi Yana Indian, was the last of his people. Prior to White contact, the Yana population numbered approximately 3,000 in four distinct groupings: the Northern Yana, the Central Yana, the Southern Yana, and the Yahi. Each group maintained its own geographic boundaries, dialects, and customs. The land of the Yana Indian was approximately "40 miles wide and 60 miles long and was an area of fast-flowing streams, precipitous gorges, boulder-strewn hills, and occasional lush meadows." (Olivet Memorial Park:3) The Yana Indians experienced cold, rainy winters and hot summers hunted wild game fished for salmon gathered fruit, acorns, and roots tanned hides wove baskets and fashioned tools.
After James Marshall discovered gold in 1848, miners and ranchers moved into Yana territory, and the traditional food supply changed dramatically. Silt from hydraulic mines polluted salmon streams, and deer and other wild game moved away because livestock depleted the natural food resources. Ishi's people began to raid cattle and fight back because they were hungry. By 1861, the Southern Yana had ceased to exist, and three years later, the Central and Northern Yana populations had decreased from 2,000 individuals to fewer than 50. In 1865, Ishi and his family were the victims of the Three Knolls Massacre, from which approximately 30 Yahi survived. 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. They continued to gather acorns, grind them into flour, and cook acorn mush. They made capes of deerskin and wildcat, and slept under blankets of rabbit skin. The Yana also maintained their traditional customs, which included caring for the sick, cremating the dead, and performing various ceremonies. The last five Yahi Indians built a village on a densely thicketed canyon ledge 500 feet above Deer Creek. Since a grizzly bear had once had its den there, they called it Grizzly Bear's Hiding Place. Eventually, all of Ishi's companions died. After his mother's death in early 1911, Ishi lived alone.
A group of butchers discovered Ishi in their corral at Oroville on August 29, 1911. He was emaciated, starving, exhausted, and frightened. The local sheriff took him to the Oroville Jail where he stayed until Alfred L. Kroeber and T. T. Waterman, professors at the University of California, Berkeley, read about him and decided to bring him to the school's new Museum of Anthropology. Waterman went to Oroville and arranged to take Ishi to San Francisco. After Ishi arrived in San Francisco, he helped Kroeber and Waterman reconstruct Yahi culture. He identified material items and showed how they were made. Ishi worked as an assistant at the Museum until his death from tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. He died at the University of California, Berkeley Hospital when he was about 54 years old. His friends at the museum tried to bury him in the traditional Yahi way by cremating him along with 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 are at Mount Olivet Cemetery near San Francisco.
Ishi's Hiding Place
Commemorating Ishi – The Last of the Northern California Yahi Indians
Editor: One century ago, in 1911, the last of the Northern California Yahi Indians was “discovered” near starvation. Given the name “Ishi”, he was brought into the White Man’s world – where he became an oddity and anthropological subject with few real friends among “the aliens” who had decimated his people.
By Espresso / Originally published Sept. 13, 2011
November, 1908: A surveyor team hired by the Oro Light and Power Company, accompanied by guide Merle Apperson traveled to Deer Creek, in the heart of Northern California’s Yana Tribes country. Assuming the country to be uninhabited, the crew went about its business with not a thought of the former occupants. Two of the group were returning to camp one day when they unwittingly stumbled upon an Indian man fishing in the creek. They hurried back to relate their tale of a “wild Indian”, but most brushed it off as nonsense. Not Merle Apperson. The following morning he led the way along Deer Creek to where he suspected there may have been a camp. The surveyors walked into the tiny village. As far as they could tell, it was inhabited by three “wild” Indians—an old man, an old sick woman, and a younger woman. The man they had seen the day before was not evident.
These were Yahi Indians the last of a nearly vanished tribe that once covered much of the northern California countryside and were part of what was once the Yana Nation of Tribes with the Yahi being the southernmost and smallest tribe of that nation. This small remnant of Yahi Indians had been hiding for years, eluding detection and capture by living in their cunningly hidden settlement like trapped animals. Their existence was depressing, with starvation, fear, illness and grief as their daily burden. The younger woman and the old man fled to hide as the intruders approached the village but the old woman could not run. She had been covered with blankets in the hope that she would not be noticed.
The men entered the hideaway and poked around, eyeing whatever goods were present. They then shook the blankets and discovered the Indian. Her mourning was obvious by her shorn hair. Her deer thong-wrapped legs were swollen and she could not walk. She was weak, sick, and in pain and she shook with fear as the strangers looked her over. An attempt was made to communicate but with no success. Incredibly, after seeing the pitiful state this woman was in, the intruders ransacked the village, taking with them everything they could carry—even the food—leaving the woman to die. According to Apperson, he alone was appalled at his companions’ actions and protested their thievery. He claims he pleaded with the others that they should at least transport the woman to their camp for care but his protests fell on deaf ears. What these men had done with such casual ease was strip four terrified, starving people of their meager possessions, including items they needed to find food. They had handed down a death sentence, with no mercy or cause to the last surviving members of a people who had once inhabited, thrived, and survived the northern California region for thousands of years. In a fateful moment brought on by the actions of callous men, the Yahi people apparently had come to an end.
After the thieves departed, the Indian man seen fishing at the creek returned. No food, tools, utensils, or comforts were left. It was he and his mother— alone. The other two never returned, nor was any sign of them ever found. They were gone. Dead. Likely drowned during their escape or eaten by one of the numerous predators in the back country. Before long, even the old woman was dead and the man stood completely alone.
The lone man survived the death sentence of 1908. With no home, shelter, tools, food, or companion he somehow found a way to live. Though grieving and alone, despair never overtook this last Yahi.
Three years passed since the raid on his village and the death of his family. It had been that long since he had heard a single utterance from the lips of another Yahi. Nearly dead from starvation, and perhaps desperate for human companionship, the man made a decision. Knowing he would die if he stayed at Deer Creek, and fearing he would be killed if he left, he took a chance.He departed the Yahi world and enter the world of the aliens who had decimated his people.
On the morning of August 29, 1911, in a slaughterhouse corral, two miles from Oroville, a nearly dead “wild man” was discovered, emaciated, exhausted, frightened, and starved. The sheriff took the Indian into custody, and was baffled as to what to do next. Locked in a cell, unable to communicate with any number of Indians brought before him, the traumatized man awaited his fate at the hands of people who thought he was insane and likely dangerous.
In a carnival atmosphere the “wild man” caught the imagination and attention of thousands of onlookers and curiosity seekers. News of his discovery reached two professors of anthropology at the University of California, Alfred L. Kroeber and T. T. Waterman. Both men had an interest in the human saga being played out in Oroville for several reasons. Beyond the obvious general anthropological interest, they had been searching for the lost “wild man” that had been sited three years earlier by the surveyor crew a few miles north of Oroville—in the Deer Creek region. They wondered if this could be him.
Two days after the man’s discovery, Waterman was on a train to Oroville to assume responsibility for the “wild man” per the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ instructions. Kroeber and Waterman became guardians of this last Yahi. For nearly five years he lived at the university’s museum, employed as a janitor and teaching the professors whatever he was able to communicate about the Yahi people. There were no other speakers of his tongue so communication was difficult and tedious. Kroeber persevered and managed to learn and communicate in ‘conversational’ Yahi, while the man learned about life in 20th century America.
The bond that developed between Kroeber and the man was, by all accounts, a close one. They both came to depend upon one another, not only for the pursuits of study they were engaged in, but on a personal level. For the man, this relationship must have been especially precious, for he had been alone for so long. Kroeber eventually named the man “Ishi”, which is Yahi for ‘man’. Yahi tradition prevented Ishi from speaking his own name or the names of the dead.
As Ishi told the Yahi story, Kroeber became anxious to see the country he spoke of. At first, Ishi resisted, afraid to revisit the places at which he had experienced both joy and sorrow. He told Kroeber that there were no chairs, tables or beds there, and very little to eat but eventually, he agreed to go. The results of the 1914 excursion to Yahi country were invaluable. Kroeber drew maps, marking crucial sites of Ishi’s life, and recorded the place names as the Yahi knew them. There were also photographs taken of both locations and of Ishi demonstrating the Yahi methods of crafting arrow heads, arrows, bows, spears and the other tools of his daily life. Kroeber recorded the past through living history in the present for the future. It was as if he had reached back in time, pulled forth a man of another age, and asked him “Please show me what life was like long ago.” Ishi was physically contemporary, though culturally and socially antiquated.
The tale Ishi told was grim. The Yana peoples suffered the complete loss of their lands and way of life when the Americans came during the Gold Rush. In less than thirty years the peoples who once called the region home had gone into hiding in the harsh mountains where food was scarce and the chances for survival were slim. Ishi used to refer to the time of the American arrival as “when the stars fell”. Much of his life was spent watching his people fade away like animals facing extinction.
While still a child sometime in the 1870?s, Ishi’s own father was killed in a village massacre. The boy and his mother escaped by jumping into a nearby river. The Yahi who fought to preserve their territory against unequal odds and long range rifles were slaughtered until only a remnant band of 40 or so remained. The survivors of this tiny band hid successfully for nearly forty years, undetected by the outside world. It was firmly believed, even by locals who went up into the foothills of the Lassen, that the Yahi, or “Mill Creek Indians”, were a people of the past. Gone. No record of their history, origins, culture, or language had survived until Ishi walked down from the mountains.
This remarkable man was the last repository for the culture of a people who had lived in his region for some 2000 years. The records of his beliefs and myths, ways of life and tradition and language would have vanished forever as the clean sweep of American conquest overrode the lands and native peoples and assigned them a footnote in books that described them merely as the “Mill Creek Indians” who briefly and violently resisted American expansion. If Ishi held any animosity toward the American Californians he never showed it. He seemed happy enough to find some company even among those who regarded him as a curiosity. He was painfully shy around women and soon adopted American clothing, only reluctantly posing in the skins and rags of his former days. Shoes disgusted him while a penny whistle gave him hours of childlike pleasure. However, his mind was anything but dull. Ishi was asked what he thought when shown an increasingly popular modern wonder the airplane. He simply asked, “Is there a white man up there?” Ishi was not fazed by the novelty of the modern world.
Ishi lived the last several years of his life at the San Francisco Anthropology Museum. He made bead-work quivers, and his bows showed the greatest craftsmanship. He did this in front of an enthralled public, 3 days a week as a living exhibit there.
Ishi soon encountered health problems that became harder to overcome. Exposure to large numbers of the public and foreign pathogens that he and his people had little ability to withstand took its toll and by 1915 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which in the days before antibiotics was a death sentence. The sentence for Ishi played out on March 23, 1916 at Berkeley where he had gone to be with his friend, Kroeber. Kroeber was not there he was trying to get funding from politicians on behalf of his friend who died before Kroeber’s return.
Ishi was autopsied at the UC Berkeley Medical School. His body was cremated ashes sent to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Colma. His brain was removed and sent to the Smithsonian Institute in 1917 by Alfred Kroeber where it stayed for over eighty years, until other Yana tribes agitated for its return. In August, 2000 Ishi’s brain made it back to his closet relations the Redding Rancheria and Pit River Tribe. Ishi’s remains were interred at an undisclosed location and it is likely that he finally had the song of the dead sung for him.
Ishi’s real name discovered? | News of Our Past
For more than 80 years, the world has called him “Ishi.” That wasn’t his name, but a label put upon him by Euro-Americans.
A long-forgotten essay has been uncovered that may contain the Tehama County Indian’s real name, but the people of the world will never twirl it over their tongues.
During a symposium Saturday in Oakland, Bay-Area naturalist Kurt Rademacher announced he discovered an unpublished essay written by Ishi’s physician and friend Saxton Pope, which contains what could be the Indian’s real name.
However, Rademacher says he will not release the name out of respect for the Indian, who refused to give his name to anyone – except, perhaps, Pope. …
Ishi, popularly labeled the last of the Yahi Indian tribe, was discovered in a slaughterhouse near Oroville in 1911, near starvation. He was eventually whisked away to San Francisco to become the focus of anthropological study until his death from tuberculosis in 1916.
— Chico Enterprise-Record, March 30,1994
50 YEARS AGO
Marler Bill Keeps Road In State Highway System
OROVILLE – State Sen. Fred Marler, R-Redding, has successfully steered an amendment through the Senate Transportation Committee that will keep the Clark Road in the state highway system.
The amendment was part of Senate Bill 174, a transportation bill passed unanimously by the committee yesterday. Ironically, Marler could not be present at the hearing …
Public Works Director Clay Castleberry reported on the committee action this morning. He and Supervisor Don Maxon of Paradise attended the committee hearing prepared to make a strong plea for retention of the Clark Road by the state. However, SB 174 zipped through, which included the Marler amendment.
County officials became concerned early this year when they learned that the state Public Works Department had recommended dropping the 11.4 mile stretch of Clark Road between Highway 70 and Pearsen Road from the state system.
The road is relatively expensive to maintain and its inclusion into the state system some eight years ago was successfully accomplished only after long and strenuous efforts on the part of local officials. One condition of acceptance by the state was reconstruction of the road to state standards, a project completed at county expense. Maintenance costs are estimated at $10,000 a year. …
— Chico Enterprise-Record, March 27, 1969
75 YEARS AGO
Chico Lions Club Cigarette Drive Grows Daily
The Chico Lions club has sent almost 500,000 cigarettes to servicemen overseas, using contributions principally from collection bottles in local stores, it was announced today.
Money contributed to the cause does more than double duty, since cigarettes to go overseas cost only 50 cents a carton, the tax being eliminated.
Ivan Newton, chairman of the Lions committee sponsoring the movement, urges Chicoans to continue aiding the campaign by dropping spare coins in the bottles, or by sending larger amounts to the club.
— Chico Daily Enterprise, March 30, 1944
100 YEARS AGO
Butte County Pioneers Meet After 29 Years
Two old time trail blazers, John Mullen, commander of Halleck Post, G.A.R., and Capt. John J. Lewis, of Paradise, two of the oldest residents of Butte County, met Wednesday after 59 years of separation.
Mullen crossed the plains with Lewis when a boy of 15. They parted at Magalia, on their way to the Sacramento valley, and had not seen or heard from each other until they met yesterday.
Mullen was prompted to get in touch with Captain Lewis when the death of Mrs. Lewis was recently announced, telling of Lewis as captain of the train crossing the plains.
Mullen found Lewis at the home of his son, Guy T. Lewis, of Chico Vecino. He remembered the captain distinctly, for he wore a sombrero hat typical of the style worn by the Sacramento valley cowboy of the early days.
The train which was commanded by Lewis was composed of 61 wagons and 500 emigrants.
Ishi discovered in California - HISTORY
The California Indian man known to us today as “Ishi” is one of the most famous Native Americans of all time. Books, plays, movies, and contemporary art exhibits have explored his life. Yet, we do not even know his true name.
Following custom, Ishi refused to speak his name to outsiders without introduction by someone from his tribe. Instead, he was referred to by the word that means “man” in the language of his people, the Yahi. The southernmost group of Yana-speakers, the Yahi lived in the valleys and foothills east of the upper Sacramento River. Ishi, born probably around 1860, spent much of his life in hiding with his family, attempting to avoid the assaults of predominantly white settlers moving into Yahi territory.
Portrait of Ishi, April 1911 (15-5414).
White settler militias systematically eliminated Yahi people during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, part of a broader campaign of genocide against Native Californians. On August 29, 1911, after the death of his family and other remaining Yahi, Ishi was cornered by dogs outside the town of Oroville, CA. Holding Ishi in the local jail, town officials reached out to the Hearst Museum, then known as the University of California Museum of Anthropology.
Museum Director Alfred L. Kroeber proposed Ishi live at the Museum as an alternative to officials’ proposal he be relocated to a reservation in Oklahoma. Within days, Ishi was brought to the Museum’s first location in San Francisco, near Golden Gate Park, where he lived for the last four and a half years of his life.
Publicized as “the last wild Indian in California,” Ishi was employed at the museum to demonstrate Yahi culture. He spent much of his time on display for white museum audiences, fashioning obsidian and colored glass projectile points and recording Yahi songs and stories. The Museum collected and still cares for the objects and recordings that Ishi made.
Ishi also worked as a live-in custodian and research assistant at the Museum. In summer 1914, at Kroeber’s insistence, Ishi reluctantly traveled with anthropologists back to his home and site of his family’s massacre, the Deer Creek valley area of Tehama County, to document Yahi culture.
Arrows crafted by Ishi (1-19589, 1-19861, 1-19859).
Ishi was known throughout San Francisco and could be found hunting on Mount Parnassus and walking in Golden Gate Park. First-hand accounts recall him making tools and sharing information with Museum visitors. Many described Ishi as surprisingly friendly and eager to share his knowledge. Nonetheless we must now recognize that Ishi’s position at the Museum resembled indentured servitude and that he was objectified as a living exhibit. Kroeber counted Ishi as his friend, but he also used their unequal relationship to advance his own career and the Museum’s popularity. Ishi passed away in March 1916 from tuberculosis, a painful disease that ravaged San Francisco.
It is now shameful to recall the actions taken by employees of the Museum and University following Ishi’s death. During his time at the Museum, Ishi was apparently very distressed to be living amidst excavated human remains, Native American ancestors unearthed for research and curation. He asked that his own body be cremated according to Yahi tradition. Disregarding his wishes, Ishi’s University doctor completed an autopsy on Ishi’s body. Kroeber, traveling at the time of Ishi’s death, advised against an autopsy. However, returning to Berkeley after its completion, he sent Ishi’s brain to the Smithsonian for further study. Ishi’s body was cremated and placed in a niche at a cemetery just south of San Francisco.
In 2000, as the result of tireless work by Maidu, Redding, and Pitt River tribes in California, Ishi’s ashes and brain were repatriated and reunited. Ishi is now buried in a secret location near Deer Creek, his homeland.
Who Was Ishi?
Ishi is a household name in Northern California, where school children have been taught for 85 years that he was the last Yahi, a subgroup of the Yana Indians.
"Ishi, the Last Yana Indian, 1916," is etched into the small black jar containing his cremated remains.
But by studying the arrowpoints Ishi made, Steven Shackley, a research archaeologist at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, has discovered that Ishi apparently wasn't the last full-blooded Yahi, or Yana, after all.
Instead, Shackley said that Ishi, who was found, starving and afraid, near Oroville in 1911, was of mixed Indian blood--a finding that revises Ishi's famous history, which many Californians learned by reading "Ishi in Two Worlds" by Theodora Kroeber.
Shackley said that, in light of this new evidence on Ishi, teachers educating children about California history "should be more aware of the complexity of Ishi's situation. It's more complex than Kroeber imagined."
Her book was "simplistic," he said, "not based completely on hard research."
An analysis by Shackley of a large Berkeley collection of Ishi's arrowpoints indicates that although he spoke Yahi and had lived in the ancestral Yahi homeland in the Mount Lassen foothills, he also had either Wintu or Nomlaki blood.
"Arrowpoints made in the historic Yahi sites excavated by the Department of Anthropology in the 1950s and housed at the museum are quite different from Ishi's products," said Shackley. "But tools and arrowpoints made at historic Nomlaki or Wintu sites also housed at the museum bear striking resemblance to those made by Ishi."
An expert in stone tool technology, Shackley found that the hundreds of projectile points Ishi made after he left the wilderness had long blades with concave bases and side notches. In contrast, arrowheads in the museum from historic Yahi sites are short and squat, with contracting stems and basal notches.
Although Ishi was culturally Yahi, said Shackley, "it appears he was not the last purely Yahi Indian. He learned to produce arrowpoints not from Yahi relatives, but very possibly from a Nomlaki or Wintu male relative.
"This makes Ishi's story even more romantic and sad," he said. "Being of mixed blood, he is an example of the cultural pressure the Anglos placed on the dwindling number of Indians in the mid- to late-1800s to marry their enemies."
Shackley first investigated Ishi's arrowpoints in 1990. After a hiatus, he resumed work upon hearing evidence at an Ishi conference that physical anthropology suggests Ishi was not completely Yana.
The Wintu, Nomlaki and Maidu belonged to a large group of Indians in the Sacramento Valley who spoke a language called Penutian. They lived adjacent to their enemies, the Yana, who were in the Lassen foothills. The Yana had four subgroups--the northern, central and southern Yana, and the Yahi--and each had its own dialect, territory and culture.
Ishi was born into an extended family that, in order to perpetuate life, was forced to intermarry with outsiders, with enemies, said Shackley, and one of Ishi's parents may have been Wintu or Nomlaki. The number of Indians was dwindling, and an incest taboo kept them from choosing a relative as a mate.
"We always thought that Ishi was a survivor who was extremely adaptive," said Shackley. "Now we know he was even more adaptive because he was the product of a society that had to adapt to a situation that was not part of its cultural ideology."
"Ishi didn't talk about his ancestors because his religious beliefs prevented him from doing that. But that's my job as an archaeologist," he said. "And Ishi would have wanted the truth known."
Ishi first made headlines on Aug. 29, 1911, when butchers found him outside a slaughterhouse near Oroville. Initially, he was jailed by the Butte County sheriff. But two Berkeley anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Talbot Waterman, befriended Ishi and gave him shelter at the campus's anthropology museum, then in San Francisco.
Kroeber's wife, the author of "Ishi in Two Worlds," wrote that Ishi was "the last wild Indian in North America, a man of Stone Age culture."
The anthropologists pronounced Ishi a Yahi because he spoke Yahi and was found near Yahi territory. They also considered him the last Yahi, said Shackley, since "the only Yahi left in the hinterlands were believed to have been exterminated by Indian killers brought in by whites."
Furthermore, they believed Ishi was the last Indian to have lived in the wild. Massacres, starvation and disease had taken the lives of countless Indians in Northern California during the mid- to late-1800s. Many others had been forced into reservations.
In 1908, surveyors did spot four Indians in Yahi territory. But in 1909, Waterman and two guides failed to find the group. Two years later, Ishi, who verified that he had been one of the four, appeared alone near Oroville.
"That Ishi was wearing his hair burned short in sign of mourning in August, 191l, was evidence of a death or deaths in his family," wrote Theodora Kroeber, "but his mourning may well have been a prolonged one."
Under pressure from reporters who wanted to know the stranger's name, Alfred Kroeber called him "Ishi," which means "man" in Yana. Ishi never uttered his real name.
"A California Indian almost never speaks his own name," wrote Kroeber's wife, "using it but rarely with those who already know it, and he would never tell it in reply to a direct question."
Ishi was given a home at UC's anthropology museum--then on the UCSF campus. He lived there for most of the rest of his life, except briefly in 1915, when he lived in Berkeley with Waterman's family.
While at the museum, Ishi often worked on native crafts, such as the arrowpoints Shackley analyzed. By his own choice, he often did these crafts for museum audiences and would give some of his work away.
"The quality of the arrowpoints Ishi made shows he felt good about himself--he was a good craftsman," said Shackley. "This positive self-image helped make Ishi a hell of an adaptive person."
Ishi formed close friendships with Waterman and Kroeber and with Saxton Pope, a teacher at the university's medical school, which was next door to the museum. He also agreed to record linguistic material on the Yahi language for Berkeley.
In December 1914, Ishi developed what doctors felt was tuberculosis. After several hospitalizations, his friends moved him back to the museum to spend his last days. He died there on March 25, 1916.
In the 92 years since the so-called last wild Indian was found cowering in an Oroville slaughterhouse, Alfred Kroeber’s descendants have resisted speaking for him. After all, by what right does a privileged California clan represent a persecuted Indian simply because their father was the anthropologist who studied him and their mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote a book that made him famous?
But that logic hasn’t stopped people from quizzing the pair’s sons, Karl and Clifton Kroeber. Their daughter, Ursula K. Le Guin, also deflects questions about Ishi that come up at readings of her bestselling science fiction books. Fellow police officers sometimes ask LAPD Capt. Scott Kroeber, Clifton’s son, about the Native American once called “the wild man of Mt. Lassen.”
It seems the family is inextricably tied to Ishi, the man said to have been the last North American Indian roaming the wilds. As the tale goes, his Yahi tribe was hunted and massacred in the late 1800s until only a handful remained. They hid out in the Mt. Lassen foothills, about 130 miles north of Sacramento, for 40 years. Finally, Ishi, apparently the last survivor, was driven out of the wilderness by hunger or despair, maybe both.
Slaughterhouse butchers found him, barefoot and emaciated, wearing a canvas shirt, with buckskin thongs hanging from his pierced ears. He was promptly jailed but was soon sprung from captivity by anthropologists Thomas Waterman and Alfred Kroeber, curator of the Museum of Anthropology at UC San Francisco. (The museum later moved to UC Berkeley and became the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.)
The Kroeber descendants, who, after all, had never known Ishi, have tried to stay out of the story over the decades. Until recently.
Four years ago, when Duke University researcher Orin Starn discovered that Alfred Kroeber had sent Ishi’s brain to the Smithsonian Institution against the man’s wishes, the Kroebers were again called on for comment. And as the issue escalated, working its way to the California Legislature, the Kroeber brothers were asked to edit a new anthology, a book that would get closer to the truth of Ishi and his relationship with Alfred Kroeber, who died in 1960.
This time, they agreed. “Ishi in Three Centuries” (University of Nebraska Press), released this summer, was the result.
“In a sense, this was a family obligation,” says Le Guin, who lives in Portland. “Ishi is not a mystique or a fascination with our family. But when he became a hot topic again a few years ago, my brothers picked up the football. I think they felt obliged to.”
Native American writer and UC Berkeley American Studies professor Gerald Vizenor predicts the obligation will persist: “You could say the two families came together by chance and they’ll always be together historically.”
Although enduring, the bond between the Kroebers and Ishi is clearly lopsided. Ishi was alone in an unfamiliar culture. He never told anyone his name (Kroeber dubbed him Ishi, meaning “man” in the Yana language, the tribe to which the Yahi band belonged) or learned to speak more than a few hundred words in English.
Kroeber was one of the most eminent American anthropologists of all time. He and his descendants are unusually well spoken and persuasive. Authors, professors, police officers -- the Kroebers have power and status in a society where Ishi had none.
“The problem with Ishi is it’s easy to fall into exploiting him,” says Karl Kroeber, Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in New York. “It’s a very tricky business. If you’re white, almost anything you say about him could be exploitation.”
That goes double if you’re a Kroeber. “Some reviewers may say: If there are two people who shouldn’t have done this job, it’s Karl and Clif Kroeber,” Clifton says.
Clifton and his son Scott got together recently to talk about this delicate partnership. They met at Clifton’s home near Occidental College in Eagle Rock, where he is a professor emeritus of history. The comfortable ranch house hidden in the hills has the lived-in feel of a place where four boys grew up in an atmosphere of vigorous academic discussion.
Alfred Kroeber’s grandsons also grew up with blown-up photos of Ishi on the walls. Scott remembers walking down the hallway to bed as a young man, being mesmerized by photos of Ishi carving spear points and swimming naked in Deer Creek. His older brother, Alan, grew up wishing he could have met Ishi.
So did schoolchildren all over California. The story of the “the last primordial man” is a staple of some school curricula.
Ishi was briefly famous after his 1911 discovery in the slaughterhouse, but after his death in 1916 his story was largely forgotten. When Theodora Kroeber, as a 60-year-old first-time writer, released “Ishi in Two Worlds” in 1961, it catapulted him to fame and his story became a California classic. There followed the inevitable TV movies, poems, plays, documentaries and endless analysis -- what Duke cultural anthropology professor Starn calls “the cult of Ishi.”
The first half of the book painstakingly narrates the extermination of Northern California Indians by government scalpers, bounty hunters and amateur Indian killers. Theodora Kroeber was influenced by the early civil rights movement her book, in turn, helped fuel Native American rights campaigns.
The story of systematic destruction of California tribes during the Gold Rush had rarely been told before. To this day, her book often serves as readers’ first awakening to this episode in California history.
After the commotion over “Ishi in Two Worlds” faded, his story again fell out of the limelight. Then, in 1999, he was back in the news when Starn discovered that Ishi’s brain had not been cremated with the rest of his body but had been shipped east for study. At the time, some scientists believed there was value in studying the brains of primates, geniuses and so-called exotics like Ishi.
The dismaying revelation reawakened criticisms of Alfred Kroeber that had surfaced as far back as 1911. Was he really Ishi’s friend, or his betrayer?
Given a room at the museum, Ishi had earned his keep as a janitor for $25 a week. He shared his songs, his stories, his language and his tool-making with Kroeber (whom Ishi called “Big Chiep”). He also served as an entertainer to visitors who loved to watch the Native American craft arrows and spears. He was free to leave but chose to stay at the museum until his death from tuberculosis five years later.
Nearly a century later, Kroeber was being criticized for the relationship. The California Assembly held hearings to discuss “the brain business,” as Clifton calls it and the UC Berkeley anthropology department struggled to agree on the wording of a public apology. One draft of its statement called Kroeber’s actions “indefensible.” There was even talk of stripping the name from Kroeber Hall on the campus. (After the dust cleared, Kroeber Hall remained and Ishi was honored with the dedication of Ishi Court.)
The developments bumped the family off the sidelines and into action.
“It was ugly to see,” says Clifton’s son Alan, speaking of the attacks on his grandfather. “I could see the pain this was causing my dad and his siblings. I could tell how upset they were.”
As the family was still stinging from the censure, a former chairman of the Berkeley anthropology department, George Foster, suggested to the Kroeber brothers that they edit the first substantial reexamination of the Ishi drama to be published in 40 years.
“I did not want to do the thing at all,” Karl Kroeber says. He eventually relented when others, such as Vizenor and Gary Dunham, editor in chief of the University of Nebraska Press, also encouraged him to take on the task.
Clifton and Karl solicited wide-ranging points of view for the new volume. Essays include analysis of a story told by Ishi, a technical piece on Ishi’s arrowheads and stone tools, extensive commentary on the repatriation of Ishi’s remains, views of Ishi by Native American scholars and writers, and a memoir by Fred Zumwalt Jr., who lived near the museum as a child and recalls gathering blackberries and wild iris roots with Ishi in the San Francisco Presidio.
The book lays the foundation for what the Kroebers hope will become an ongoing field of Ishi studies. One thing Karl would like to see, in particular, is the release of Ishi’s stories and songs recorded in his own voice, not filtered through the voices of anthropologists. The tapes are now in archives at UC Berkeley and elsewhere.
“I think the most important thing the book does is establish Ishi as a unique person,” Karl says. “He attracts attention because he did the best a human being can do -- to take terrible circumstances and simply refuse to be overwhelmed by them.”
Reflecting on the relationship between Ishi and his father, Karl says: “They were friends. Ishi was an informant, yes, but you didn’t get good material unless there was a strong personal relationship.”
There may have been chinks in the partnership, Karl adds, but you have to factor in the era in which Kroeber was working. Not only was there little awareness of Native American rights in 1911, but anthropology also was a new field. Kroeber and his colleagues were still sorting out the rules.
“If research were to prove he did things that -- even in their own time and context -- should not have been done,” Scott says of his grandfather, “then that’s how the historic record should stand. But I don’t think that’s the type of person he was.”
Clifton, a cheerful man with a quick laugh and a neat white beard, says he and Karl worked to present different points of view in the new book -- a blend of “pros” and “antis,” as he puts it. He calls his father Kroeber and speaks of him from a certain remove, as if he can separate himself from Alfred Kroeber, father, and see him purely as Alfred Kroeber, anthropologist.
“There’s controversy in the book about whether Kroeber should have done things differently, whether Ishi should have stayed in San Francisco at all, and whether Ishi was suffering or was enjoying his new life,” he says. “We tried to get all the voices in there as best we could.”
The brain furor continues to haunt the Kroeber family, who are hoping further research may explain why Alfred Kroeber defied Ishi’s desire to have his body cremated intact.
Lots of people, not just the Kroebers, are puzzled by the handling of Ishi’s brain, which was reunited with his cremated remains in 2000 and buried near Mt. Lassen. Some of those questions may be answered by forthcoming books, such as Starn’s “Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last Wild Indian,” due in February from W.W. Norton.
The relationship between Kroeber and Ishi was more complex than Theodora’s book suggests, Starn adds: “Ishi was genuinely a friend. But he was also a specimen.”
The alliance between Ishi and the Kroebers is imperfect, certainly. But like many flawed relationships, it probably has served both parties to some degree. Vizenor points out that Ishi probably would have been sent away to a reservation in Oregon if he hadn’t fallen in with the anthropologist.
“Kroeber really liked this man,” Vizenor says. “He wasn’t just keeping some guy in a museum as an object. He gave Ishi a life and a place.”
Ishi’s Life: A California Genocide Primer
Ishi’s life is a window through which one can view the ugliest period of California history: the mass slaughter and displacement of more than 100,000 Native Californians. These killings took place from the 1849 Gold Rush to the 1870s when the federal government began moving the survivors to reservations.
Filmmaker Jeb Riffe chronicled the massacres of Ishi and the Yahi in his 1992 documentary, Ishi, the Last Yahi. Riffe describes how a settler death squad brutally murdered 40 Yahi at the Workman massacre (1865), selling the surviving children to local ranchers.
Thirty more were killed at the Silva massacre (1865), and 40 more at the Three Knolls massacre (1866).
“The attack came upon them like a thunderbolt out of the sky,” proudly recounted one of the vigilantes at Three Knolls. “Into the stream they leapt, but few got out alive.”
Ishi and his mother escaped by floating down Deer Creek among the dead bodies.
The last massacre took place at Kingsley Cave, where the vigilantes killed 30 more Yahi. Ishi and his mother fled again and went into hiding.
Beginning in 1849, more than 90,000 gold seekers, adventurers and settlers descended upon northern California. Hungry and without adequate provisions, these immigrants killed and decimated deer and other wild life.
They cut down native trees, creating floods and destroying the Indian’s food supply. They polluted streams with mercury, killing the fish. And when natives slaughtered cattle and sheep to survive, Indian hunters retaliated with more massacres.
The slaughter of Indians was state-sponsored. 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.
Other massacres took place at Clear Lake in 1850, where between 75 and 200 Pomo Indians were killed for protesting the rape of Indian women by a white rancher. Two hundred Indians were killed in 1863 at the Sand Creek massacre. Numerous other massacres followed.
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.
“Ishi’s story is especially relevant today when society is so polarized with debates about race and ethnicity,” filmmaker Jed Riffe told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The slaughter of the Yahi and other tribes is the best documented case of genocide in North America. It was a true American holocaust.”
The documentation, said Riffe, was done by the perpetrators themselves.
“They wrote about what happened in every one of those villages, and they were proud of it,” he said.
Riffe believes that this kind of “white arrogance” has led Americans to the point we are at today.
“We are killing people all over the world with the same kind of justifications,” he said.
Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America, by Theodora Kroeber, University of California Press, 1961. Based on the notes of Theodora’s husband, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber.
Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last ‘Wild’ Indian, by Orin Starn (Duke University Press, 2008). Starn helped locate Ishi’s brain at the Smithsonian museum and restore it to Native Californians for a proper burial.
The Story of Ishi: A Chronology, by Nancy Rockafellar, former historian at the University of San Francisco Medical Center. Excellent summary and timeline of the story of Ishi.
Ishi: The Last Yahi (1992), 57 minutes. A documentary by Jed Riffe and Pamela Roberts, narrated by Linda Hunt.
The Last of His Tribe (1992), an HBO movie with Graham Greene as Ishi and John Voight as Alfred Kroeber.
The Death Of The Yahi
A recording of Ishi speaking, singing, and telling stories is held in the National Recording Registry, and his techniques in stone tool making are widely imitated by modern lithic tool manufactures.
When Ishi was born — sometime between 1860 and 1862 — the Yahi population of 400 was already in decline. The Yahi people had been some of the first affected by the influx of settlers, given their proximity to the mines.
Salmon, a vital part of the Yahi diet, disappeared from the streams. What starvation didn’t finish, Indian hunter Robert Anderson did. Two 1865 raids killed approximately 70 people — much of what remained of Ishi’s kin — and scattered the rest.
It was these raids that a young Ishi survived with his family. Separated from the rest of their people, the small group did their best to continue Yahi traditions. They built a small village on a cliff overlooking Deer Creek, and they kept to themselves.
Flickr Deer Creek in California. 2017.
Elsewhere, the remaining 100 or so Yahi were being murdered systematically. An unknown number died on Aug. 6, 1866, in a dawn raid conducted by neighboring settlers.
Later that year, more Yahis were ambushed and killed in a ravine. Thirty-three more were tracked and killed in 1867, and another 30 were murdered in a cave by cowboys in 1871.
For 40 years, Ishi and his family hid, avoiding the world being built around them. But time took its toll. One by one, the Yahi died.
A scare when surveyors found their village scattered what was left: Ishi, his sister, his mother, and his uncle. Ishi returned home and reunited with his mother, but his uncle and sister were gone. When his mother died shortly after that, he was all alone.
Ishi’s Brain to Be Returned to Tribe’s Descendants
The Smithsonian Institution announced Friday that it will return the brain of Ishi, California’s most famous Native American, but not to the Butte County tribes who have campaigned to reunite his remains and rebury them in his homeland in Tehama County.
The museum says it will instead give the brain to Native Americans descended from the Yana, the larger tribe to which Ishi’s people, the Yahi, belonged. A spokesman said the museum found Yana descendants in the Shasta County towns of Redding and Burney.
Ishi, the last known Yahi, staggered from his wilderness hide-out into Oroville in 1911, about five years after the last of his people had been wiped out by disease, starvation and bounty hunters. He became a living exhibit at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, where he lived until his death of tuberculosis in 1916.
Books, movies and plays have been written about Ishi, and he has been studied by generations of California schoolchildren as a symbol of the depradation of Native American tribes in California.
Ishi’s body was cremated and his ashes were sent to a Colma cemetery, where they remain. But Ishi’s friend, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, sent his brain to the Smithsonian.
Robert Fri, director of the National Museum of Natural History, said in a statement that “the Smithsonian Institution recognizes that all California Native Americans feel a powerful connection with Ishi and a responsibility to see that his remains are united and given a proper burial. However, we were guided by the moral and legal obligation to find out whether any of Ishi’s descendants were still alive.”
Mickey Gemmill, a Yana descendant and spokesman for the Redding Rancheria, said he learned of the Smithsonian’s decision late Friday afternoon.
“We are surprised,” Gemmill said. “The Smithsonian has made a decision that we are the closest relatives. We knew that all along, but we supported the Butte County tribes’ efforts.”
Gemmill said the tribes will have to consult before deciding what to do next. He could not say when or how they might take delivery of the brain or what they might do with it.
Art Angle, a Native American from Oroville, launched a search for Ishi’s remains in 1997. He was told by UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco that they did not know where the brain might be. Angle could not be reached for comment Friday.
Spurred by a Los Angeles Times story about Angle’s search for Ishi’s brain, Duke University anthropologist Orin Starn and UC San Francisco historian Nancy Rockefellar launched a fresh search through historical records. In December, Starn, who is writing a book about Ishi, discovered correspondence at a UC Berkeley library between Kroeber and the Smithsonian that showed the brain had been sent to the national museum.
In January, the Smithsonian confirmed to Starn that it had Ishi’s brain. California lawmakers began bombarding the museum with letters, urging it to quickly return the brain to California. On April 6, the state Assembly held a special hearing on the matter, in which Smithsonian officials were again urged to act quickly.
“I’m relieved and very happy that Ishi’s brain is finally coming home,” Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said Friday. “Without the Legislature’s intervention, there is no doubt in my mind that Ishi’s brain would have remained in the Smithsonian’s warehouse for another 80 years.”
Federal law requires that Native American remains should be returned to federally recognized, culturally affiliated tribes. Smithsonian officials said Friday that their decision follows the letter and the spirit of the law.
The Butte County tribes which campaigned for the return of Ishi’s remains could prove no cultural affiliation to Ishi. Angle said that he had heard stories of Ishi all his life and simply wanted to do what he could to put the man’s spirit to rest by reuniting his remains and burying them.
Spokesmen for the Pit River tribe in Burney could not be reached for comment Friday.
Adventure á La CarteRafters paddle on after making it through the Endless Summer wave on the mighty Klamath River. Centrally located on a long whitewater stretch of California’s second-largest river, Happy Camp is an excellent launch point for multiday packrafting trips. Dylan Jones
While Happy Camp is certainly not a tourist trap, the land surrounding it is reason enough to earn it a spot on your bucket list. It’s the gateway to a wondrous wilderness where old growth stands of a pine, fir, and cedar tower over twisty trails traversing steep slopes and crystal clear mountain streams.
Happy Camp is situated on the Klamath River about halfway down a fantastic whitewater stretch that’s ideal for multi-day packrafting trips. Running from the Tree of Heaven put-in all the way down to the mandatory takeout above Ishi Pishi Falls—a class VI drop that’s also the spiritual center of the Karuk world—over 100 miles of rapids and long, calm pools await adventurous paddlers. Most day trippers put on the Klamath right in Happy Camp at Indian Creek and run the stellar class III section to the Coon Creek take-out, including the Rattlesnake (III) and Dragon’s Tooth (IV) rapids, and a truly adventurous hike up Ukonom Creek to Ukonom Falls.
The true gems of the region, however, are the tributaries that flow into the Klamath—gorgeous emerald waters fill deep swimming holes carved through granite and schist where swimmers can see pebbles and fish meters below the surface. The best swimming holes are found on Elk Creek, on Dillon Creek just behind the Dillon Creek Campground, and along Clear Creek a mile or so down from the No Mans Trailhead.
Also known as the “Steelhead Capital of the World”, Happy Camp is a major destination for anglers. Whether casting with a spin reel or a fly rod, the deep pools of the Klamath and over 100 mountain lakes offer plenty of places to drop your line.
Because of the region’s rugged and remote nature, backpackers will find solace and solitude along the massive pine forests, rocky ridges, and alpine meadows of the Klamath Mountains. Highway 96 and the Forest Service roads that shoot up the mountainsides like veins offer amazing access to a wealth of trailheads. Hikers and backpackers can easily embark on multi-day outings in the Siskiyou and Marble Mountain Wilderness areas, providing access to over 400,000 combined acres of pristine wild lands.
The crystal-clear, emerald waters of the Klamath River’s tributaries provide endless swimming options during the region’s endless summers. Peak-season temps in the low-100s make the chilly snowmelt streams perfect for relaxing on dog days. Dylan Jones
Located entirely within the Klamath National Forest, the Marble Mountain Wilderness is the crown jewel of the Klamath. Craggy peaks of red and gray limestone and metamorphic rock give the range its name and a marbled appearance, and even offer entrance to the Bigfoot Cave—the ninth-deepest cave in America. The Pacific Crest Trail cuts through 32 miles of the Marble Mountain Wilderness, passing just below the 7,442-foot glacially-scoured summit of Black Marble Mountain. With elevations ranging from 400 feet to the 8,299-foot summit of Boulder Peak, peak baggers will have plenty of relief to explore. A lifetime’s worth of lakes—89 to be exact—and plenty of trout provide primitive relaxation for anglers and swimmers, so don’t forget your fly rod.
Primitive and staffed campgrounds are plentiful, meaning you’ll rarely ever have to worry about a campground being full. Bust out the two-burner stove and your biggest tent for excellent car camping in Curly Jack, Dillon Creek, or Sulphur Springs campgrounds. Cruise up the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway and set up shop at Kelly Lake, the closest mountain lake to Happy Camp, and the easiest way to access the Siskiyou Wilderness.
Sure, Happy Camp doesn’t have much to offer those looking for luxury amenities, restaurants, or nightlife, but that’s precisely what makes it perfect for adventurers seeking wilderness immersion with a pioneering vibe. While most people have never heard of Happy Camp, those who have spent time on the Klamath’s frothy rapids and have hiked among its old growth forests join the cult-like ranks of the Bigfoot-obsessed. So stock up on supplies, grab your maps, and head into the Heart of the Klamath. You’re sure to become a Happy Camper.