Ishi The Last Yahi Essay Examples

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For other uses, see Ishi (disambiguation).

Ishi (c. 1861 – March 25, 1916) was the last known member of the Native AmericanYahi people from the state of California in the United States. The Yana were destroyed during the California Genocide in the 19th century. Ishi, who was widely acclaimed as the "last wild Indian" in America, lived most of his life isolated from modern American culture. In 1911, aged 50, he emerged near the foothills of Lassen Peak in Northern California.

Ishi, which means "man" in the Yana language, is an adopted name. The anthropologistAlfred Kroeber gave him this name because in the Yahi culture, tradition demanded that he not speak his own name until formally introduced by another Yahi.[1] When asked his name, he said: "I have none, because there were no people to name me," meaning that there was no other Yahi to speak his name on his behalf.

Ishi was taken in by anthropologists at the University of California, Berkeley, who both studied him and hired him as a research assistant. He lived most of his remaining five years in a university building in San Francisco.


Early life[edit]

In 1865,[2] Ishi and his family were attacked in the Three Knolls Massacre, in which 40 of their tribesmen were killed. Although 33 Yahi survived to escape, cattlemen killed about half of the survivors. The last survivors, including Ishi and his family, went into hiding for the next 44 years, and their tribe was popularly believed to be extinct.[3] Prior to the California Gold Rush of 1848–1855, the Yahi population numbered 404 in California, but the total Yana numbered 2,997.[4]

The gold rush brought tens of thousands of miners and settlers to northern California, putting pressure on native populations. Gold mining damaged water supplies and killed fish; the deer left the area. The settlers brought new diseases such as smallpox and measles.[5] The northern Yana group became extinct and the central and southern groups and Yahi populations dropped dramatically. Searching for food, they came into conflict with settlers, leading to bounties on the natives by the settlers. Prices included 50 cents per scalp and 5 dollars per head. In 1865, the massacre began while the Yahi slept in bed.

Richard Burrill wrote, in Ishi Rediscovered: "In 1865, near the Yahi’s special place, Black Rock, the waters of Mill Creek turned red at the Three Knolls Massacre. 'Sixteen' or 'seventeen' Indian fighters killed about forty Yahi, as part of a retaliatory attack for two white women and a man killed at the Workman’s household on Lower Concow Creek near Oroville. Eleven of the Indian fighters that day were Robert A. Anderson, Hiram Good, Sim Moak, Hardy Thomasson, Jack Houser, Henry Curtis, his brother Frank Curtis, as well as Tom Gore, Bill Matthews, and William Merithew. W. J. Seagraves visited the site, too, but some time after the battle had been fought."

Burrill continued, "Robert Anderson wrote, 'Into the stream they leaped, but few got out alive. Instead many dead bodies floated down the rapid current.' One captive Indian woman named Mariah from Big Meadows (Lake Almanor today), was one of those who did escape. The Three Knolls battle is also described in Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds, but more information has come to light. It is estimated that with this massacre, Ishi's entire cultural group, the Yana/Yahi, may have been reduced to about sixty individuals. From 1859 to 1911, Ishi's remote band became more and more infiltrated by non-Yahi Indian representatives, such as Wintun, Nomlaki and Pit River individuals.

In 1879, the infamous Indian boarding schools started in California. The ranks of embittered reservation renegades who became the new "boys in the hills", to quote Robert Anderson, became a direct function of what new attacks or removal campaigns that the volunteers and military troops elected to carry out against the northern California Indian tribes during that time."

In late 1908, a group of surveyors came across the camp inhabited by two men, a middle-aged woman, and an elderly woman—Ishi, his uncle, his younger sister, and his mother, respectively. The former three fled while the latter hid herself in blankets to avoid detection, as she was sick and unable to flee. The surveyors ransacked the camp and Ishi's mother died soon after his return. His sister and uncle never returned.

Walking into the modern world[edit]

After the attack, Ishi spent three more years in the wilderness, alone. Finally, starving and with nowhere to go, at around the age of 50 on August 29, 1911, Ishi walked out into the western world.[3] He was captured attempting to forage for meat near Oroville, California, after forest fires in the area.[6]

"After the native was noticed by townspeople, the local sheriff took the man into custody for his own protection". The "wild man" caught the imagination and attention of thousands of onlookers and curiosity seekers. Professors at the University of California, Berkeley, Museum of Anthropology—now the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology (PAHMA)—read about him and brought him to their facility,[6] then housed on the University of California, San Francisco campus in an old law school building. Studied by the university, Ishi also worked with them as a research assistant and lived in an apartment at the museum for most of the remaining five years of his life. In June 1915, he temporarily lived in Berkeley with the anthropologistThomas Talbot Waterman and his family.[7]

Ishi revealing Yahi culture[edit]

Waterman and Alfred L. Kroeber, director of the museum, studied Ishi closely over the years and interviewed him at length to help them reconstruct Yahi culture. He described family units, naming patterns, and the ceremonies that he knew, but much tradition had been lost because there were few older survivors in the group in which he was raised. He identified material items and showed the techniques by which they were made. Ishi provided valuable information on his native Yana language, which was recorded and studied by the linguistEdward Sapir, who had previously done work on the northern dialects.

Illness and death[edit]

Ishi, having come to live in San Francisco and lacking immunity to the "diseases of civilization", was often ill. He was treated by a Professor of Medicine at UCSF, Saxton T. Pope. Pope became close friends with Ishi, and learned from him how to make bows and arrows in the Yahi way. He and Ishi often hunted together.

Ishi died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. It is said his last words were "You stay. I go." [7] His friends at the university initially had tried to prevent an autopsy on Ishi's body since the body was to be kept intact according to Yahi tradition, but the doctors at the University of California medical school performed one before Waterman was able to stop it. Ishi's brain was preserved and the body cremated. Included alongside his remains were "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 were interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Colma, near San Francisco,[8] but his brain was put in a deerskin-wrapped Pueblo Indian pottery jar and sent to the Smithsonian Institution by Kroeber in 1917, where it remained until August 10, 2000, when descendants of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River tribes received the brain, according to both the letter and the spirit of the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 (NMAI).[9] According to Robert Fri, director of the National Museum of Natural History, "Contrary to commonly-held belief, Ishi was not the last of his kind. In carrying out the repatriation process we learned that as a Yahi–Yana Indian his closest living descendants are the Yana people of northern California."[10] Once the brain and remains were returned, further information about them has remained private.[9]

Possible multi-ethnicity[edit]

In 1994, Steven Shackley of UC Berkeley heard a paper by Jerald Johnson, who noted morphological evidence that Ishi's facial features and height were more typical of the Wintu and Maidu. He theorized that under pressure of diminishing populations, members of groups that were once enemies may have intermarried to survive. To further support this, Johnson presented oral histories from the Wintu and Maidu that told of the tribes' intermarrying with the Yahi.[11] The debate on this has not been definitively settled, however, and the possibility of establishing the circumstances of his birth probably died with him.

In 1996, Shackley announced work based on a study of Ishi's projectile points and those of the northern tribes. He had found that points made by Ishi were not typical of those recovered from historical Yahi sites. Because Ishi's production was more typical of points of the Nomlaki or Wintu tribes and markedly dissimilar to those of Yahi, Shackley suggested that Ishi may have been only half Yahi and of mixed ancestry, related to another of the tribes.[11] He based his conclusion on a study of the points that Ishi had made compared to others held by the museum from the Yahi, Nomlaki and Wintu cultures. Among Ishi's techniques was the use of what is now known in flintknapping circles as an Ishi stick, used to run long pressure flakes.[12] As it was a traditional technique of the Nomlaki and Wintu tribes, the finding suggests Ishi may have learned the skill directly from a male relative from one of those tribes. Also small groups, they lived close to the Yahi lands and were traditional competitors and enemies of the Yahi.[12]


Buildings and land[edit]


Works of art, media, and entertainment[edit]

Audio recordings[edit]

  • Kroeber and Waterman's 148 wax cylinder recordings (totaling 5 hours and 41 minutes) of Ishi speaking, singing, and telling stories in the Yahi language were selected by the Library of Congress as a 2010 addition to the National Recording Registry, which selects recordings annually that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[15]



  • Ishi in Two Worlds (1961) by the anthropologist Theodora Kroeber, also the wife of Alfred Kroeber, popularized Ishi's story in her book. She worked with her husband's notes and comments to create the story of a man she had never met, publishing it after Alfred's death.
  • Ishi: Last of His Tribe (1964) by Theodora Kroeber is a shorter, partially fictionalized version of the story.
  • Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History (1981), edited by Robert Heizer and Theodora Kroeber, contains additional scholarly materials.[20]
  • The Last Yahi: A Novel About Ishi (2000) is a novel by Lawrence Holcomb.[21]
  • Ishi in Three Centuries (2003), edited by anthropologists Clifton and Karl Kroeber, Theodora and Alfred Kroeber's sons,[22] is the first scholarly book on Ishi to contain essays by Native Americans. Native writers, such as Gerald Vizenor, had been commenting on the case since the late 1970s.
  • Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (2016) by Samuel J. Redman adds to and complicates the story of collecting and returning Ishi's bodily remains after his autopsy.
  • Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last "Wild" Indian (2004) by the Duke University anthropologist Orin Starn, updates Ishi's story and recounts the author's quest for the remains of the last of the Yahi, while interpreting what Ishi meant to Americans and the modern American Indians today. (In 2000, Ishi's brain was reunited with his cremated remains.)[23]
  • Meine Spur löscht der Fluss (1978) by Othmar Franz Lang. A young adult novel that fictionalizes Ishi's story.[24]

Stage productions[edit]

  • Ishi (2008), a play written and directed by John Fisher, was performed from July 3–27, 2008 at Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle said the work "is a fierce dramatic indictment of the ugliest side of California history."[25]

Similar case[edit]

Ishi's story has been compared to that of the Congolese man Ota Benga, an Mbutipygmy whose family had also died and was not given a mourning ritual, who had been taken from his home and culture, and who had been displayed as a zoo exhibit. Ota died on March 20, 1916, five days before Ishi.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^"ISHI: A Real-Life The Last Of The Mohicans". ISHI: A Real-Life The Last Of The Mohicans. Retrieved 1 February 2015. 
  2. ^"Butte". 
  3. ^ abIshi: A Real-Life Last Of The Mohicans, Mohican Press
  4. ^Nancy Rockafellar, "The story of Ishi: A Chronology", accessed Jan 14, 2011
  5. ^"Ishi Biography"
  6. ^ ab"FIND A RARE ABORIGINE.; Scientists Obtain Valuable Tribal Lore from Southern Yahi Indian". The New York Times. San Francisco. September 6, 1911. Retrieved September 2, 2012. 
  7. ^"Ishi in Two Worlds, 50th Anniversary Edition". University of California Press. Retrieved 28 August 2012. 
  8. ^"Ishi's Hiding Place", Butte CountyArchived July 16, 2006, at the Wayback Machine., A History of American Indians in California: Historic Sites, National Park Service, 2004, accessed November 5, 2010
  9. ^ abFagan, Kevin (August 10, 2000). "Ishi's Kin To Give Him Proper Burial: Indians to bury brain in secret location in state". San Francisco Chronicle. p. A-5. 
  10. ^"NMNH - Repatriation Office - The Repatriation of Ishi, the last Yahi India". Retrieved 2013-08-11. 
  11. ^ ab02.05.96 – "Ishi apparently wasn't the last Yahi, according to new evidence from UC Berkeley research archaeologist", News, University of Berkeley
  12. ^ ab"Some Inferences For Hunter-Gatherer Style and Ethnicity". Retrieved 2013-08-11. 
  13. ^Samson, Colin (2000). "Overturning the Burdens of the Real: Nationalism and the social sciences in Gerald Vizenor's recent works". In Lee, A. Robert. Loosening the Seams: Interpretations of Gerald Vizenor. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. p. 288. ISBN 978-0-87972-802-1. 
  14. ^Whittaker, John (2004). American flintknappers: Stone Age art in the age of computers. University of Texas. 
  15. ^"The National Recording Registry 2010". Library of Congress. Retrieved April 10, 2011. 
  16. ^"Local Screenwriter Dies". Ventura Breeze. January 20, 2011. Archived from the original on February 6, 2011. Retrieved January 26, 2011. 
  17. ^"The Last of his Tribe". ahafilm. Retrieved December 11, 2011. 
  18. ^"Jed Riffe Films + electronic Media". Retrieved 2013-08-11. 
  19. ^dwpollar (April 18, 2001). "Ishi: The Last Yahi (1992)". IMDb. 
  20. ^Heizer, Robert F. & Kroeber, Theodora (May 5, 1981). Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History. ISBN 0520043669. 
  21. ^Holcomb, Lawrence (2000). The Last Yahi: A Novel About Ishi. ISBN 0595127665. 
  22. ^Kroeber, Clifton & Kroeber, Karl (Editors) (June 1, 2003). Ishi in Three Centuries. ISBN 0-8032-2757-4. 
  23. ^Starn, Orin (2004). IIshi's Brain: In Search of America's Last "Wild" Indian. ISBN 0-393-05133-1. 
  24. ^Lang, Othmar Franz (1978). Meine Spur löscht der Fluss. Köln and Zürich: Benziger Verlag. ISBN 3545330729. 
  25. ^Hurwitt, Robert (July 14, 2008). "Ishi, Gripping Drama at Theatre Rhino". San Francisco Chronicle. 
  26. ^Kroeber, Karl & Kroeber, Clifton B. (editors) (2003). Ishi in Three Centuries. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 41. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Kroeber, Theodora; Kroeber, Karl (2002). Ishi in two worlds: a biography of the last wild Indian in North America. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-22940-2. OCLC 50805975. 
  • Merton, Thomas (1976). Ishi means man. Unicorn keepsake series. 8. foreword by Dorothy Day, woodblock by Rita Corbin. Greensboro, N. C.: Unicorn Press. 
  • Waterman, T. T. (1917). "Ishi, the Last Yahi Indian". The Southern Workman. 46. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. pp. 528–537.  See also audio narration at LibriVox's Short Nonfiction Collection Vol. 026 (2012).
  • Waterman, T. T. (January 1915). "The Last Wild Tribe of California". Popular Science Monthly. 86. pp. 233–244. 
  • Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last 'Wild' Indian Starn, Orin, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. (ISBN 0-393-05133-1)

External links[edit]

  • "A Compromise between Science and Sentiment: A Report on Ishi's Treatment at the University of California, 1911–1916", University of California, San Francisco
  • Ishi being from two tribes, Press Release, UC Berkeley
  • Ishi: The Last Yahi (1992) documentary synopsis
  • Ishi: The Last Yahi (1992) on IMDb
  • Ishi, the Last Yahi Indian public domain audiobook at LibriVox
  • Richard Burrill, "Synopsis of Ishi's Life", Ishi Facts Website
  • Books on Ishi by Richard Burrill
  • Saxton Pope, Hunting with the Bow and Arrow, includes discussion about Ishi
  • Saxton Pope, "Yahi Archery", University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, The Archery Library

Berkeley -- 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 University of California at Berkeley's 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 UC 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 UC Berkeley anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Talbot Waterman, befriended Ishi and gave him shelter at the campus' 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, 1911, 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 the University of California's anthropology museum -- then on the UCSF campus in an old law school building. He lived there for most of the rest of his life, except for the summer of 1915, when he lived in Berkeley with Waterman and his 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 UC 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.


Note: Contact Steven Shackley at (510) 643-1193, extension 3.


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