Dr. Saxton Pope meets Ishi

Dr. Saxton Pope meets Ishi in California.

It took unexpected events, strange incidents, and the peculiar personality that was Saxton Pope to bring him prominently before the world in another way-the guise of the great hunter.

That a wild man was roaming in California’s lower Sierra foothills was a recurrent story prior to 1908, when he was seen by a surveying party. In 1911 the pitiful creature was brought to bay by barking dogs. Threatened with guns and pistols, and made harmless with handcuffs, he was lodged in jail for safe-keeping. This was Ishi, the last of the Yana tribe of Indians, all the others having perished in California, many of them at the hands of white men. His captors thought the Indian was crazy. His feet had never worn shoes; his hair was burned short; he had small bits of wood in his ears and nose; he was naked, and he neither ate, drank, nor slept after his capture. Ishi understood no word of English, neither could he converse with the Indians whom they brought to him. Finally some one conceived the idea of sending to the University of California’s Department of Anthropology for help, and they found there perhaps the one man who could render the aid most needed. Professor T. T. Waterman, with his extensive knowledge of many Indian dialects, had exhausted most of them without avail, when he chanced to remember a few words of the lost language of the Yanas.

In Ishi, which means strong and straight onescience had a rare find, one that Professor Waterman was quick to appreciate, and the Indian was taken to the University of California, there to become a living specimen in the Anthropological Museum, where men of science studied him and he in turn looked upon the “pale face” with interest.

Saxton Pope recalls Ishi in his time of need.

Dr. Saxton Pope tells of Ishi in his book. Hunting With the Bow and Arrow. “Kindly, honest, and cleanly, gentle and trustworthy, with a high moral standard and a superior philosophy of life, Ishi was absolutely untouched by civilization. He knew only the out-of-door world. He made fire with sticks; his tools were of stone and bone; he knew the lost art of chipping arrowheads from flint and obsidian. Ishi spoke the language of the animals. More than forty of his myths or animal stories have been recorded and preserved. The escapades of the wildcat, the lion, the grizzly bear, the blue-jay, the lizard, and the coyote are as full of interest, excitement and comedy as any fairy story.”

From the beginning of his life at the Museum, Ishi contracted all the epidemic infections: measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, claimed him in turn, and through his illnesses Pope met him. With his usual enthusiasm, the physician accepted Ishi as a case of rare interest including a great privilege. Pope learned the Yana language and they became fast friends. It was Ishi who inspired Pope to make his matchless bows and arrows. It was Ishi who instilled into the white man the bowman’s manner of hunting: creeping and crawling, stooping and stepping lightly, waiting patiently in ambush without a sound for the bowman’s chance at wild game. It was Ishi, when they were hunting, who taught the white “medicine man” to recognize forest sounds-the calls of the birds, the questions they ask, and their cautious observations. It was Ishi who taught Saxton Pope to heed the “beware” of the birds, and to stop for their “lie low,” to proceed only after the satisfied “all’s well” of a feathered scout. The Indian was able to call many animals to him. This he taught Saxton Pope on their hunting expeditions, until the doctor could obtain the presence of squirrels, foxes, rabbits, and lynx. Wildcats, bear, and coyotes would come to him, too; but because they understood the language of the forest and sought food, not in answer to his calls.

Saxton Pope continued to remain friends with Ishi until his death. From his teaching of the use of the a bow to creating fires with only sticks Ishi always remained willing to teach, and Saxton Pope remained willing to learn.