Ishi

The Last of the Yahi Indian Tribe

Ishi

Ishi (c. 1860 – March 25, 1916) was the last member of the Yahi, a group of the Yana people of the U.S. state of California. Widely acclaimed in his time as the “last wild Indian” in America, Ishi lived most of his life completely outside modern culture. At about 49 years of age, in 1911, he emerged from “the wild” near Oroville, California, leaving his ancestral homeland, present-day Tehama County, near the foothills of Lassen Pea, known to Ishi as Wa ganu p’a. Ishi means “man” in the Yana language. The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber gave this name to the man because it was rude to ask someone’s name in the Yahi culture. When asked his name, he said: “I have none, because there were no people to name me,” meaning that no Yahi had ever spoken his name. He was taken in by anthropologists at theUniversity 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.


Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe.

Ishi lived three years beyond the raid alone, the last of his tribe. Finally, starving and with nowhere to go, at the age of about 48 or 49 on August 29, 1911, Ishi walked out into the occidental world. He was captured attempting to “steal” meat near Oroville, California after forest fires in the area.

“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,[5] 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 the summer of 1915, he lived temporarily in Berkeley with the anthropologist Thomas Talbot Waterman and his family.

Ishi, having come to live in San Francisco, and having no 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. 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, 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). 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.”[9] Once the brain and remains were returned, further information about them has remained private.

Hunting with Ishi.

He looked upon us as sophisticated children — smart, but not wise. We knew many things and much that is false. He knew nature, which is always true. His were the qualities of character that last forever. He was essentially kind; he had courage and self-restraint, and though all had been taken from him, there was no bitterness in his heart. His soul was that of a child, his mind that of a philosopher.
Hunting with Ishi was pure joy. Bow in hand, he seemed to be transformed into a being light as air and as silent as falling snow. Time meant nothing to him; he simply stayed until he got his game.
He loved his bow as he did no other of his possessions. It was his constant companion in life and he took it with him on his last long journey.
He has gone and he hunts with his people. We stay, and he has left us the heritage of the bow.
With him there was no word for good-by. He said: “You stay, I go.”

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