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Ishi, Last of His Tribe

Who was Ishi ?
Ishi was a Yahi Indian who was born and grew into manhood on the eastern slope of Mount Lassen. His tribal group were the Yaha and lived for generations in relative isolation, with only infrequent contact with their neighboring tribes, who included the Maidu to the south. The Yahi had lived in seclusion in their region long before the first white settlers arrived, and continued to live there until the early 1900s. During the Gold Rush of the mid 1800s, they were able to survive the first influx of white people by retreating to the more remote canyons of the backcountry, and did not set out to make war on the invaders. When they did have contact with the whites, they drew maps in the earth to show them where they could find the gold dust they sought, and sent them on their way to more profitable mining elsewhere.

Yana style house built by Ishi behind the museum in San Francisco. Ishi appears to be flintknapping in the doorway.

Eventually the whites did come upon the Yahi with irreversible violence and slaughtered all but seven of the tribe without any provocation. These seven survivors included Ishi, then a young boy, his young female cousin, his mother and grandparents, his uncle, and an older boy. The seven learned to live invisibly on the land, hiding away in shelters and caves, making sure no arrowhead or trap, not even a footprint was left out where a white man might find it. For many years they were invisible. And eventually the grandparents passed on from old age, while the older boy was killed when he decided to blow up a white man's munitions pile.

But one year, white men working on a logging project did find their cave and stole all of the family's baskets and goods. In their efforts to escape, the female cousin and uncle were lost in the river. For a short time Ishi remained hidden with his sickly mother until she too passed away, leaving Ishi alone in the world. After a period of terrible grief and loneliness, Ishi became so feverish and distraught that he somehow wandered down out of the mountains and was found crouched in a coral in Oroville.

The Sheriff of the town locked Ishi up in the jail - not to punish him, but to keep him safe from the prying and cruel local people who treated him like a curiosity or a freak. The Sheriff let a foremost anthropologist, A.L. Kroeber ( whose works we use in the Camp as resources ), know that a native man from the wilderness had stumbled into the town, and Dr. Kroeber soon came and rescued Ishi. He offered Ishi the choice of going to live with others of his language group who were on reservations, or to come with him and help record the ways of his people for Kroeber's University of California Museum, then housed in San Francisco.

Ever since Ishi was a little boy, he had been watching the railroad's black smoking monster wind its way along the Sacramento Valley from his hide-outs in the foothills and mountains of the Sierras. He also had had dreams that one day he would visit the land at the edge of the world where California met the oceans he had heard about. Dr. Kroeber was able to communicate this choice to Ishi because he had lived with another Indian tribe in the past and learned enough of their language to be able to speak with Ishi.

Ishi gave the choices serious thought, and selected to go with Dr. Kroeber who spoke his language, and was a man he found he could trust. Once living in the Museum, Ishi began to recreate the tools and begin to practice many of the ways of his people. He had the free run of the Sutro forest next to the museum, and taught a young friend of Dr. Kroeber's how to make a bow and arrow and hunt. Ishi was eventually reunited with baskets and blankets that had been stolen from his last home, and was deeply moved when an anonymous source mailed back his lost quiver and sacred bundle to him.

After a few years of quietly asking Ishi if he would consider taking Kroeber and the young apprentice back up to the mountains to show them his homeland, Ishi was finally ready to return to the rivers, canyons and mountains of the backcountry he had loved as a boy and hidden in as a young man. During this journey, the three lived the Yahi way, and visited many of the sites that were etched in Ishi's memory. It was a wonderful trip for the three friends - one of freedom, exploration and reverence for a way of life that would no longer be.

Producing a bow on Deer Creek, 1914
The friends returned to San Francisco, and Ishi continued to be a figurehead at the museum, showing visitors how to make bows and arrows, and helping Kroeber to better record the Yahi story. Ishi lived his last days at the museum, and considered it his men's meeting house, a place where he was safe and could discuss the sacred aspects of life with people who understood and respected his people, and who felt a true tenderness for Ishi as the last man of his tribe.

Ishi,last of his tribe, was written in 1964 by Theodora Kroeber, wife of Dr. Kroeber. She intimately understood the cultural exchange that took place between her husband and Ishi, and using first hand accounts and resources, wove a story of Ishi's life into this 200 page book, now available in a small paperback version. We recommend this book for anyone interested in the lifeways of Native Americans in the California Backcountry, and who is aware of the unspeakable tragedies and enduring beauty inherent in the history of the early Californians.

From the left: Sam Batwi (Northern/Central Yana Indian), Dr. A.L. Kroeber (University of California Anthropologist) and Ishi (Yahi or Southern Yana Indian), 1911. Photo Credit: University of California Berkeley,Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology