Ishi could not have made his debut at a better time if he had planned it.
The autumn of 1911 was probably the pinnacle of the era of progress, at least in California. Women were poised to win the right to vote; it seemed that almost every day new aviation records were being set; ads were appearing for the upcoming 1912 automobile models, faster, bigger and cheaper; everyone went to the theaters to catch the latest movies and had a telephone at home – having a personal phone number to share (or not) was now indelibly part of your identity.
Progress particularly meant it was time to put the Wild West in the rear view mirror. The Americans of 1911 saw themselves far removed from that mythological age of resolute cowboys and gunslingin’ outlaws. Sure, it’s too bad the Indians got kind of a raw deal but some of them were hostile sometimes and anyway, it was a long time ago. Americans certainly didn’t like to be reminded that some of the bad stuff that happened in the past was still happening. When a band of Shoshone Indians accused of murder were tracked down and massacred by a posse in Nevada earlier that year it received scant coverage outside of that area of the state; just a few years earlier, such a story of derring-do would have made headlines all over the West Coast and probably nationally. Indians being shot to death, including women and children, no longer seemed the modern thing to read about in the morning paper. Not in America.
Then one late August morning near Oroville, an old Gold Rush town 70 miles due north of Sacramento, a man was found in the corral of a slaughterhouse, cornered against the fence by guard dogs. He was emaciated, middle-aged and wearing little more than rags. He spoke no English or Spanish or any of the Indian languages known by the second and third generation Indians around town. By all appearances he was an authentic “wild Indian” with little or no contact with Western civilization.
The scientists at UC/Berkeley could not wait to get their hands on him and put him on display.
(RIGHT: Front page story in San Francisco Call, August 31, 1911)
American anthropology was still a very young field in 1911, just beginning to challenge judgmental Eurocentric views that “primitive” cultures were unworthy except as precursors of “advanced” ones and every aspect of a culture could be traced to some underlying cause. A rising star in the new science was Alfred Kroeber, the 35 year old curator of UC/Berkeley’s Museum of Anthropology quickly learning how to shake hands at receptions for university benefactors.
Kroeber and the other anthropologists in California knew they were racing against time. In the six decades since statehood, most of California’s Indian population had been wiped out and there were few surviving Indians who had ever lived in the traditional manner or were fluent speakers in their ancestral languages. Researchers were collecting everything they could from the fast disappearing people – baskets, blankets, pottery, tools and other objects; songs and stories were recorded on Edison cylinders, words and grammars collected in dictionaries. Sometimes their zealous pursuit of science went far too far. An infamous field ethnologist working for the Smithsonian was so obsessed with collecting a word list from a particular dying speaker that he requested the Indian be given a shot of morphine to “pep him up” in order to “get him so he can talk before he dies.”
Finding an “uncontaminated man” was the Holy Grail for these researchers. Three years earlier in 1908, a pair of surveyors had stumbled upon a camp of four Indians in the canyons near Oroville, and Kroeber sent his protégé graduate student, Thomas Waterman, to investigate. From the blankets, arrows and other possessions stolen by the surveyors he could tell the story was no hoax, but there was no idea where the person(s) who made the items could be found.
When Kroeber saw the 1911 newspaper stories about the man who was supposedly the “last of the wildest Indian tribe” he immediately dispatched Waterman back to Oroville, sending the local sheriff a telegram reading in part, “HOLD INDIAN TILL ARRIVAL PROFESSOR STATE UNIVERSITY WHO WILL TAKE CHARGE AND BE RESPONSIBLE FOR HIM. MATTER IMPORTANT ACCOUNT ABORIGINAL HISTORY.”
Waterman arrived to find a man bewildered and beleaguered. Although he was being held in the county jail, he had become the town’s exotic pet; thousands had stopped by to gawk and shove things at him to see how he would react. Look, he’s trying to peel a tomato! Isn’t it funny? Look, he’s eating a banana peel! The sheriff handed him an unloaded revolver as a test, apparently to see if he’d try to shoot him with it. Two photographers were taking pictures to make into postcards, trying to find a good “lo, the poor Indian” type of pose. Take off your shirt, please. Now, look proud.
In the jailhouse Waterman determined the man spoke the Yana language, albeit a dialect unknown to the academics. Kroeber knew someone who spoke another version of Yana and hoped he could translate. They were able to communicate but with difficulty; even though they came from regions only about fifty miles apart, the distance between their languages has been likened to Spanish and Portugese. The translator’s name was Sam Batwi (Ba’twi). After Kroeber obtained tenuous approval from the special agent for Indian affairs, the Oroville sheriff was told to release the “wild Yana” to Waterman, adding “the ethnologists would take good care of him.”
And thus just a week after he was found in the corral, the last survivor of the family group called “Yahi” stepped off the train in San Francisco and met Alfred Kroeber. Reporters were already clamoring for information about the wild man of Oroville; what was his name? Kroeber told them to call him “Ishi,” which was the Yana-Yahi word for “man.” In Ishi’s culture one’s name was a very personal thing and never spoken by the person him/herself – it was how others addressed you. Perhaps the anthropologists might have learned his true name had there been the opportunity for him to be introduced by someone who knew him, but he was the last Yahi. So.
Even before Waterman left Oroville, there was debate on what the museum should do with Ishi once they had the rights to him (so to speak). “If this fellow don’t die before we get him to the museum, or some other unheard-of thing occur, why can’t we put him in a case, and have him make arrows,” Waterman wrote Kroeber. “Good exhibit for the public.” There is apparently similar unpublished correspondence between the university and Washington D.C. regarding Ishi’s value as an exhibition object.
Ishi went on display at the museum about six weeks after his arrival in San Francisco. (Waterman suggested again that he should be in a glass case, but that idea was rejected.) Except for a few weeks in 1914, he would spend every Sunday afternoon showing as many as a thousand of the curious how he made fire or chipped an arrowhead. And since he was officially the assistant janitor at the museum, he got to clean up the place after they left.
Ishi was a hit, and because of him the newly opened Museum of Anthropology was a success as well, with crowds and school trips coming back year after year. Some of his continuing celebrity was undoubtedly due to all the free publicity; reporters loved writing about Ishi. And who can blame them? He was an affable man with a gentle charm and it didn’t hurt that he was also photogenic; contrast the photo in the newspaper story above with the detail shown to the right. In the earlier photo he seemed to want to crawl out of his skin and vanish. In the picture taken just five weeks later he was smiling, relaxed, and looked a bit like 1940s Hollywood hearthrob Stewart Grainger (that’s Alfred Kroeber over his left shoulder).
Nearly everything that appeared in those papers about Ishi was complete nonsense. They couldn’t get past the simplistic view that he was a “Stone Age Man,” a Fred Flintstone or Alley Oop come to life, and there were indeed cartoons that portrayed him as a caveman. That first December in San Francisco there was a story titled “The Only Man in America Who Knows No Christmas” with an illustration of a puzzled Ishi watching Santa gliding through the woods with sleigh and reindeer. A reoccurring storyline in the papers claimed Ishi was in love or soon to be married (headline: “Ishi Loses Heart to ‘Blond Squaw'”). Actresses could get their pictures in the paper by flirting with him. At the end of this article are a few examples.
A reporter from the San Francisco Call took Ishi, Sam Batwi and others to the theater and absurdly wrote that Ishi believed an entertainer must be “the great medicine goddess of the palefaces.” When she began singing, the paper claimed “Ishi half rose and hung over the edge of the box in his excitement. He was breathing hard and his eyes were glittering.” The fiction continued with a tour de force of lurid racist imagery of a dark-skinned man as an animalistic savage lusting after a white woman:
|Slowly Ishi rose to his feet. He fixed on the lady an unwinking gaze of such intensity as to draw her attention away from a row of Johnnies to whom she had been warbling. Her eyes met those of the wild man. She faced him bravely and with dazzling white arms held out toward the thunderstruck worshiper, sand to him the words of “Have You Ever Loved Another Little Girl?”
The cold sweat was standing out on Ishi’s forehead. His face was drawn. His fingers, grasping the crimson hangings, trembled visibly and his first cigar, which he had been puffing with pretended sangfroid, now slowly grew cold and dropped from between his teeth. Professors Kroeber and Waterman, studying these unusual emotions in the interests of psychology, now leaned toward him, ready to grab the wild man before he could leap to the stage…the broad shouldered Indian, who was leaning out of the box above it, half crouching, as if for a spring.
MORE ABOUT ISHI
This article tells only covers a small portion of Ishi’s story. Nearly a century after his death he continues to be a subject of academic and popular interest, but surprisingly little info is available on the Internet except for a thin Wikipedia page. Here are some resources about his life:
A must-see documentary on his story is the hourlong Ishi: The Last Yahi which aired on PBS’ American Experience in 1992 and was nominated for a well-deserved Emmy. For a shorter introduction, there is a (mostly accurate) 10-minute student video worth a look.
Theodora Kroeber (discussed in the article) wrote two well-received books in the 1960s about Ishi which have never been out of print: “Ishi in Two Worlds” and “Ishi: Last of His Tribe“, a fictionalized account of his life for young adult readers (the latter was made into a 1978 TV movie that is best avoided). She did not know or even meet Ishi, writing decades after his death and working from her late husband’s notes.
Besides period newspapers, all material in this article is drawn from “Ishi in Two Worlds” and two recent books: “Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last ‘wild’ Indian” which is a good recount of Ishi’s life along with the recent struggle to reclaim his brain from the warehouse shelf of the Smithsonian Institution. But highest recommendations go to “Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America,” which highlights the conflicting views of the famous anthropologist and his “uncontaminated man.” This book provides the clearest explanations of how Ishi saw his strange new world and offers revealing details about how others treated him.
Ishi also has been the subject of novels, poems, plays and movies, with some of his stories being turned into children’ books. Educator Richard Burrill has also written six books on Ishi which represent over fifteen years of anthropological and historical research. You can watch how-to videos on making arrows and arrowheads using Ishi’s techniques. There is an annual Ishi Gathering and Seminar near his homeland and new scholarship continues to emerge, guided by Alfred Kroeber’s descendants.
None of that happened. Ishi paid little attention to the performers that evening, focusing his attention upon the hundreds of people in the audience – he was astonished because he had never before seen so many in one place.
Tellingly, Theodora Kroeber, Alfred’s second wife (see sidebar) passed over the incident quickly in the non-fiction biography of Ishi. This probably reveals the museum people realized that as guardian, Kroeber clearly flubbed in giving a hack journalist the opportunity to spin pornographic falsehoods about his charge (just a few years later the same reporter, Grant Wallace, would be shown to be clearly nuts by claiming he was in telepathic contact with space aliens). Likely with damage control in mind it was arranged that in the same edition of that newspaper Alfred Kroeber would present his own article about Ishi.
There the anthropologist made a point he would repeatedly use when introducing Ishi to an audience: “there is nothing undeveloped about him; he has the mind of a man and is a man in every sense.” It was appropriate at the time for Kroeber to explicitly say this because many still embraced the racist notions that anyone not of European descent was potentially sub-human or a missing link – only a few years earlier, Congolese pygmy Ota Benga had been exhibited at the Monkey House of the Bronx zoo.
Regrettably, Kroeber didn’t stop there, and his article was just as troublesome in its own way as Wallace’s fictional tale of sexual desire. Ishi doesn’t understand nine-tenths of what goes on around him, Kroeber wrote, can’t be taught English or learn to count. “His attitude toward everything about his is just like that of a puppy. He is interested in everything and never questions orders. He comes running when you call him, and if you were to tell him to stand in the corner of stand on his head, if he were able he would do it without hesitation.” What humanity he giveth with one hand he taketh with the other; Kroeber was describing Ishi as if he were a remarkable pet, capable of mimicry and performing tricks on command but not able to develop.
Kroeber was proved wrong on all counts. Ishi learned quickly; he mastered an English vocabulary of several hundred words – let’s drop your average 50 year-old American into China from that era and see how well he could communicate after a couple of years. Ishi could navigate the Bay Area trolley and ferry system on his own, and understood numbers perfectly well but used a base-5 system very different from the Western world. He was also not docile; he expressed his dislike for Sam Batwi, whom he regarded as a “phony” Indian, an acquiescent Uncle Tom. He complained about the taste of city tapwater and particularly about the materials Kroeber required him to use. Although Theodora’s book states “obsidian was Ishi’s favorite material for demonstration at the museum” he clearly preferred making arrowheads from glass. A friend would drive him to the city dump where he could hunt for old Bromo-Seltzer bottles which were a distinctive cobalt blue. Yet Alfred Kroeber insisted he exclusively use obsidian because it was “authentic.”
Authenticity was Kroeber’s byword. He shunned anything and everything related to what he called the “bastard cultures” of non-traditional Indians; Native American culture ended, in his view, once its people began adapting to survive. It was one thing to view anthropology as pure science, but Kroeber went farther and trivialized the genocide that followed the Gold Rush, which he called the “little history of pitiful events” in his landmark book, “Handbook of the Indians of California.” Make no mistake: Alfred Kroeber was one of the greatest scientists of his day, but he was studying living people in such a narrow way that it could be said to be inhuman. It was like a historian trying to write a biography of Abraham Lincoln’s family without mentioning the uncomfortable business about the Civil War.
The irony is rich: Kroeber’s association with Ishi launched the success of his museum and with it his personal high profile in science and society, but Ishi was an attraction because his people had been wiped out or assimilated in a brutal conquest which Kroeber viewed as unimportant.
No book on Ishi indicates when (or if) he began speaking about his personal struggle, and no newspapers of his time mentioned described what had happened (see above, re: Morning papers, massacres not appropriate in). Today his history is well documented. There were an estimated 400 Yahi pre-contact. By the time Ishi was about ten in 1870 only a dozen or so were left, most of the others killed in two massacres by Indian hunters during his childhood. Ishi’s family and the few others began their decades of concealment that lasted until the surveyors stumbled upon them. By then, it was just Ishi and the “long together five.”
Amazingly, the only account of his time during those four decades came from the Press Democrat a few months after Ishi walked out of the wilderness. A version of the story went over the newswire, but is transcribed in full here for the first time.
(RIGHT: Jacob and Norah Harbin Turner. Photo courtesy of Helen (Turner) Carlisle of Chico, California and Richard Burrill)
Jacob and Norah Turner, who were now living near Santa Rosa, had a place 25 miles outside of Red Bluff in 1878. They were known to be friendly to Indians in the area and had in fact hired a young Sam Batwi for a time. They slowly got to know the reclusive Yahi survivors which included Ishi, his mother, wife, two daughters and a son. There were then seven of them left in all.
The Turners knew them when Ishi’s son was shot and killed by a rancher who was angry because someone had raided his cabin. Later, they saw Ishi and his wife mourn after they lost their daughters when “two white hunters came along and either enticed or forced the girls to go with them.”
Ishi’s mother died after the surveyors found their camp in 1908 and the other two, apparently his sister and an old man, fled separately, never to be seen again. Ishi was alone and without any of his tools or other belongings, all of them having been taken by the surveyors as souvenirs.
Ishi developed tuberculosis and in the spring of 1916, after four-plus years in the modern world, it was clear he didn’t have long to live (Kroeber’s first wife also died of TB in 1913). Waterman had grown close to him and at least once Ishi spent weeks living with his family. Kroeber was in New York at the time, and Waterman wrote to him: “…the poor old Indian is dying. The work last summer was too much for him. He was the best friend I had in the world and I killed him by letting Sapir [a language ethnologist] ride him too hard, and by letting him sneak out of lunches.”
Kroeber told Waterman to act as his personal representative to make sure that Yahi death traditions were followed, particularly making sure the body was not defiled by an autopsy: “Please stand by our contingently made outline of action and insist on it as my personal wish. There is no objection to a [death mask]. I do not, however, see that an autopsy would lead to anything of consequence…if there is any talk about the interests of science, say for me that science can go to hell. We propose to stand by our friends.”
But Ishi’s physician insisted and Waterman gave in. An autopsy was performed on his still warm body. All that was learned was that his skull was “small and rather thick.” His brain was removed and sent to the Smithsonian, where it remained until 2000, when his ashes and brain were turned over to those believed to be his closest living descendants.
Having his brain plucked out was the final indignity in a lifetime of cruelties and abuses, and worse because the doctor was Ishi’s friend and knew well the Yahi customs for the dead. Ishi might have wondered why these modern people so often acted as if they simply didn’t know right from wrong. Kroeber later told a friend he never asked Indians about their recent history because he “could not stand all the tears.” If Ishi had ever heard Kroeber make such a remark, he would have probably thought it was a very uncivilized thing for him to say – civilized people would not tell others to keep their stories quiet. But then again, I imagine to his thinking, civilized people also would not put others on display and make them perform.
EARLIEST HISTORY OF ISHI THE UNCONTAMINATED MAN
Story Told by Santa Rosans Who Knew Him Long Ago
Lone and Lorn Yana Indian is Doubtless What He Say He Is–the Sole Survivor of a People That Have Perished
Mr. and Mrs. J. P. Turner, whose home is near the Northwestern Pacific Railway about a mile north of Santa Rosa, knew Ishi in early days. Ishi, “the uncontaminated aboriginee,” whose capture has been told in many a news story, and whose primitive language and primitive ways have been made the subject of study by anthropologists of the University of California and of speculation by many others. Mr. and Mrs. Turner knew not only Ishi but six other members of his tribe, the Yana Indians, and they believe that the captured savage is all that the scientists say he is–the last of his tribe and a primitive man, with as little knowledge of modern civilization as has any man to be found in the world today.
It was in 1878 that the Turners first came into contact with the Yana Indians at a place then called Buck Flat about 25 miles from Red Bluff in Tehama county. Also they knew Sam Batwee, the interpreter who is now with Ishi. Sam Batwee belongs to another tribe, but he knew a great deal of Ishi’s language, although his own tribe and Ishi’s were not friendly. Sam Batwee worked on the Turner ranch two years. The tribe to which Sam Batwee belongs was called the Shaveheads by the settlers in Tehama because the men shaved part of the hair from their heads. They were more enchanted with the whites than were Ishi’s people. Ishi’s tribe was called sometimes Yana, sometimes the Nonsez [usually now spelled Noza, which were actually the Yana from Sam Batwi’s clan -ed]. The two names were used at will and the Turners understood them to mean the same.
Mr. and Mrs. Turner never saw more than seven members of the Yana tribe although for years the whole tribe lived within a mile of the Turner home. The Indians habitations were in caves in the hills, most cleverly concealed, and the Indians themselves were so fearful of the white race, and so skillful, so cunning and so sly in evading them, that they were near neighbors for years before the whites knew it.
There was good reason for the Indians to hide, and for them to dread their discovery by the whites. Upon the occasion of every meeting, the red men suffered at the hands of ruthless marauders who called themselves civilized. Many Indians were murdered in cold blood, their habitations were ravaged, their stores of food destroyed, their women and girls kidnapped and dragged away. So savage was their persecution, so severe their oppression and so pitiful their condition that the Indians came finally to the point where they murdered all their own children–first in order that the infants’ cries might not betray the presence of the camp; second, as the Indian women told Mrs. Turner, because they saw no hope for the remnant of their tribe, and believed that if the children were not killed they would sooner or later starve to death. So the Yana men seized their own babies on the day of birth, swung them by the heels and dashed out their brains against a rock or a tree. That practice, say Mr. and Mrs. Turner, gives the reason why the Ishi is the only one left, of all the once numerous Yana tribe. Before the Yanas were reduced to this extremity they had fought two hard battles with the whites, one in Tehama county and one in Shasta. In each case the Indians were armed with bows and arrows and the whites with rifles. The first of these battles is said to have taken place in 1854, the second in 1867. The Turners lived near the scene of the second conflict, and many unburied bones were there in evidence as late as 1873 and ’74, some entire skeletons lying on the ground almost intact besides many scattered bones.
Mr. Turner’s first view of the Yana Indians came about one day when he saw what he believed to be two little brown bears playing on a hillside about a mile away. He took his rifle and crept closer to them, when he discovered that instead of bears they were two little naked Indian girls. Still concealing himself, he crept very close then showed himself and called to them when they instantly scurried into the thicket as quickly as a pair of frightened quails.
But Turner’s curiosity was aroused and he pursued the little girls and when they had retreated to a creek they could not cross he overtook them. They went home with him and his wife gave them food. They soon recovered from their alarm, but the older Indians were hinting them and easily trailed them to the Turner home. These older Indians were Ishi and a woman. The girls were their children. Thus came about the acquaintance that lasted a long time; the only white acquaintance Ishi ever had. The Indians were alarmed when they saw Turner’s rifles and shotguns standing in a closet and were for retreating at once, but were reassured and prevailed upon to remain.
After this the Indians became rather too friendly, especially the two girls. They wanted to live at the Turner home all the time and the other woman who later came with them, as well as the girls themselves, begged food upon every opportunity. One day the girls were taken with measles, and Mrs. Turner administered a simple herbal remedy of her own compounding that gave them much relief. In return for this, they and the older woman were ever anxious to show their gratitude by helping her with her housework, but their help was worse than a hindrance. The squaw would take the broom from Mrs. Turner and would try to sweep. But she never got anywhere with it; she just swung the broom every way and all ways and did nothing more than to raise all the dust there was in the house without getting any of it past the door.
Sometimes an Indian boy came with the visitors. One day Ishi and the squaw appeared with mourning stripes painted on their faces–streaks of black pitch and red vermillion on foreheads, cheeks and chins. Their son was dead, and by signs they told that he had been shot. The squaw sat in a chair and swayed to and fro and wrung her hands, meanwhile chanting the long-drawn wailing cry, “Ma-loo-oo-oo-ehee! Ma-loo-oo-oo-ehee!” repeated many times.
Not long afterward, Mr. Turner met two stockmen, one of them whom was named Rafe Johnson. Johnson told Turner that he had shot an Indian boy a little while before. “I don’t know whether I killed him or not,” said Johnson. “He was 400 or 500 yards away, across Mill Creek canyon, and I elevated my sights and let him have one. He dropped and I guess I broke one of his legs anyhow if I didn’t kill him. A lot of ’em went down to my cabin while I was away last month and stole everything they could lift. I guess that one will learn to keep away anyhow.”
Their son’s murder was not the last outrage Ishi and his squaw were to suffer at the white man’s hands. When the two girls were nearly grown two white hunters came along and either enticed or forced the girls to go with them and Ishi and his squaw were left childless. Mr. Turner learned afterward that the girls had been abandoned in Red Bluff and that peace officers there had taken the castaways to an Indian reservation in Siskiyou. But he does not believe that Ishi and the squaw ever saw their children again.
Mr. and Mrs. Turner’s daughter Blanche was born at Buck Flat. While she was a little child the Indian girls, some years older often spent hours attending and amusing her. She remembers them playing at see-saw–one of them holding her on a teetering timber while the other rocked it. Also she remembers part of a song the often sang while doing this. There was much of it, but all she remember is this strain which was always repeated three times:
“No anny hoatt-e tuitt! No anny hoatt-e tuitt! No anny hoatt-e tuitt!”
Although the Turners never saw more than seven Yana Indians, these told them that there were twenty left of the tribe. The others were dead–either murdered by the whites or killed in babyhood by their own parents. Poor Ishi is probably what he say he is–the last of his race. The Turners say that although he refused to learn English they could communicate with him tolerably well in the Indian sign language, and that they thought him a man of much intelligence– in fact, a rather superior sort of person although he had but slight opportunity to demonstrate what he was really made of.
Mr. and Mrs. Turner are both well informed on California’s early history–much of which they saw in the making, and part of which their own families helped to make. Mrs. Turner is a daughter of Mat Harbin, who located Harbin Springs, and a grand-daughter of James Harbin, who built the cabin in which the famed and ill-famed Donner party perished. James Harbin himself had been one of that party, but had gone ahead before winter fell, and so had reached the coast unscathed by the disaster that befell those who delayed on the way.
[This paragraph has several factual errors. Mat Harbin (real name which he used later in life: John Madison Harbin) was a drover in the 1844 Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party, which crossed the Sierras two years before the Donner party. They built a cabin which would be later used by the Donner party. Mat’s father, James M. Harbin came to California with his family in 1846, a few months ahead of the Donner party. It was James, not his son Mat, who established the Harbin Hot Springs resort -ed.]
Mrs. Turner is also a sister-in-law of Prof. Ferdinand Kenyon, who was years ago a member of the Pacific Methodist College faculty, and is now a teacher in Fresno. Her family and her husband’s family were intimately associated with some of the most prominent of the pioneers–especially with the late Senator George Hearst.
– Press Democrat, November 9, 1911