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Native History: Ishi Emerges from Mountains and Enters the White World

It was a brutally hot day in 1911 Northern California, when a traditional Yana man in his 50s entered the pioneer town of Oroville, California.
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This Date in Native History: The year was 1911, and it was a brutally hot day in Northern California, when a traditional Yana man in his 50s with his hair singed short entered the small pioneer town of Oroville and was quickly apprehended by the Sheriff.

Because he spoke only his native tongue and appeared to have lived up until then isolated from white people in his mountain homeland, he drew attention from settlers near and far, as the newspapers hyperbolically billed him as the “last wild Indian” and fixated on his apparent “primitiveness.”

Pictured from left, are Sam Batwi (Northern/Central Yana Indian), Dr. A.L. Kroeber (University of California Anthropologist), and Ishi (Yahi or Southern Yana Indian), 1911.

His story also drew the attention of prominent anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who named him Ishi—an Anglicized version of the Yana word for man—and received permission from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to house him at the University of California’s Associated Colleges Museum.

Until his death from tuberculosis in 1916, Ishi lived there as a living exhibit, conducting demonstrations of arrowhead making and other Yana arts for the public, and he has since become a potent symbol of anthropologists’ exploitation and misrepresentation of Native Americans.

But to many California Indians today, his legacy lives on as someone who survived the horrors of the California genocide that begun with the Gold Rush and retained an unalloyed kindness and reverence for his people’s traditions and culture.

Ishi had spent the last years before his emergence hiding with a handful of relatives at a hidden village site near Deer Creek, struggling to survive while avoiding the pioneers who likely would murder or arrest him and his family.

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Many today believe his singed hair suggested he was in mourning, as is the tradition still of many California native people to burn their hair short after the death of a love one.

While Ishi never spoke to the anthropologists of what happened before he came to them, he became known as a cultural ambassador, working with anthropologists to record traditional stories and explain the knowledge of his people.

He became a fixture in San Francisco, adapting to some modern ways but growing out and always keeping his long hair, and using traditional medicines when he felt they worked better than Western methods.

Kroeber decided Ishi spoke a previously unheard dialect of Yana, and Ishi became known as the last of the Yahi, a band of the Yana. This was an exaggeration, and descendants of Ishi’s people still live today, including members of the Redding Rancheria.

After Ishi died, University of California medical students performed an autopsy on him, something Kroeber and others knew was against his beliefs. His brain was sent to the Smithsonian by Kroeber, where it remained until it was repatriated in 2000.

Since his death, Ishi’s story has been depicted in plays, books and films, often in demeaning or sensationalized ways. But as the years pass, a more accurate picture of Ishi’s life continues to emerge.

RELATED: Provocative, Misleading Play About Ishi Opens Wounds From California Genocide

“We believe it’s time to let him rest, instead of digging up his story time and again and speculating about his experience,” said James Hayward, cultural resource program manager for the Redding Rancheria, in a March 2012, interview. “He deserves his peace.”