Provocative, Misleading Play About Ishi Opens Wounds From California Genocide

A story about Ishi.

In 1911, when Ishi emerged from his Northern California tribe’s ancestral homeland, he was alone, around 50 years old and his hair was cut, possibly because he was mourning his family and relatives who had been murdered by European-American settlers.

Soon after entering the white world, he was taken to the University of California, Berkeley, where he was studied by academics led by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who made audio recordings of Ishi telling traditional stories, had him make arrowheads for tourists and hyperbolically billed him as the “last wild Indian” of his tribe in an effort to gain acclaim and funding.

Many stories about Ishi have been told since then, and many of them were sensationalized. But Kayla Carpenter, a doctoral student in linguistics at U.C. Berkeley and a Hoopa Valley Tribal member, has heard the Indian peoples’ stories of Ishi: of his commitment to his traditions, of how he bravely resisted assimilation despite his isolation. These stories tell of a peaceful man whose kind heart and belief in the Yahi way proved unwavering in the face of his people’s genocide.

So after Carpenter first saw the university’s stage production of Ishi: The Last Yahi, which, in a melding of fact and fiction, depicts Ishi as a baby killer, an incestuous rapist and a batterer, she wept.

During a talk-back with the playwright, John Fisher, in March, Carpenter, an insightful and measured student, was so distraught she couldn’t summon the words to speak. “Ishi was a teacher when he came here, he taught people something about California and indigenous culture,” Carpenter explains. “To tell his story in this way does a disservice to him and to all the California Native people who live today who have survived the genocide.”

Following the beginning of the Gold Rush in 1849, people in California waged a campaign of extermination against Indian tribes, which included a law that made it legal to take Indian children as indentured servants and militias were paid by the government to kill Indians—$5 a scalp. Ishi’s tribe, the Yahi band of the Yana, had suffered heavy losses from attacks by white settlers, and his family had been flushed from their homes and pushed into hiding by the time he was born, which was probably in the early 1860s.

Fisher says he combined creative writing and archival research to draw attention to this California genocide, but the March performances of his play sent a shock wave through the California Indian community that led to an ongoing and sometimes emotionally charged dialogue about the ethics of creating art, the complexity of telling another culture’s story and the lingering wounds of California’s ugly history.

The play chronicles Ishi’s arrival at Berkeley, where he stayed for five years, until his death; his complicated relationship with Kroeber and his colleagues; and their efforts to get Ishi to tell them how he survived the California genocide. Scenes of rape, murder and other forms of extreme violence are interwoven into the narrative, but what most disturbed American Indian audience members was the backstory Fisher fabricated for Ishi.

Not much is known of Ishi’s life before he came to Berkeley. He didn’t even reveal his real name to Kroeber—Ishi simply means “the people” or “the man” in his language. But Fisher’s play depicts an Ishi whose mind and morality were twisted by the genocide: someone who in one scene drowns his baby in the river to stop it from crying and drawing the attention of murderous settlers who are hunting him.

“The play made it seem like Ishi had no morals or values that came from his traditional culture,” says Caleen Sisk, spiritual leader and chief of the Winnemem Wintu. “By turning him into a murderer, into a villain, in my mind the play was saying it was okay to kill him and other Indians, because they didn’t believe in anything.”

After those March performances, Fisher didn’t respond to audience questions about why he created this violent backstory for Ishi, saying that any effort to explain his art was destined to “collapse upon itself.” In an e-mail he sent to Indian Country Today Media Network he pointed out that a previous version of his play had debuted in 2008 in San Francisco without any discord and received glowing reviews from Variety and the San Francisco Chronicle.

The university’s Department of Theater, Dance, and Performing Studies picked the play for a student production in part because 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of Ishi’s arrival at the university. Neither Fisher nor the department ever consulted with Ishi’s descendants, tribal leaders or Native students, which Department Chair Peter Glazer says was a grave oversight. “I think that we all feel a sense of responsibility for not understanding the implications of this play, the impact that it would have on a Native American audience,” he says. “I felt very horrified that we had done something in our theater that had such a traumatizing effect on our students and the Native American community.”

This production was not the first time Ishi and his story have been used as a blank canvas by non-Native storytellers, and too often these renderings were layered with stereotypes, subtle and glaring, says Nicole Myers-Lim, executive director of the California Indian Museum in Santa Rosa, which houses an Ishi exhibit. “He was someone who really valued human relationships and was steeped in his culture,” she reports. “To see him repeatedly misrepresented and treated with indignity over the last 100 years is upsetting to American Indians who view him as a hero.”

When it first became apparent the play was deeply disturbing to American Indians who saw it, the university’s Theater, Dance and Performing Studies department quickly issued an apology online and in the student newspaper, Glazer says. Faculty members also agreed to meet with Carpenter and other members of the American Indian Graduate Student Association (AIGSA), who were calling for the play’s remaining performances to be cancelled.

The department declined to shut down the performance, but agreed to include a disclaimer in the program that provided

Ishi at Deer Creek in 1914

Ishi at Deer Creek in 1914

some historical information about Ishi.

Glazer says that even though the play was clearly traumatizing for some members of the audience, it was important that the show go on. After the second performance, which many tribal elders traveled several hours to see, the cast and director engaged in a talk-back with students and community members. “It was an unbelievably powerful experience for the cast to experience,” Glazer recalls. “The elders would not have [otherwise] had the opportunity to see the show, and to bear witness.”

Some American Indian community members, however, say they would have rather not had to experience the trauma of watching the play. Cutcha Risling Baldy, a graduate student at UC Davis and a Hoopa Valley Tribal member, went to the play with an open mind, she says, but she and many other Indians in the audience started crying after a brutal scene in which three white settlers hunt an Indian woman, rape her, and kill her and her baby.

“People who don’t know the history are going to walk away from the play with this simplistic picture of extreme violence,” she says. “And they’re going to think [California Indians] were committing violence against each other as well as the people destroying them.

“By portraying Ishi in that way, [the playwright] was making it seem like Indian people were falling apart on their own, and it lessens the impact of the genocide. This was part of the dialogue he said he wanted to start, but then he wouldn’t participate in the conversation. He acted offended when people asked him questions.”

Tria Andrews, who is of Cherokee, Irish and Filipina descent and a doctoral student in ethnic studies, complains that Fisher relied on books written by Kroeber’s second wife, Theodora (who didn’t meet Ishi), and edited collections of Kroeber’s records, and the works of other non-Native writers. “His sources are from the aggressor,” she says. “And if you’re going to create a complete fantasy, it’s really problematic because people who don’t know their history will think that’s the real Ishi.”

Andrews watched the play for an ethnography class, and she was so disturbed by many elements in the play that she dug her checkbook out of her purse to write down notes. The scathing review she posted online is what drew attention to the performance at Berkeley.

She says Fisher’s Ishi was a stereotypical savage, speaking with a cavemanesque speech pattern, and displaying a childlike affection for ice cream and sweets. The character never displays the cultural knowledge and humanistic qualities Ishi was known to possess. Though Ishi recorded many traditional stories with Kroeber, the only one he tells in the play is a tale he calls, “Coyote Rapes his Sister.”

She says the play’s depictions of violence and its sexualization of women in the play, such as a scene in which white men murdering an Indian man is juxtaposed with a scene of two Indian men sexually assaulting a white woman.

In another scene, Ishi’s sister tells her European American rapist that she “was once unwilling, but now is willing,” Andrews says. “There are contemporary stats that say one in three Native women will be raped in their lifetimes. And to see the sexualization of Native women in the play was upsetting. We’re in these [graduate] programs to make a difference, but this has made it seem like nothing much has changed since Ishi [died].”

Glazer says the department has adopted a new policy to always consult with “underrepresented communities” before staging any performances about those communities. Carpenter says the AIGSA will be pushing the department to do something more proactive, perhaps produce a Native-written play or commit to hiring American Indian faculty; they say the university currently has only three tenured faculty members.

The department also hosted a dialogue to continue the discussion, but the incident may have left many of the Native students wary of their relationship with a university whose anthropology department stores thousands of unreturned Indian remains while enrolling only a few hundred Native students. “I think before this I was naïve about how the exploitation of Native people can continue, even here, without proper monitoring,” Carpenter says.

There are many who see the play as yet another shameful example of the apparently endless exploitation of Ishi, which started when he first met Kroeber, and continues to this day.

When Ishi died in 1916 from tuberculosis, the university didn’t honor his cultural traditions to be buried whole and instead conducted an autopsy, cremated his remains and preserved his brain, which was stored at the Smithsonian until it was repatriated in 2000, and reburied in his homeland.

“To make it to the other world, he believed he had to be whole,” explains James Hayward Sr., cultural resource manager at the Redding Rancheria, which includes Wintu, Pit River, and Yana descendants, including relatives of Ishi. “And they took that away from him.”

Hayward says that because Ishi didn’t reveal his true name elders believe this means he would never have wanted his name mentioned after his death. “Ishi needs to be left alone,” he says. “Every time another book is written or movie is made, it’s like digging him up from his grave.”