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Spirit of Ishi finally free to join ancestors

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REDDING, Calif. - After nearly nine decades, the brain of Ishi, last of the Yahi, has been reunited with his remains and buried with dignity and reverence in an undisclosed location in Deer Creek Canyon.

A dozen descendants of the Yahi, members of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River Tribe, went to Washington, D.C., to retrieve the brain from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

"They held a ceremony in a room that we have set aside for this specific purpose," says Tom Killion the case officer from the Smithsonian. "I was very lucky and honored to be there. The ceremony lasted about 2 hours and was very uplifting."

Killion says tribal members knew the exact protocol to handle the situation. They smudged the remains and said several prayers. They welcomed Ishi to the world of his ancestors. Afterward they wrapped the remains in a gray fox pelt. Killion says everyone felt confident Ishi had been reunited and freed to finally travel on to the next world. His 84-year odyssey in limbo had finally been completed.

In 1916 the last Yahi tribal member and last American Indian to live a truly traditional lifestyle died of tuberculosis in his room overlooking Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. His brain was subsequently removed from his body and locked in a vault at the Smithsonian.

The story of Ishi has become legend to schoolchildren across the nation and Ishi himself has become a symbol of the plight of American Indians.

The Yahi were thought to have been wiped out in the 1860s. There had been more than 400 Yahi when the California Gold Rush began in 1849. Encroachment by white settlers seriously reduced that number and a massacre in 1866 reduced the tribe to a few members who escaped into the rugged terrain of Deer Creek Canyon, east of Red Bluff.

After the massacre, the Yahi were believed to be extinct. Somehow, for the next 40 years Ishi, his mother and a few other tribal members managed to lead a secret existence in the hidden crevices and oak woodlands of Deer Creek Canyon.

In 1908 a small group of white surveyors stumbled onto tools used by the survivors and, probably believing them to be relics, took them as souvenirs. This signaled the death knell of the Yahi. Over the next three years, the small band of survivors saw their numbers dwindle to one, Ishi.

After the last of his kin perished, Ishi burned his hair in a sign of mourning and, facing the prospect of life alone in the canyon, decided to walk out into the white world in a final act of desperation.

He followed the edge of the Sierra foothills in a 40-mile southbound journey. He followed the edge of Central Valley and skirted just east of Chico. Finally he arrived at a slaughterhouse in Oroville, dazed and half-starved, and resigned himself to whatever fate awaited him.

No one at the slaughterhouse could understand the language Ishi spoke and he was taken to the Oroville jail. Numerous local American Indians were brought in to attempt communication, but most were from the Maidu Tribe and spoke a completely unrelated language.

Finally someone who could speak a related Yana dialect was able to communicate with Ishi and understand his story. This is when University of California anthropology professor Alfred Kroeber was brought in.

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Kroeber said he would take Ishi - a name Kroeber gave him because Ishi would violate tribal custom if he were to speak his given name - to San Francisco to live at a museum operated by the University of California anthropology department to be a living exhibit. This is the most controversial part of Ishi's story. A debate has raged on for years as to whether Ishi was exploited by Kroeber.

"Kroeber represented a philosophy of his time," says Frank LaPena, a professor at Sacramento State University and a member of the Wintu Tribe, neighbors of the Yana.

LaPena says in a way Kroeber represents the bad guy as he reflected the mores and culture of his time and discipline. Kroeber may not have had overtly bad intentions in that he probably believed he was doing a good thing recording and documenting what he could of Yahi culture, though it may not have been the best thing for Ishi.

The debate rages. What is known is that when government Indian officials gave Ishi the choice to live on a reservation or return and live in Deer Creek Canyon, Ishi said he would rather stay in San Francisco. After a camping trip with Kroeber and others in Deer Creek Canyon in 1914, Kroeber asked Ishi if this is where he wanted to stay. Ishi replied that he wanted to go back to the museum.

While Kroeber was in Washington, D.C., in 1916, Ishi became terminally ill with tuberculosis. Kroeber had witnessed Ishi's horrified reaction to an autopsy performed at the museum and requested no such thing be done to Ishi if he should die.

Ishi died March 25, 1916. Kroeber's message arrived too late. His brain had been removed. In a paradoxical action, Kroeber sent the brain to the Smithsonian with a note saying it was "compliments of the University of California." There Ishi's brain sat for the next 83 years, in a vat in a Smithsonian storage facility.

The rest of Ishi's remains were cremated and interred near San Francisco at Colma, where many other figures of the American West including Wyatt Earp are buried.

After months of miscommunication in which the Smithsonian denied having the brain, a Duke University anthropology professor found a 1917 letter with instructions on how to best ship the brain from California to Washington. He passed this information along to a group of American Indians from Butte County. There was only one hitch; they were Maidu and not related to the Yahi.

Part of the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act held that the remains could only be returned to cultural descendants. California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante called it "brainless government" (pun apparently intended) and went on to state that everyone knew that Ishi was the last Yahi.

The government finally worked out a deal where the closest surviving cultural relatives were allowed to reclaim the brain. They turned out to be members of the Pit River Tribe who intermarried with the Yana -of which the Yahi were a subgroup - who then sent a delegation to Washington to bring Ishi's brain back to California for burial with the rest of his remains.

Larry Myers works with the state of California Native American Heritage Commission. He was involved in negotiations with the state to release Ishi's ashes from the Colma cemetery. He says he hopes that this will open the door for complete repatriation of the thousands of human remains at the Smithsonian and in California institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley.

Myers sees another issue looming on the horizon. "The problem now is returning all of Ishi's personal items that the University of California has to the tribes that received his remains. Berkeley will fight this tooth and nail, but it should be up to the tribe to decide what to do with these items, even if it means burying them."

Tribal members involved in the repatriation could not be reached because they were involved in the burial ceremonies.