One hundred years ago, on March 25, 1916, Ishi, who many called the “last wild Indian in California,” died a painful death of tuberculosis in his room at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco, California.
Five years earlier, he had been found huddled, emaciated and starving, inside a rancher’s slaughterhouse near Oroville, California, 68 miles north of Sacramento. He was about 50 years old.
When he was a child, a white settler death squad had attacked him and his family at the Three Knolls Massacre in the foothills of Chico, California. Forty of his tribesmen were killed. He escaped with some family members and went into hiding for the next 44 years.
For want of a safer refuge, Oroville’s sheriff placed Ishi in the local jail, where he became a spectacle for townspeople. Government officials wanted him sent to an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, but anthropologist Alfred Kroeber insisted he would be safer at his anthropology museum near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Dr. A.L. Kroeber (University of California Anthropologist), and Ishi (Yahi or Southern Yana Indian), 1911.
Ishi remained at the museum for five years, working as a research assistant and custodian. Kroeber and assistant Thomas Waterman spent countless hours interviewing him about his life, his stories and the customs of the Yahi, who lived at the foot of Mt. Lassen.
Ishi was not his real name. It was bestowed upon him by Kroeber. Ishi means “man” in his native Yahi language.
Ishi was constantly on display to museum visitors, showing wide-eyed children how to construct bows and arrows, chip arrowheads or start a fire with a few pieces of wood. He was even a featured guest at the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition.
Given his bitter experiences at the hands of white settlers, he was described as remarkably affable and friendly. He developed warm friendships with Kroeber and Waterman, and at Kroeber’s insistence he returned to his native habitat for a camping trip, albeit reluctantly.
All this was a source of controversy. Local newspapers called Ishi “Kroeber’s pet buffalo,” and many Native Californians still decry his exploitation and unnecessary exposure to the disease that eventually took his life.
Some believe that Ishi never should have been sent to San Francisco, calling the decision “demeaning and uncivilized.” Others, such as James Hayward, cultural programs director at the Redding (California) Rancheria, think there were few alternatives, though he is troubled by “how Kroeber exploited Ishi.
“Kroeber used Ishi to advance his career as an anthropologist,” Hayward told Indian Country Today Media Network. “When Ishi died, they cut out his brain, against his own wishes. It ended up in the Smithsonian Institute. To this day, they are still exploiting him.”
Kroeber was in New York when he learned that Ishi was gravely ill. Faced with rumors about an impending autopsy, he sent a letter to Edward Gifford, the museum’s director.
“Shut it down,” he wrote. “We stand by our friends. If there is any talk about the interests of science, then science can go to hell.”
The letter arrived too late. Dr. Saxon Pope, Ishi’s physician, felt it was in the interest of science to perform the autopsy. Gifford wrote Kroeber that Ishi’s ashes had been laid to rest at the Olivet Memorial Cemetery south of San Francisco.
What exactly happened to Ishi’s brain? Kroeber’s first wife, Henrietta Rothschild, died of tuberculosis in 1913. His second wife Theodora hinted in her 1961 book Ishi in Two Worlds that the brain may have been preserved, but she left no details.
In the late 1990s the Butte County Native American Cultural Committee pursued the repatriation of Ishi’s ashes from San Francisco to Oroville, and investigated rumors that Ishi’s brain still existed. Their quest hit a wall until one of their members, Art Angle (Maidu) of Oroville, met with Orin Starn, an anthropology professor from Duke University, who had taken a keen interest in Ishi’s story.
What happened next is the subject of Starn’s book, Ishi’s Brain (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004). Starn went to the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, where he found a box with correspondence between Kroeber and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., as well as the shipping receipt for the package containing Ishi’s brain.
Starn later went to the Smitihsonian where it was confirmed that Ishi’s brain was indeed there, carefully labeled, preserved in ethyl alcohol, in a special climate-controlled warehouse.
In March 1999, Starn accompanied a group of Maidu elders to the Smithsonian to reclaim and repatriate Ishi’s brain. In an impromptu ceremony, they viewed the brain. They prayed, some wept, and a few gave memorial testimonies to Ishi.
“We knew it was Ishi right when we walked into that room,” Art Angle later told the San Jose Mercury News.
Major newspapers editorialized that the brain needed to be repatriated to the Maidus without delay. Eventually the Smithsonian agreed to hand the brain over, but not to the Maidus at the Enterprise Rancheria in Oroville. They chose the Redding and Pitt River tribes farther north, reasoning that the latter tribes were the closest relatives to Ishi’s people, since they spoke Yana, a language closer to the Yahi.
On August 10, 2000, tribal healer Mickey Gemmill and other members of the Pit River Tribe retrieved Ishi’s brain from the Smithsonian and his ashes from San Francisco. They conducted a burial service at a secret location at Deer Creek, near the foot of Mt. Lassen. Ishi had finally come home.
Gemmill issued a statement: “We do not intend to continue any further exploitation, and we intend to honor our elders' spiritual and traditional wishes that Ishi's spirit will at last be at rest and free in joining with his ancestors."
No other tribes, including the Maidu, were invited to the ceremony.
“At first, I felt resentful about this,” Angle told ICTMN. “But you have to let these things go. The important thing is that Ishi came home to be with his people.”
As for Kroeber, history has left him with a mixed legacy. Some Native Americans believe he did Ishi more harm than good, betraying him in the end. Others, such as anthropologist Orin Starn, say his relationship with Ishi was more complicated.
“On the one hand, they used him as a scientific discovery,” Starn told ICTMN. “On the other hand, they deeply loved him. They were ahead of their time. They recognized Ishi as a human being, and not a savage. And they taught that Native culture in California had value. People at that time didn’t even know there were Native Americans in California, or thought they were ‘backward diggers.’ ”
Nobody knew what to do with Ishi, said Starn.
“He couldn’t go back to his home at Deer Creek,” he said. “None of his people were left. He didn’t want to go to an Oklahoma reservation where he had little in common with other Indians.”
Starn remains mystified, though, as to why Kroeber failed to see how vulnerable Native Americans were to white man’s diseases.
“His own wife died a horrible death of tuberculosis, yet he had [Ishi] meeting all those people at the museum,” Starn said.
Bitter regrets would haunt Kroeber and his assistant, Thomas Waterman, for the rest of their lives.
Mark R. Day is a former Franciscan friar who is writing a book with an alternative viewpoint on Junipero Serra and the 21 California missions. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.