Dec. 13, 2011Vol. 42, Issue 3

Coming Home: Ishi’s Long Journey

photo of Ishi wilderness

Ishi Wilderness near Deer Creek in Northern California (Photo credit: Brian Brazeal, assistant professor of anthropology at CSU, Chico)

The devastating consequences of European conquest and contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas have yet to be fully told and recognized. Many Native American voices and faces over the past centuries mirror this misunderstanding and culture clash. Names like Crazy Horse, Sacagawea, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Squanto, Pocahontas, Chief Pontiac, Tecumseh, and Sequoia all evoke romanticized, limited portrayals of American Indian ways of life. So too does the name Ishi.

Ishi stone monumentPhotos: Monument: This monument was erected in the Ishi wilderness to honor Ishi’s life and provide a place to remember his legacy. The monument had a metal plaque that has been removed after it was shot with bullet holes. Photo credit: Brian BrazealA hundred years ago, on Aug. 29, 1911, Ishi, the last living member of a small band of Yahi Indians, chose to walk into the Euro-American society of the early 20th century. He arrived during dangerous times for Native Americans. Since the land grab of post–gold rush California, the rolling hills of the North State had turned into private property and farm lands, greatly diminishing the resources for hunting and gathering, and forcing many tribal groups to assimilate, disperse, or go into hiding. Most were hunted down when rewards and bounties were put on their heads. Slogans like “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” flourished across the United States. There were no choices left for indigenous peoples, especially as the U.S. Government embraced the ideology of manifest destiny.

Against this backdrop, Ishi came out of hiding near Oroville. Ishi’s appearance has been interpreted by some as a signal of the defeat and starvation of the Yahi people. Others believe it was possibly his way of committing suicide at the hands of white settlers. Still others tell the story of a brave man willing to protect the dignity and remnants of a culture by giving himself up to the modern world. Telling Ishi’s story is also a lesson in the difficulty, or the impossibility, of having one person’s life represent the story of an entire population.

Histories of American Indians frequently fall into the trap of depicting a people that has gone extinct; rarely do stories convey the survival of a culture in spite of generations of genocide. Since the systematic attempt to exterminate Native Americans, romanticized tales of “noble savages” and “Indian princesses” persist, becoming part of the lexicon. In many ways Ishi’s story is not exempt from this phenomenon. Ishi quickly rose to fame as word spread that “the last wild Indian” with no knowledge of modern technologies had suddenly emerged in Northern California. Both the sympathetic and the violently bigoted citizens of the time were caught up in curiosity and public frenzy. Everyone marveled that an Indian had come to town. The only place local leadership could think of to protect this man was a jail cell. This fact alone reveals the subhuman status Indians were given, even by those filled with good intentions.

Enter Professors T. T. Waterman and Alfred Kroeber, anthropologists from UC Berkeley. They too had good intentions. They were also filled with the excitement at the prospect of conducting enthnographic fieldwork with an individual who could potentially provide details of a California indigenous society thought by many to have been eradicated. For an anthropologist, Ishi provided invaluable research and insight into a lost culture. Such a find also builds careers and peer recognition, and the anthropologists were part of the academic elite who were very much caught up in the dominant culture’s attitudes and privilege of the time. Ishi quickly moved from jail cell to a museum exhibit in San Francisco. Though he would be on display as a curiosity and cultural celebrity, the location was, of course, more dignified than the jail. Seen through modern eyes, both scenarios make one wince.

Kroeber conducted extensive interviews with Ishi, who contributed information on ceremonies, kinship, the Yahi language, the making of material culture, songs, and more. It appears that Ishi was willing to share his knowledge. Did he do so because he realized this cultural information would vanish when he passed on? We will never know his thoughts on many of the treasures he shared with Kroeber. As Kroeber learned the linguistic formations of the Yahi language, so too did Ishi learn English. Even with these language bridges, cross-cultural communication was not always easy. On one occasion, Ishi agreed to record a Yahi song on wax cylinder, the technology of the day. Kroeber naturally assumed a song would only be a few minutes long. A wax cylinder in 1912 could only hold four minutes of recorded sound. After two hours, Ishi was still singing the Wood Duck song. When Kroeber asked him to take a lunch break, Ishi was incensed. Let alone the spiritual process being interrupted abruptly, songs memorized in the oral tradition cannot be simply started up again in the middle. Imagine being asked to recite a prayer beginning in the middle, singing the national anthem starting with the second verse, or interrupting an opera performance. These would be a faux pas in Western society.

Now, 100 years later, we are still in the middle of a conversation with history, the ancestors, and the stakeholders about who Ishi was and what his story can tell us today. Over the course of the last academic year and continuing into this one, the Department of Anthropology has focused on Ishi and other California Indians in their programming and student classes. The weekly class and forum series of 2010–2011 explored parts of Ishi’s story from archaeological and physical, cultural, and visual anthropological perspectives. This October the department and campus hosted a California-wide conference for upwards of 700–800 members of approximately 20 tribal groups to share their cultural knowledge in public forums. As the centennial of Ishi’s arrival in Oroville closes in December, the Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology under the aegis of the Department of Anthropology will open an exhibition to reflect on aspects of Ishi’s story. As budding anthropologists and museum professionals, student exhibit designers will be mindful of the mistakes of the past and recognize that one exhibition, like one man, cannot represent the entire telling of a complex and still-unfolding story.

closeup of Ishi stone monument and artifactsThe title, Coming Home: Ishi’s Long Journey, reflects an attempt to encapsulate a vital part of Ishi’s life and death. Coming Home is a familiar and less official way to refer to the repatriation of Native American remains. In his life at the museum and among anthropologists and scientists, Ishi became aware of autopsies and specimens. He feared he would not be reunited with his loved ones in the afterlife if he was disassembled and studied in a lab. He sought promises and assurances from his caretakers that this would not happen. For years stories in American Indian circles reported Ishi’s brain had been taken for study to the Mecca of museums: The Smithsonian. Smithsonian officials denied this for decades; however, it was finally revealed that indeed Ishi’s worst fear had happened. His brain had been stored in Smithsonian archives since his death from tuberculosis in 1916.

The details of who authorized this autopsy are murky. However, these particular details are immaterial, as anthropologists and museums have been implicated in countless disputes over human remains and their study. While many universities and museums have opened their collections, established memoranda of understandings with tribal groups, and repatriated human remains and other sacred objects, the pain of deception and legacy of mistrust remains strong. Building this trust requires more time and more concrete examples of changing attitudes and actions.

In 2000, Ishi’s brain was returned to tribal elders for repatriation in the Ishi Wilderness. Ishi’s long journey and rightful repatriation brought him home at last. One man’s journey and struggle finally came to a close. Still, his story as part of a broader context of cross-cultural understanding has not. This journey continues today. The treatment of Native Americans is not a saga of the distant past—reconciling wrongs and misunderstandings continue today, right here in the North State. The desecration of the Ishi memorial in the Ishi Wilderness in the last few years, a local high school student government’s decision to dress up like Indians during spirit week this fall, and a current proposal to build a statue of Ishi in the middle of a Chico roundabout all point toward the need for better education, tolerance, and dialogue with local tribal members and beyond. Ishi’s personal journey may finally be complete, but our own path toward acceptance of diversity and Native Americans has far to go. The museum’s spring exhibition is one more chapter in an ongoing community story in which we all have a role to play.