Ishi: The last Yahi Indian

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At the quiet center stood a man. He never said his real name — to say it aloud to strangers would be unthinkable for a California Native American from the Yahi tribe — so he became known as Ishi, his people’s word for man. He spent almost 40 years living in isolation in the Mount Lassen foothills, one of the last dozen Yahi who hid themselves to avoid the white men who nearly wiped out their tribe.

Ishi,last Yahi indianWhen they were all gone but him, when Ishi was a tribe of one, he walked out of his carefully concealed world and into Oroville, California, where he was found near a slaughterhouse on Aug. 29, 1911. Not knowing what to do with him, he was taken to the local jailhouse.

The townspeople, unlike those who massacred thousands of Yana and Yahi Indians 50 years earlier, were concerned about this frightened man and baked him pies when they heard he wasn’t eating.

Two anthropologists at the University of California, Alfred Kroeber and T.T. Waterman, arranged to have Ishi taken from the Oroville jail to San Francisco, where he lived in a museum. Friendly and curious, Ishi taught Kroeber and Waterman much about his language, culture and customs and learned to live in a world unimaginably different from
the one he had known. He died of tuberculosis in 1916.

Ishi’s story was well-known during the last five years of his life but faded from memory until 1961, when Theodora Kroeber, the 64-year-old wife of Alfred Kroeber, wrote a remarkable book called Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America.” It became a best seller, much to its author’s surprise and delight, and sold more than 1 million copies. It is the June selection of The Oregonian Book Club.

Other books have since been written about Ishi, such as “The Last Yahi: A Novel About Ishi,” by Lawrence Holcomb; “Ishi in Three Centuries,” edited by Karl Kroeber and released in April 2003; and “Ishi’s Journey: From the Center to the Edge of the World,” by James A. Freeman.

Movies have been made and poems have been written — William Stafford wrote one called “The Concealment: Ishi, the Last Wild Indian.” Stafford caught the essence
of Ishi’s life in the wilderness when he wrote that “In order to live, he had to hide that he did.” Kroeber took that life and presented it in a way that has moved two generations of readers and fills her daughter, herself an internationally famous author of more than 50 books, with a quiet pride.

“It makes people cry — still,” Ursula K. Le Guin said. “It’s a wonderful story, like Robinson Crusoe in reverse. It’s very hard not to identify with, but the other reason it makes people cry is my mother wrote it from the heart. She did a great deal of research — she took that aspect of it very seriously — but she was deeply emotionally involved. It’s a work of art.”

Le Guin was born in 1929, long after Ishi’s death, and knew nothing about him growing up. Her father “wasn’t a reminiscer,” she said. “This was a long time ago, and it ended for him in considerable pain and grief. His first wife died of tuberculosis in 1911 and Ishi
died of tuberculosis in 1916. It wasn’t a good time for him, and he wasn’t one to talk about old times, anyway.”

Alfred Kroeber and Waterman — along with Saxton Pope, a doctor from the hospital next to the museum where Ishi lived — formed close friendships with Ishi and went back to his home country for an extended camping trip in 1914 that helped them understand how the Yahi had lived. When Ishi died, Kroeber was in New York and opposed an autopsy, writing a colleague that “if there is any talk about the interests of science, say for me that science can go to hell. We propose to stand by our friends.”

Kroeber, a respected authority on California Indians, never wrote about Ishi.

“My memory of it is that people would ask my father, ‘Why don’t you write a biography of Ishi?’ and he would say, ‘No, why don’t you ask my wife?’ ” Le Guin said. “She had begun to become a writer. She started very late, and she had published a couple of kids books and a
book called ‘The Inland Whale,’ which is a retelling of a California Indian story. She was equipped not as an anthropologist but as a writer and researcher to tell this story, but she did have a deep interest in Indians, particularly California Indians.”

Theodora Kroeber began researching Ishi’s life in the mid-1950s. An outgoing woman, known as “Krak” (rhymes with “lake”) to her family and friends, she often discussed her work with her daughter and three sons. Le Guin remembers her mother being horrified by what had been done to the Yana and Yahi and struggling to put it into words.

“She had trouble writing the massacre chapters,” Le Guin said. “She was not a violent woman, and she didn’t like to write about violent stuff. It must have been hard for her.”

Before 1850, there were about 3,000 Yana and Yahi (a geographic and linguistic group of Yana to which Ishi belonged). By 1872, there were only about 30 Yana left and only about a dozen Yahi, including Ishi, who probably was born in 1862. Kroeber wrote that these Native
Americans had no weapons of war and did not take scalps, unlike the white men who killed them indiscriminately. During one massacre of the Yahi, four men found a group of about 30 Indians, many of them women and children, hiding in a cave and opened fire. One man felt he had to change from a rifle to a revolver because the larger gun “tore them up so bad,” particularly the babies.

“They hunted them as if they were coyotes,” said Le Guin, noting that white men of the time referred to the Indians as “diggers, which sounds awfully close to another word people use to dehumanize other people.”

Those who massacred the Yahi in the cave thought they had achieved a final solution to their “Indian problem.” Instead, Ishi — a boy of no more than 10 — and about a dozen other Yahi, including his mother, disappeared into the upper reaches of Mill and Deer creeks,
concealing themselves for decades from the newcomers they rightly feared.

“A rock, a leaf, mud, even the grass/Ishi the shadow man had to put back where it was,” Stafford wrote.

In 1908, engineers for a power company stumbled onto the last Yahi camp. Two of them, an old man and a younger woman, fled through the brush and were never seen again. An old woman was left in camp as the white men looted it, taking every possession. When they returned the next day, she was gone. She was Ishi’s mother; he carried her away and nursed her until she died. Three years later, tired and alone, he entered civilization.

“Part of the power and durability of the book is that it presents us with the moral dilemma of the white occupation very directly and inescapably,” Le Guin said. “It’s a question of who’s responsible for what, how much responsibility can we bear, and how much can we accept.”

After he entered Oroville, Ishi accepted his fate with much more than stoicism or resignation. Kroeber, Waterman and the others who knew him described him as bright, patient, congenial, self-aware and dignified. He knew he was in a world far different from the one he came from. He never tired of asking questions about what he didn’t know or explaining his life to those interested in it and taught others his language while learning English.

If those responsible for him did things that might seem unscientific almost 100 years later
(Ishi worked as a janitor and demonstrated how to make tools and bows at the museum), they prevented him from being exploited in the traveling shows popular at the time and treated him with friendship and respect.

“We knew many things, and much that is false,” Pope wrote. “He knew nature, which is always true. His were the qualities of character that last forever. He was kind; he had courage and self-restraint, and though all had been taken from him, there was no bitterness in his heart. His soul was that of a child, his mind that of a philosopher.”

Alfred Kroeber read his wife’s book and gave it his blessing but did not live to see it published. He died in 1960. Le Guin, married and living in Portland but not yet a published writer (“poetry doesn’t count,” she joked), had read and edited various chapters and was
thrilled for her mother.

“We could talk shop. She liked to show me things and get me to line-edit, and I’m a pretty good line editor. And I’d show her things. She wouldn’t line-edit but she’d say, ‘What’s this story about?’ ” Le Guin said with a laugh. “We were a peer group of two.”

Asked if “Ishi in Two Worlds” influenced her as a writer, Le Guin didn’t hesitate.

“I was sort of going my own route already,” she said. “The story, I think, influences everybody who reads it. It’s become part of one’s imaginative equipment. That this could happen to a person, that this did, the emotional implications of the story — it’s like any great
story. It’s bound to influence you.”

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Jeff Baker can be reached by phone at 503-221-8165 or by email at [email protected]
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