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ISHI: Commemorating the Last of the Northern California Yahi Indians, a century later

Posted on 13 September 2011 by John Rippo

November, 1908: A surveyor team hired by the Oro Light and Power Company, accompanied by guide Merle Apperson traveled to Deer Creek, in the heart of Northern California’s Yana Tribes country. Assuming the country to be uninhabited, the crew went about its business with not a thought of the former occupants. Two of the group were returning to camp one day when they unwittingly stumbled upon an Indian man fishing in the creek. They hurried back to relate their tale of a “wild Indian”, but most brushed it off as nonsense. Not Merle Apperson. The following morning he led the way along Deer Creek to where he suspected there may have been a camp. The surveyors walked into the tiny village. As far as they could tell, it was inhabited by three “wild” Indians—an old man, an old sick woman, and a younger woman. The man they had seen the day before was not evident. These were Yahi Indians; the last of a nearly vanished tribe that once covered much of the northern California countryside and were part of what was once the Yana Nation of Tribes with the Yahi being the southernmost and smallest tribe of that nation. This small remnant of Yahi Indians had been hiding for years, eluding detection and capture by living in their cunningly hidden settlement like trapped animals. Their existence was depressing, with starvation, fear, illness and grief as their daily burden. The younger woman and the old man fled to hide as the intruders approached the village but the old woman could not run. She had been covered with blankets in the hope that she would not be noticed.

The men entered the hideaway and poked around, eyeing whatever goods were present. They then shook the blankets and discovered the Indian. Her mourning was obvious by her shorn hair. Her deer thong-wrapped legs were swollen and she could not walk. She was weak, sick, and in pain and she shook with fear as the strangers looked her over. An attempt was made to communicate but with no success. Incredibly, after seeing the pitiful state this woman was in, the intruders ransacked the village, taking with them everything they could carry—even the food—leaving the woman to die. According to Apperson, he alone was appalled at his companions’ actions and protested their thievery. He claims he pleaded with the others that they should at least transport the woman to their camp for care but his protests fell on deaf ears. What these men had done with such casual ease was strip four terrified, starving people of their meager possessions, including items they needed to find food. They had handed down a death sentence, with no mercy or cause to the last surviving members of a people who had once inhabited, thrived, and survived the northern California region for thousands of years. In a fateful moment brought on by the actions of callous men, the Yahi people apparently had come to an end.

After the theives departed, the Indian man seen fishing at the creek returned. No food, tools, utensils, or comforts were left. It was he and his mother— alone. The other two never returned, nor was any sign of them ever found. They were gone. Dead. Likely drowned during their escape or eaten by one of the numerous predators in the back country. Before long, even the old woman was dead and the man stood completely alone.

The lone man survived the death sentence of 1908. With no home, shelter, tools, food, or companion he somehow found a way to live. Though grieving and alone, despair never overtook this last Yahi.

Three years passed since the raid on his village and the death of his family. It had been that long since he had heard a single utterance from the lips of another Yahi. Nearly dead from starvation, and perhaps desperate for human companionship, the man made a decision. Knowing he would die if he stayed at Deer Creek, and fearing he would be killed if he left, he took a chance.He departed the Yahi world and enter the world of the aliens who had decimated his people.

On the morning of August 29, 1911, in a slaughterhouse corral, two miles from Oroville, a nearly dead “wild man” was discovered, emaciated, exhausted, frightened, and starved. The sheriff took the Indian into custody, and was baffled as to what to do next. Locked in a cell, unable to communicate with any number of Indians brought before him, the traumatized man awaited his fate at the hands of people who thought he was insane and likely dangerous.

In a carnival atmosphere the “wild man” caught the imagination and attention of thousands of onlookers and curiosity seekers. News of his discovery reached two professors of anthropology at the University of California, Alfred L. Kroeber and T. T. Waterman. Both men had an interest in the human saga being played out in Oroville for several reasons. Beyond the obvious general anthropological interest, they had been searching for the lost “wild man” that had been sited three years earlier by the surveyor crew a few miles north of Oroville—in the Deer Creek region. They wondered if this could be him.

Two days after the man’s discovery, Waterman was on a train to Oroville to assume responsibility for the “wild man” per the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ instructions. Kroeber and Waterman became guardians of this last Yahi. For nearly five years he lived at the university’s museum, employed as a janitor and teaching the professors whatever he was able to communicate about the Yahi people. There were no other speakers of his tongue so communication was difficult and tedious. Kroeber persevered and managed to learn and communicate in ‘conversational’ Yahi, while the man learned about life in 20th century America.

The bond that developed between Kroeber and the man was, by all accounts, a close one. They both came to depend upon one another, not only for the pursuits of study they were engaged in, but on a personal level. For the man, this relationship must have been especially precious, for he had been alone for so long. Kroeber eventually named the man “Ishi”, which is Yahi for ‘man’. Yahi tradition prevented Ishi from speaking his own name or the names of the dead.

As Ishi told the Yahi story, Kroeber became anxious to see the country he spoke of. At first, Ishi resisted, afraid to revisit the places at which he had experienced both joy and sorrow. He told Kroeber that there were no chairs, tables or beds there, and very little to eat but eventually, he agreed to go. The results of the 1914 excursion to Yahi country were invaluable. Kroeber drew maps, marking crucial sites of Ishi’s life, and recorded the place names as the Yahi knew them. There were also photographs taken of both locations and of Ishi demonstrating the Yahi methods of crafting arrow heads, arrows, bows, spears and the other tools of his daily life. Kroeber recorded the past through living history in the present for the future. It was as if he had reached back in time, pulled forth a man of another age, and asked him; “Please show me what life was like long ago.” Ishi was physically contemporary, though culturally and socially antiquated.

The tale Ishi told was grim. The Yana peoples suffered the complete loss of their lands and way of life when the Americans came during the Gold Rush. In less than thirty years the peoples who once called the region home had gone into hiding in the harsh mountains where food was scarce and the chances for survival were slim. Ishi used to refer to the time of the American arrival as “when the stars fell”. Much of his life was spent watching his people fade away like animals facing extinction.

While still a child sometime in the 1870′s, Ishi’s own father was killed in a village massacre. The boy and his mother escaped by jumping into a nearby river. The Yahi who fought to preserve their territory against unequal odds and long range rifles were slaughtered until only a remnant band of 40 or so remained. The survivors of this tiny band hid successfully for nearly forty years, undetected by the outside world. It was firmly believed, even by locals who went up into the foothills of the Lassen, that the Yahi, or “Mill Creek Indians”, were a people of the past. Gone. No record of their history, origins, culture, or language had survived until Ishi walked down from the mountains.

This remarkable man was the last repository for the culture of a people who had lived in his region for some 2000 years. The records of his beliefs and myths, ways of life and tradition and language would have vanished forever as the clean sweep of American conquest overrode the lands and native peoples and assigned them a footnote in books that described them merely as the “Mill Creek Indians” who briefly and violently resisted American expansion. If Ishi held any animosity toward the American Californians he never showed it. He seemed happy enough to find some company even among those who regarded him as a curiosity. He was painfully shy around women and soon adopted American clothing, only reluctantly posing in the skins and rags of his former days. Shoes disgusted him while a penny whistle gave him hours of childlike pleasure. However, his mind was anything but dull. Ishi was asked what he thought when shown an increasingly popular modern wonder; the airplane. He simply asked, “Is there a white man up there?” Ishi was not fazed by the novelty of the modern world.

Ishi lived the last several years of his life at the San Francisco Anthropology Museum. He made bead-work quivers, and his bows showed the greatest craftsmanship. He did this in front of an enthralled public, 3 days a week as a living exhibit there.

Ishi soon encountered health problems that became harder to overcome. Exposure to large numbers of the public and foreign pathogens that he and his people had little ability to withstand took its toll and by 1915 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which in the days before antibiotics was a death sentence. The sentence for Ishi played out on March 23, 1916 at Berkeley where he had gone to be with his friend, Kroeber. Kroeber was not there; he was trying to get funding from politicians on behalf of his friend who died before Kroeber’s return.

Ishi was autopsied at the UC Berkeley Medical School. His body was cremated ashes sent to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Colma. His brain was removed and sent to the Smithsonian Institute in 1917 by Alfred Kroeber where it stayed for over eighty years, until other Yana tribes agitated for its return. In August, 2000 Ishi’s brain made it back to his closet relations; the Redding Rancheria and Pit River Tribe. Ishi’s remains were interred at an undisclosed location and it is likely that he finally had the song of the dead sung for him.

2 Comments For This Post

  1. Panama foundation Says:

    Alfred Kroeber is universally regarded as the founder of California Indian studies; his important use of the camera as an ethnographic tool is virtually unknown. In fact, Kroeber was one of the first anthropologists to photograph California Native peoples. Although his original paper was accompanied by photos they are not included with this web site. At present (July 1997) the site consists of a few photographs of Kroeber, several Native Californian consultants including Ishi with whom Kroeber worked, and one of Yurok houses.. http ishi.lib.berkeley.edu humanities anthro museum.html …

  2. Mike Brown Says:

    Bet this is where the Tom Berenger movie came from.

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