- UNC-TV Series
- UNC-TV Specials
- Programs A-Z
Orin Starn is a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University and director of Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.
Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last "Wild" Indian (2004)
Nightwatch: The Politics of Protest in the Andes (1999)
Between Resistance and Revolution: Cultural Politics and Social Protest (1997)
A “compromise between science and sentiment”
It’s hard to write about even now, but my story begins with a death, a difficult death: Saturday, March 25, 1916, sometime in the afternoon. The body of Ishi, the last known surviving “wild” California Indian, lay on the autopsy table at a San Francisco hospital. He had died, with blood gushing from his nose and mouth, just a few hours before. “Considerably emaciated Indian 168 cm. in length,” the doctor noted. In his final months the tuberculosis had wasted Ishi to skin and bone, and his long black hair was streaked with gray. The doctor, Jean V. Cooke, a well-regarded young pathologist, made a straight cut down the torso, peeling back the thin yellow layer of fat to remove and examine the liver, lungs, and heart. He sawed around the skullcap and lifted out the brain—oyster-white, furrowed, and glistening under the lights. Cooke weighed the organ and completed the rest of his measurements and note taking. Then he stitched up the cadaver for transport to a local undertaker for embalming.
The newspapers were already preparing their stories about Ishi’s death for the evening editions. Ishi was famous, after all. The capture in 1911 of the “Wild Man of Deer Creek” had caused a national sensation and turned him into an early-twentieth-century American celebrity. After hiding out for decades in the hills of northern California, he’d been found hungry and half-naked near the town of Oroville. The well-known Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber brought Ishi to live in his museum above San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Kroeber told the newspapers that this “uncontaminated and uncivilized” Indian was an unprecedented find for his young science of anthropology, then devoted to the study of primitive peoples. Thousands of San Franciscans streamed to the museum to watch this last survivor of his small Yahi tribe demonstrate how to chip stone arrowheads, or, if the weather was nice, to construct a little Indian house of branches and bark on the hill in back. Ishi lived for almost five years in San Francisco. He had fallen sick at the end of 1915, and died on March 25, 1916, in the hospital next to his museum home.
As the newspapers had it, Ishi’s death was more than just the passing of a single man, or even a tribe. It ended an epoch in human history. “ ishi, last of stone age indians, is dead,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle. Most Californians of that time assumed that their growing state’s Indian tribes belonged to an earlier, inferior evolutionary stage—and were doomed to extinction. The land’s first peoples would evaporate “like the dissipating mist in the presence of the morning sun of the Saxon,” a San Francisco newspaperman had predicted in 1850. As if settling the West were a fact of nature and a primordial plan rather than the will of those in power, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny absolved Americans from any personal responsibility for occupying another people’s land, killing those who resisted, and confining the remainder to reservations.
This conquest took more than three hundred years, from Plymouth Rock to the defeat of the last “hostile” tribes in the Great Plains and Geronimo’s surrender in northern Mexico at the end of the nineteenth century. The subjugation of California’s Indians was a fast and ferocious final chapter in the takeover of North America. Although decimated by an earlier Spanish colonization, an estimated 150,000 Indians still survived just before the Gold Rush of 1849 and its accompanying flood of fortune seekers arriving to the new Eden of California in covered wagons or on clipper ships around Cape Horn. These Indians—the Hupa, Miwok, Karok, Ohlone, Yuki, and Chumash, to name just a few—were scattered in as many as five hundred groups across this vast and varied land. None was anywhere near so large as the Southwest’s Navajo or the Lakota of the Great Plains (“tribelets,” Alfred Kroeber called California’s native societies), but each had its own territory and a bundle of myths and customs passed down along the generations. Approximately ninety distinct languages were spoken by California’s native peoples, many more if you counted the dialects. An Indian could walk from present-day San Jose to Santa Cruz, a distance of just twenty miles, and encounter a tongue as different from his or her own as English is from Amharic or Urdu.
By the start of the twentieth century, however, only about 20,000 Native Californians remained. In just a few catastrophic decades, more than three-quarters of the indigenous population had succumbed to disease or been hunted down by settlers anxious to make the newest American state safe for their families and their own brand of progress and civilization. Lucy Young, an old Indian who grew up inland from the coastal town of Mendocino, recalled her grandfather dreaming about the coming apocalypse. “My grandpa say: ‘White Rabbit’—he mean white people—gonta devour our grass, our seed, our living. We won’t have nothing more, this world.”
Ishi, the last Yahi, grew up in this time of turmoil and terror for the people of Native California. Hardly a man of the Stone Age, he was probably born sometime in the 1860s as the Civil War raged back east. In those years, the Sacramento Valley just below the ancestral Yahi foothills was filling up with homesteaders who’d come across the Great Plains to claim the promised land of California as their own. Violent clashes had broken out between the Yahi and the settlers, but the whites had the numbers and carried out attacks that culminated in 1871 with the massacre of as many as thirty Indians in a place called Kingsley Cave. At about the time of Ishi’s birth, the surviving Yahi went into hiding to evade capture, no longer daring the risk of open confrontation. Near the end, a half century later, only four remained. The main hideout of Ishi and his companions was the place they called Wowunupo Mu Tetna, or Grizzly Bear’s Hiding Place. It lay concealed beneath cliffs in the brushy canyon of Deer Creek just a few short turns from valley farmland.
Ishi’s wilderness life was not so “primitive” and “uncontaminated” as Kroeber and his fellow anthropologists wanted the world to believe. To avoid starvation, he and the others stole canned beans, bags of barley, and tins of biscuit from nearby cabins, even poaching the occasional sheep. It was true, however, that the secluded Yahi also preserved many of their native ways—the old traditions of Native California. They harpooned salmon in the creeks, boiled acorn mush in their finely woven baskets, and sowed blankets from the furs of coyote, wildcat, and raccoons. From his elders, Ishi learned dozens of Yahi songs and the origin myths of his people. A full twenty years after the end of the Plains Wars, Ishi was the last living Indian in the continental United States altogether outside white society’s orbit. He was the “only man in America who doesn’t know Christmas,” Alfred Kroeber once said.
In the decades after Ishi’s death, it was often assumed that no Indians remained anywhere in California. The state would come instead to conjure the images of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, hot tubs and nouvelle cuisine, crowded freeways and overpriced real estate. Even today, few people know more about the Indians of California than that they have casinos. It’s a little-recognized fact that there are 107 small Indian reservations across the state, or, astonishingly, that living speakers of some 50 different native languages can be found even now. Ishi was the last Yahi. He wasn’t the last California Indian.
For much of the twentieth century, however, the survivors of California’s first peoples lay low and forgotten. They were concealed not in remote wilderness but in plain sight in the tiny towns of the Klamath River Basin, tumbleweed trailers in the Mojave Desert, and similar out-of-the-way places. Only during the sixties and seventies did Indians begin to call loud attention to their plight everywhere across the country. Influenced by the Black Panthers, the Chicano Brown Berets, and other radical groups, a generation of young Indian militants began to protest reservation poverty, broken treaties, and other injustices suffered by their people. “We’re the landlords of this country, the rent is due, and we’re here to collect!” announced Clyde Bellecourt, a leader of the American Indian Movement, the best-known of several new Indian organizations formed in this period.
A first and spectacular bit of guerrilla theater was the occupation of Alcatraz Island, a few miles out on the bay from Ishi’s one-time home in the San Francisco museum. In 1969, a band of young Indians seized the legendary, by then abandoned, island prison as a kind of liberated
republic; they demanded attention to the needs of their tribes, and attracted worldwide press coverage with support from celebrities like the comedian Jonathan Winters, the movie star Anthony Quinn, and the rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival (the fashionability of the movements for Black and Red Power during the Vietnam War years led one pundit to coin the term “radical chic”). The year-long occupation of Alcatraz would be followed by protests at Plymouth Rock and Mount Rushmore, and, finally, a standoff with the FBI at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the symbolically charged spot where soldiers had gunned down three hundred Sioux refugees a century before. Many ordinary Indians were suspicious of the long-haired, bandanna-wearing young radicals, but the activism of the sixties and seventies was a watershed for Native America. It was a daring, aggressive new cry for rights and recognition.
In these last decades, American Indians have pressed claims for land, sovereignty, and even the return of bones and sacred objects spirited off to museum collections. In California, one can speak of a people back from extinction, with new reservations and new money earned from “gaming establishments,” as the tribes sometimes prefer to call their casinos—a healthy $1.5 billion dollars in 2000 alone. My uncle found a job as a security guard at the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde’s Spirit River Casino in Oregon. The Indians treated him well, he reported.
It was perhaps inevitable that the retribalization of California would lead back to Ishi, still the state’s most famous Indian. One man in particular decided that Ishi’s body should now be removed from San Francisco for burial in his native canyonlands. Art Angle was a Korean War veteran, a trucker, and a Maidu Indian. The Concow branch of the Maidu were once the southern neighbors of Ishi’s Yahi and are centered today in Angle’s hometown of Oroville, the valley town where Ishi had been taken prisoner almost a century before. A reporter from the Los Angeles Times heard about Angle and came up to Oroville to interview him in 1996. “We need to look at what we can do for him [Ishi] in the best way we can, to put him to rest in a proper way,” Angle said.
The circumstances surrounding Ishi’s death were complex and controversial. Alfred Kroeber was in New York as Ishi wasted away from a white man’s disease against which Indians had no immunity and for which no cure existed. In his thirties then, Kroeber, the world’s leading expert on Native California, had watched just a year before as tuberculosis ravaged and killed his own beautiful, young first wife, Henriette. He demanded daily bulletins on Ishi’s health from his junior colleagues back on the West Coast.
Saxton Pope, Ishi’s doctor, wanted to conduct an autopsy when Ishi died. Although he had befriended Ishi in San Francisco, Pope was also very much the scientist. He’d always been curious about the physiology of this last Yahi Indian, a unique and exotic specimen of humankind to the surgeon’s clinical eye. On hearing of Pope’s planned dissection, however, Alfred Kroeber was incensed. The majority of California’s tribes had buried or sometimes cremated their dead with as little contact as possible with the cadaver. As Kroeber noted in his monumental Handbook of the Indians of California, it was often considered “unclean” and even dangerous to touch a dead body; in many cases, the person who handled the corpse had later to fast, pray or undergo other rituals of purification before he or she could rejoin society. Ishi, Kroeber knew, had learned that white doctors and medical students sometimes dissected cadavers and was appalled by the thought of anyone’s body being sectioned up after death. Kroeber believed that an autopsy would be a gross violation of Ishi’s trust.
On March 24, 1916, the day before Ishi died, Kroeber wrote Edward Gifford, the young acting director of his museum back in San Francisco, to stop Ishi’s dissection. Restrained and formal by nature, Kroeber was unable to conceal his emotion on this occasion. “Please shut down on it,” he said of the planned autopsy. “We propose to stand by our friends. If there is any talk of the interests of science, then say for me that science can go to hell.”
That letter arrived too late to prevent the postmortem. Gifford nonetheless reassured Kroeber by return post that the cremated ashes of their Yahi friend had been laid to rest with respect at the Olivet Memorial Park cemetery just south of San Francisco. It was those ashes that Art Angle now wanted to bring back to Ishi’s native Yahi country so many years later. Angle believed the cemetery could be persuaded or forced to go along with the plan.
But a major problem remained: the whereabouts of Ishi’s brain. A rumor had long circulated among the Indians around Oroville that the organ was never cremated with the rest of Ishi’s body. According to this story, Ishi’s brain had become a gruesome trophy of white science, pickled in formaldehyde and still shelved somewhere in a laboratory or museum. Art Angle was disturbed by these tales. He couldn’t imagine burying Ishi without his brain. He didn’t want to proceed with his campaign for Ishi’s repatriation without resolving the question once and for all.
Cooke’s autopsy report had recorded the size and even weight of Ishi’s brain, exactly 1,300 grams. In all of the known papers, essays, and books about Ishi, however, only a single cryptic reference existed concerning the brain once it had been removed in the dissection. This mention came in the very last pages of Ishi in Two Worlds, the biography of Ishi published by Theodora Kroeber in 1961. Theodora Kroeber provided a harrowing account of the hunting down of Ishi’s people, but then portrayed Ishi as contented and at peace in San Francisco under the protection of her husband, Alfred, and other sympathetic whites. She very much wanted her book to be a parable of healing, reconciliation, and mutual respect across the divides of race and culture. That Ishi had been dissected in almost certain violation of his own wishes was awkward for Theodora’s redemptive story line. She acknowledged that the autopsy occurred. Yet she emphasized her husband’s passionate opposition to it; trusting the goodwill of Edward Gifford, the museum’s deputy director, she took consolation in the fact that the body was cremated in the end. She reproduced the long, soothing letter from Gifford to Alfred Kroeber in which the younger man explained that a “compromise between science and sentiment” was achieved in the final account.
In the same letter, however, Gifford mentioned that Ishi’s brain was “preserved,” a “possible departure” from Alfred Kroeber’s wishes. Theodora offered no comment about just what this meant. Was the “preserved” brain later also cremated and placed with the rest of Ishi’s body? Without saying so, Theodora suggested as much when she wrote that Gifford had “succeeded” in laying Ishi’s remains to rest with dignity. But what if the brain had been pickled, as the Indian rumor had it? And if so, where was it now? The mother of the famous science-fiction novelist Ursula K. Le Guin (the “K” stands for Kroeber), Theodora was a talented, expansive writer. Her reticence about Ishi’s brain hinted inadvertently that something had gone very wrong.
And yet how much do we even really know about Ishi himself? Early reporters compared him to Robinson Crusoe, a survivor in an alien setting far from his own society. Ishi has also been called Native America’s Anne Frank. Like the attic in Amsterdam, the canyon hideout of Ishi’s tiny band was the last refuge for a hunted people. And like Frank, Ishi has become the human face of a people’s travails. His life offers a glimpse beyond the dry, almost incomprehensible statistics that inform us that at least five million Indians perished of disease and war in this continent’s conquest—together with the slave trade, the single largest human tragedy in America’s history. The slaughter of Indians in California, while not always a simple matter of good and evil, victim and victimizer, or uniform pioneer cruelty, foreshadowed later episodes of genocide, from Nazi Germany to Bosnia and Rwanda. It was an age when towns offered bounties of $5 apiece for Indian scalps and posses of armed settlers carried out massacres like the one at Clear Lake in 1850 of sixty Pomo villagers. The cry was raised for what one newspaper editorialist called “a war of extermination until the last Redskin of these tribes has been killed.” What happened in California was a “human hunt,” in the judgment of the late-nineteenth-century historian Hubert H. Bancroft, “and the basest and most brutal of them all.”
We have no diary from Ishi, yet we do know a good deal about him from the writings left by Alfred Kroeber, the doctor Saxton Pope, and others. Ishi thought white men smelled like horses; he liked coconut layer-cake; and he led expeditions with neighborhood boys to hunt quail in Golden Gate Park with a bow and arrow. He insisted it was dangerous to sleep with the moon shining directly in your face—and he appreciated order and neatness, keeping his coins stacked in empty film canisters and making his bed every day with a soldier’s precision.
In other ways, Ishi continues to be an enigma. He spoke no English at all at the time of his capture in Oroville. How was it that he did know a few words of Spanish? Why did Ishi’s fugitive band refuse to give itself up for so many long decades? Did Ishi ever manage to feel at home in
San Francisco? And was he really the last of his tribe—or are there Californians even today who have at least a bit of Yahi blood? The story of the wild man of Deer Creek is not so simple or straightforward as it has sometimes seemed.
If he was always a curiosity and walking museum piece during his days in San Francisco, Ishi also inspired strong attachment and loyalty from those who knew him best. Alfred Kroeber, not one for romantic excess, described Ishi as a person who was “industrious, kindly, obliging, invariably even tempered, ready of smile, and thoroughly endeared himself to all with whom he came in contact.” “He liked everybody,” the more emotional Thomas Waterman said, “and everybody liked him.” “I loved the old Indian,” Waterman wrote to Kroeber just after Ishi’s death.
Even so, the anthropologists studied Ishi as a “typical” specimen of his Yahi culture. They noted his habits and beliefs as if everyone in his small tribe possessed an identical set. One wonders just how typical Ishi was. Was it pure coincidence that he among all other Indians in North America held out on his own in the wild until well into the twentieth century? Would any other Yahi have been able to adapt with such grace to a foreign world? It seems almost certain that Ishi had special, maybe unique, individual qualities of vision, resourcefulness, and purpose.
Only a few very old men and women are left who met Ishi in person, and they were small children in San Francisco while he was alive. Today we have only the bare traces of his physical existence. There are the
arrowheads and spearpoints that Ishi crafted—some in museums, others treasured heirlooms belonging to the descendants of those to whom Ishi gave them as presents. And there are the photographs. One shows Ishi, gaunt as a concentration camp survivor, on the day after his capture in Oroville. Still others depict Ishi in San Francisco, an urban Indian now, dressed in suit and tie behind the wheel of a Model T, or smiling with his white friends in their box at the Orpheum Theater. We can also listen to the recordings made of Ishi’s songs and stories on the wax cylinders of an early phonograph. Here he chants out loudly across the ages in the ancient Yahi tongue of which he was the world’s last speaker.
“You stay, I go,” Saxton Pope recalled Ishi whispering to him from his deathbed. The fact is that Ishi has never left us. The odyssey of this lone survivor from the tribal culture of his Yahi people into the strange new world of San Francisco still fascinates thousands of Americans. As the subject of a pair of TV movies, five documentaries, and three plays in the last few decades alone, Ishi is an icon of popular culture. The saga of his life and death remains as remarkable and compelling as ever. It was almost a century ago that the wild man of Deer Creek materialized like a ghost out of the hills one late summer evening.
From Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian by Orin Starn. Copyright (c) 2004 by W.W. Norton & Company . Used by permission of the publisher.