Who Was Ishi?

Though His True Identify May Never Be Known, It's Fairly Certain He Wasn't the Legendary "Last Yahi," an Archaeologist Says

by Gretchen Kell

Ishi is a household name in Northern California, where school children have been taught for 85 years that he was the last Yahi, a subgroup of the Yana Indians.

"Ishi, the Last Yana Indian, 1916," is etched into the small black jar containing his cremated remains.

But by studying the arrowpoints Ishi made, Steven Shackley, a research archaeologist at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, has discovered that Ishi apparently wasn't the last full-blooded Yahi, or Yana, after all.

Instead, Shackley said that Ishi, who was found, starving and afraid, near Oroville in 1911, was of mixed Indian blood--a finding that revises Ishi's famous history, which many Californians learned by reading "Ishi in Two Worlds" by Theodora Kroeber.

Shackley said that, in light of this new evidence on Ishi, teachers educating children about California history "should be more aware of the complexity of Ishi's situation. It's more complex than Kroeber imagined."

Her book was "simplistic," he said, "not based completely on hard research."

An analysis by Shackley of a large Berkeley collection of Ishi's arrowpoints indicates that although he spoke Yahi and had lived in the ancestral Yahi homeland in the Mount Lassen foothills, he also had either Wintu or Nomlaki blood.

"Arrowpoints made in the historic Yahi sites excavated by the Department of Anthropology in the 1950s and housed at the museum are quite different from Ishi's products," said Shackley. "But tools and arrowpoints made at historic Nomlaki or Wintu sites also housed at the museum bear striking resemblance to those made by Ishi."

An expert in stone tool technology, Shackley found that the hundreds of projectile points Ishi made after he left the wilderness had long blades with concave bases and side notches. In contrast, arrowheads in the museum from historic Yahi sites are short and squat, with contracting stems and basal notches.

Although Ishi was culturally Yahi, said Shackley, "it appears he was not the last purely Yahi Indian. He learned to produce arrowpoints not from Yahi relatives, but very possibly from a Nomlaki or Wintu male relative.

"This makes Ishi's story even more romantic and sad," he said. "Being of mixed blood, he is an example of the cultural pressure the Anglos placed on the dwindling number of Indians in the mid- to late-1800s to marry their enemies."

Shackley first investigated Ishi's arrowpoints in 1990. After a hiatus, he resumed work upon hearing evidence at an Ishi conference that physical anthropology suggests Ishi was not completely Yana.

The Wintu, Nomlaki and Maidu belonged to a large group of Indians in the Sacramento Valley who spoke a language called Penutian. They lived adjacent to their enemies, the Yana, who were in the Lassen foothills. The Yana had four subgroups--the northern, central and southern Yana, and the Yahi--and each had its own dialect, territory and culture.

Ishi was born into an extended family that, in order to perpetuate life, was forced to intermarry with outsiders, with enemies, said Shackley, and one of Ishi's parents may have been Wintu or Nomlaki. The number of Indians was dwindling, and an incest taboo kept them from choosing a relative as a mate.

"We always thought that Ishi was a survivor who was extremely adaptive," said Shackley. "Now we know he was even more adaptive because he was the product of a society that had to adapt to a situation that was not part of its cultural ideology."

"Ishi didn't talk about his ancestors because his religious beliefs prevented him from doing that. But that's my job as an archaeologist," he said. "And Ishi would have wanted the truth known."

Ishi first made headlines on Aug. 29, 1911, when butchers found him outside a slaughterhouse near Oroville. Initially, he was jailed by the Butte County sheriff. But two Berkeley anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Talbot Waterman, befriended Ishi and gave him shelter at the campus's anthropology museum, then in San Francisco.

Kroeber's wife, the author of "Ishi in Two Worlds," wrote that Ishi was "the last wild Indian in North America, a man of Stone Age culture."

The anthropologists pronounced Ishi a Yahi because he spoke Yahi and was found near Yahi territory. They also considered him the last Yahi, said Shackley, since "the only Yahi left in the hinterlands were believed to have been exterminated by Indian killers brought in by whites."

Furthermore, they believed Ishi was the last Indian to have lived in the wild. Massacres, starvation and disease had taken the lives of countless Indians in Northern California during the mid- to late-1800s. Many others had been forced into reservations.

In 1908, surveyors did spot four Indians in Yahi territory. But in 1909, Waterman and two guides failed to find the group. Two years later, Ishi, who verified that he had been one of the four, appeared alone near Oroville.

"That Ishi was wearing his hair burned short in sign of mourning in August, 191l, was evidence of a death or deaths in his family," wrote Theodora Kroeber, "but his mourning may well have been a prolonged one."

Under pressure from reporters who wanted to know the stranger's name, Alfred Kroeber called him "Ishi," which means "man" in Yana. Ishi never uttered his real name.

"A California Indian almost never speaks his own name," wrote Kroeber's wife, "using it but rarely with those who already know it, and he would never tell it in reply to a direct question."

Ishi was given a home at UC's anthropology museum--then on the UCSF campus. He lived there for most of the rest of his life, except briefly in 1915, when he lived in Berkeley with Waterman's family.

While at the museum, Ishi often worked on native crafts, such as the arrowpoints Shackley analyzed. By his own choice, he often did these crafts for museum audiences and would give some of his work away.

"The quality of the arrowpoints Ishi made shows he felt good about himself--he was a good craftsman," said Shackley. "This positive self-image helped make Ishi a hell of an adaptive person."

Ishi formed close friendships with Waterman and Kroeber and with Saxton Pope, a teacher at the university's medical school, which was next door to the museum. He also agreed to record linguistic material on the Yahi language for Berkeley.

In December 1914, Ishi developed what doctors felt was tuberculosis. After several hospitalizations, his friends moved him back to the museum to spend his last days. He died there on March 25, 1916.


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