Monday, March 28, 2011

North American Series: Part 4.2

California: The Story of Ishi

In the late 19th century gold prospectors and ranchers in northeastern Californian killed many of the Indians of the region. It was thought that all of the Yahi tribe in particular was wiped out until 1908. There was a camp that was found in the foothills by a group of surveyors. It turned out to be a small camp of a family of which the young Indian Ishi was part of. The surveyors then took all the Indian’s food and tools leaving Ishi’s parents to die and him to live alone. Then in 1911 Ishi came out of the woods starving and surrendered to authorities. He was then put in jail by the authorities and his story became headline news (Rochete 2010).

After Ishi was locked up the local sheriff called the Anthropology Museum at the University of California. Then a well known anthropologist at the university by the name of Alfred Kroeber brought Ishi to the museum where he lived out the rest of his life. Ishi made a living as one of the many “living exhibits” that museums had during this time. On the weekends he even demonstrated tool making for visitors (Rochete 2010). The picture above is of Ishi in his exhibit, posing with his shelter that he made.

Kroeber leaned Ishi’s language, subsistence practices and beliefs. He also taught Ishi about American customs and technologies of the time. Ishi though was more take back by the sheer numbers of people that were around then the technologies. He did though become intrigued by matches which he thought was a very useful invention.

Sadly, Ishi died in 1916 of tuberculosis. Even sadder was that Kroeber wasn’t around at the time of this death and couldn’t prevent the autopsy that took place. It would’ve been against the religion of the Yahi people to desecrate the body. Ishi was then cremated except for his brain which was sent to the Smithsonian. It was thought to be lost for decades, until 1999 when it was found in the back of a curation vault.

Rochete, Eric

2010. Anth 146 Lecture for October 23, 2010.

The Pennsylvania State University.

Photo Courtesy of


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