By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA
Queens, NY, USA
101 Years After His Death
On March 25, 1916, a northern California Indian, who went by the name of Ishi, died in the University of California Hospital in San Francisco. His death signaled the end of the Stone Age in North America.
It is no small thing to be identified with the passing of an age. It is an altogether rare occurrence, perhaps even unique in the history of the world. And yet the death of this Yahi Indian is regarded by many as the end of the historic period in which modern North Americans used stone points, edges, or blunt surfaces to create tools to shape their world. If Ishi were remembered only as the Last Stone Age Indian, his legacy would be a fascinating footnote. But Ishi was an extraordinary man, an historic phenomenon, whose great influence reverberates to this day.
Who Was Ishi?
The Yahi had lived for thousands of years in Northern California before whites invaded the area during the 1849 Gold Rush. In the time it takes to sharpen a pelt knife or load a rifle, indigenous tribes and whites came into territorial conflict. Allowing nothing (or no one) to stand in the way of their God-sanctioned Manifest Destiny, whites worked hard to eradicate the indigenous Indians: those who weren’t felled by infectious disease were massacred, or killed one at a time, or enslaved, or forced onto reservations. Surviving members of one of the besieged tribes, the Yahi, part of a larger group called the Yana, retreated into the dense thickets and lava cliffs of Deer Canyon, southwest of Mount Lassen in the Cascade Range in Northern California. As the persecution continued, the Yahi were forced to flee deeper into the Sierra Nevada. Eventually, as a result of continuing persecution and attrition, only one Yahi remained. In 1911, an emaciated and tattered Indian came stumbling out of the mountains into the town of Oroville. The Indian was jailed because no one knew what to do with him. Locals who knew the languages of the northern tribes could not communicate with this Indian. An anthropologist from San Francisco came to investigate. Before too long he was convinced that the Indian before him was a flesh-and-blood, honest-to-goodness Stone Age Indian. He took the Indian back to San Francisco by railroad.
Curious and well-meaning anthropologists installed the Indian as a living artifact in the University of California’s anthropology museum. The Indian referred to himself as Ishi, his own language’s word for “man.” Though it was presumed he had a name, he never shared it.
Ishi built a tee-pee behind the museum and lived there (and in the university) for five years, teaching observers and tourists about his Stone Age culture. When he wasn’t sweeping floors, flint-knapping, or chanting his tribal songs and prayers, he often walked about the university hospital, visiting the sick and injured, dispensing looks of gentleness and sympathy.
In the summer of 1914, three years after leaving Oroville for San Francisco, Ishi agreed to return to his Deer Creek homeland in the company of his three closest university staff associates. These men looked forward to the expedition as an almost miraculous opportunity to learn from Ishi in his natural Stone Age milieu. Though concerned that he would be revisiting places of unspeakable tragedy, Ishi—ever generous and brave—never faltered. In fact, he did his best to satisfy their every request. He helped them map the area, noting the best fishing pools, deer runs, salt licks, and mineral springs. He named hundreds of varieties of plants and their uses. He explained the Yahi peripatetic lifestyle, describing how the seasons dictated their travel between valleys, foothills, and high country. He demonstrated how they hunted and fished, bathed and prayed, raised their children and honored their dead.
In Spring 1916, Ishi’s health took a final turn for the worse. Though Ishi had made it clear that he did not want his body desecrated by an autopsy (a then common practice of racial comparative science), there was a failure of communication. As a result, an autopsy was performed and Ishi’s brain was removed and preserved in formalin. When Dr. Alfred Kroeber, head of the university team, returned from his sabbatical, he found on his desk a glass jar containing Ishi’s floating brain.
What Ishi taught the world about Stone Age culture, tradition, and technology is incalculable. But there is an even more profound aspect to Ishi’s legacy. In his later years, while living in white custody, he demonstrated great curiosity, intelligence, tolerance, and a willingness to share. Had he behaved very differently—sought vengeance or been sullen—no one could have reasonably blamed him. After all, he’d been born into a beleaguered tribe and had spent his life on the run, watching his people die, one at a time, often right in front of his eyes.
For reasons we will never entirely know, Ishi took the high road. Because of his incredible perseverance, his natural grace and humor, and his noble yearning to share what was best of his Yahi culture, the world has another iconic figure to admire and learn from.
The Ishi Affair, was released in March 2017.