Ishi – the last wild Indian in North America


ishiIn August of 1911, a lone Indian wandered out of the bushes and collapsed in a slaughterhouse corral a few miles from the town of Oroville, near the foothills of Mount Lassen in California. This man, starved and naked except for a ragged scrap of ancient covered-wagon canvas which he wore around his shoulders like a poncho, soon became renowned as Ishi, “the last wild Indian in North America.” He never told his name. Anthropologists came up with Ishi, which means “man” in a local Indian dialect. His surrender marked the close of an era in the history of the original inhabitants of the North American continent.

Native peoples in California numbered approximately 250,000, from at least 21 known tribes. The Yahi had remained virtually untouched by Spanish and Mexican newcomers until 1844, when land grants by the Mexican government deeded large parts of the Sacramento Valley into private ownership, including Yahi holdings in the creeks and forests at the foot of Mount Lassen. The Yahi had declined from as many as three thousand to only a dozen adults and one ten-year-old child, Ishi. For the next 12 years this small band managed to conceal itself in the canyons and forests of its homeland, traveling long distances, sleeping under rabbit skin blankets and otherwise surviving in a manner totally aboriginal. After his fellow tribesmen expired one by one, Ishi had lived alone for more than three years in the wild, knowing a language intelligible to no other man, practicing a culture that would pass into extinction upon his death. All Ishi knew of the white man’s world was that surely a Yahi would be put to death.

From 1911-1916, Ishi resided at the Anthropology Museum of the University of California Affiliated Colleges on Parnassus Heights in San Francisco (now the site of UCSF), sharing knowledge about his culture and beliefs with Anthropologists Alfred L. Kroeber and Theodore T. Waterman, as well as Surgeon Saxton T. Pope. Free to return to his homelands, Ishi chose to remain at the museum as a living interpreter of his culture. Ishi worked as an assistant janitor at the museum and gived public demonstrations of his native crafts, such as arrowheads, and cultural practices to eager audiences of museum visitors, young and old alike. Wearing a gentle smile and presenting an affable demeanor, he won the trust and friendship of his community and much admiration from people far away, as news of “the last wild Indian in North America” spread across the globe. Ishi’s life in the modern world lasted only until 1916, when he died of tuberculosis, a diseases foreign to the Yahi, on March 25, 1916, at the medical college on Parnassus.

Before his death, Ishi had made it clear he did not wish to be autopsied, believing that bodies should be burned quickly to release the soul. Kroeber, who was in New York when Ishi died, ordered that Ishi’s body be cremated. But his colleagues couldn’t resist, autopsying Ishi and removing his brain.

Ishi’s Cave

Near the summit of Mount Sutro in California, on the property of University of California San Francisco, very close to chancellors house, a true gem lies – the mysterious caves that old-timers say were used by Ishi, the last Yahi Indian. The Sutro Forest, they say, reminded Ishi of his home. He often came there. Sometimes he showed visitors how to make fire. Sometimes he just looked at the forest, remembering.

The one Ishi’s cave we managed to find is located just under the trail of the Sutro forest, you have to descend 20 feet or so. There is a tree standing on the formation of boulders. The entrance (see the photographs) is very narrow and one has to crawl through the entrance, than stand up to pass a very narrow space between to walls of the cave (there is an opening above), and than slide into the most distal part of the cave which is just big enough for a man to sit. We found some candles in there and a brass door knob.