The Story Of Ishi, The Last Native American

February 10, 2013

On August 29th 1911, Ishi, the last of the Yahi, walked out of the Sierra wilderness and into American culture. Estimated to have been born around 1860-1862, Ishi’s life was marred by fighting and massacre. As the last of his people, a tribe thought to be extinct, Ishi provided a vital link to cultural information about North America’s Native American history.

Born at the decline of the Yahi population, at a time when gold mining had damaged water supplies, decimated fishing and scared away deer, Ishi survived the Three Knolls Massacre, an attack that reduced the Yahi people to approximately sixty. To avoid further clashes, Ishi and his family went into hiding for the next forty years, avoiding the world being built by the new settlers of the California Gold Rush.

Known then as the ‘last wild Indian’, Ishi, which means ‘man’ in the Yahi language, was given his name by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber after explaining that it was rude to ask someone’s name in the Yahi culture. With no one left to speak his name he couldn’t reveal it and said ‘I have none, because there were no people to name me’. Within the University of California, Ishi worked to shed light on the Yahi culture for a more modern world, describing family units, naming patterns and the ceremonies he knew. But Ishi had been alone for so long that many of his traditions had been forgotten or lost in the wilderness.

Ishi The Last Native American With Alfred Kroeber

Yahi translator Sam Batwai, Alfred L. Kroeber (who studied Ishi at the University of California Berkeley), and Ishi photographed at Parnassus in 1911. Source: University of California San Francisco.

Sadly, Ishi had no immunity to the diseases of European-American civilization and was often ill. Five years after joining American society, Ishi contracted tuberculosis which led to his death. Upon his death in 1916, his brain was put in a deerskin-wrapped Pueblo Indian pottery jar and sent to the Smithsonian Institution.

But Ishi’s legacy lived on: a recording of Ishi speaking, singing and telling stories is held in the National Recording Registry and his techniques in stone tool making are widely imitated by modern lithic tool manufactures, where he is considered to have been one of the last native tool makers in North America.

Ishi’s life was an academic fascination far beyond his lifetime. In the mid-1990s, studies began to appear that suggested that while in their decline, the Yahi tribes intermarried with tribes that had previously been enemies. The end result of this theory, which is still being debated, is that Ishi’s heritage may well live on in descendants of the Redding Rancheria and the Pit River tribes. His remains were returned to these tribes in 2000 to be laid to rest in line with the traditions he taught to a new and emerging world as the last of the Yahi.

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