May 24, 2013
Tony Platt on Ishi—the Last of the Yahi
Posted on Dec 18, 2009
By Tony Platt
Many of you no doubt recall some basic impressions about Ishi: how a Yahi survivor—the “last wild Indian”—emerged from hiding in the small California town of Oroville in August 1911 to become a big-time celebrity under the guardianship of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber until his death in San Francisco in March 1916. It’s familiar because the Ishi story generated a cottage industry of publicity, from the millions of words written about him in the popular press in the 1910s to a flurry of books since the 1960s.
Kroeber (1876-1960) produced some 550 publications during his distinguished academic career, but wrote surprisingly little about Ishi. His wife, Theodora Kroeber, had great sucesss with “Ishi in Two Worlds,” published in 1961, the year after her husband’s death. It’s a well-told tale of pop anthropology that humanizes Ishi and resonates with a broad audience, much like Anne Frank’s diary. A new edition, with a filial introduction by Karl Kroeber, published in 1989, pushed sales of the book to more than 1 million. For the academically inclined, there is an anthology of primary documents, “Ishi the Last Yahi,” edited by Robert Heizer and Theodora Kroeber (1979). And in 2004, anthropologist Orin Starn also reached a wide audience with “Ishi’s Brain,” a smart muckraking investigation into the disrespectful treatment of Ishi’s body after his death that deflated the hitherto unsullied reputation of Alfred Kroeber and UC Berkeley’s department of anthropology. Starn’s book, inter alia, provoked a departmental apology for the “final betrayal of Ishi”—namely, shipping off his brain to the Smithsonian.1 [See unlinked footnotes at end of article.]
Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America
By Douglas Cazaux Sackman
Oxford University Press, 384 pages
You would think the subject matter of Ishi has been thoroughly raked over by now, but Douglas Cazaux Sackman, a historian at the University of Puget Sound, has found two new seams that promise a payoff. The results are mixed. “Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America” gives us new ways of thinking about the Ishi phenomenon by locating the fascination with the “last uncontaminated man” in cultural anxieties about modernity and nostalgia for the “wilderness.” The book is less compelling, however, when it turns the Kroeber-Ishi relationship into a mawkish parable about how two men from different worlds “stood looking at each other from the opposite edge of a chasm” and “reached out in the hope of keeping the other from falling in.”
In 1901 Kroeber, under the patronage of Phoebe Hearst, joined the new department of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and became director of the university’s Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco. It was a time of fierce competition between museums for collections of “Indian relics,” and Kroeber joined the hunt. When Ishi emerged from hiding in 1911—the only survivor of massacres, bounty hunts, epidemics and starvation that wiped out the Yahi people—Kroeber quickly staked a claim to becoming his official guardian after he learned from an assistant that “this man is undoubtedly wild” and will make a “good exhibit for the public.” Kroeber housed Ishi in a room at the museum, gave him a job as a janitor, and proudly displayed him to his colleagues and the curious as “the most uncivilized man in the world today.”
Thousands of people showed up at the museum to watch Ishi drilling fire and making arrowheads, or followed his adventures through the local press, which documented every outing to Golden Gate Park, the theater and upscale social events. For Sackman, this obsessive interest in Ishi was related to “contemporary crazes for hunting, camping, and wilderness trekking,” in particular a desire by the urban middle class to assert “the white male body in the machine age.”
Ishi was not the only “wild man” to become a media star. Sackman tells us about “Nature Man No. 1,” Ernest Darling, a medical school dropout, whose experiences in the wilds of Maine were popularized by Jack London; and “Nature Man No. 2,” Joseph Knowles, an illustrator, whose vicarious experiences as a “cave man” in the Siskiyou Mountains were reported by The San Francisco Examiner.
There is a wonderful, stand-alone set piece in “Wild Men” that graphically illustrates why so many respectable men “harbored a tangled and confused desire” to go Indian. In May-June 1914, Kroeber persuaded Ishi to join a small expedition to his homeland in order to document place names, diet and topography. Initially, Ishi “refused to go back” to a place that he associated with death and misery, or to leave “the comforts of civilization.” But while he eventually complied with Kroeber’s request to restage how he had hunted and survived, he would go only so far. Sackman takes us on a journey to this camp-out by assembling a scrapbook and album of original photographs, including a snapshot of Ishi in loincloth gazing at Kroeber posing in the nude.
Sackman tries his best to get inside Ishi and Kroeber’s attitudes to their relationship. The problem, which he’s unable to solve, is that Ishi guarded his personal life, while Kroeber’s family has so far successfully guarded the anthropologist’s personal writings from researchers.
“I will not tell anything about myself,” Ishi said when Kroeber hired a native Yana speaker to translate for him. Sackman compensates for this lack of evidence by drawing upon native myths and stories to imagine how Ishi might have remembered his life and experienced his last four years as a living relic in the university’s cabinet of curiosities. The author does a good job of evoking Ishi’s two worlds, but makes a patronizing stylistic decision to represent his voice in staccato, childlike sentences: “He learned to chip arrowheads, to keep watch, to sing the language of the birds, the animals. All the world was alive. All the world was watchful. You had to respect it.”
1 2 NEXT PAGE >>>
Previous item: Lebanese Rappers Make Their Case for Peace
Next item: Reconsidering E.M. Forster
New and Improved Comments