Tony Platt on Ishi—the Last of the Yahi
Posted on Dec 18, 2009
By Tony Platt
As for Kroeber, Sackman pores over his voluminous but sanitized papers in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and looks for hidden clues in Theodora’s dutiful memoir (“Alfred Kroeber: A Personal Configuration,” 1970). But without access to diaries, letters and personal revelations, we are left only with the author’s speculation that “wildness is something that dwelled within, repressed by his own culture and his chosen profession of anthropology.”
The case for the inner Kroeber identifying with Ishi is rather thin. It is true that Kroeber did not support a dissection of Ishi’s body. “If there is any talk of the interests of science,” Kroeber wrote from New York to his assistant, Edward Gifford, “say for me that science can go to hell. We propose to stand by our friends.” Against Kroeber’s advice, the museum went ahead with the autopsy. But a few months later, after his return to the Bay Area, Kroeber did not have any moral qualms about sending Ishi’s brain to a eugenicist at the Smithsonian. Moreover, under Kroeber’s leadership Berkeley’s department of anthropology amassed thousands of native craniums, and Gifford was encouraged to develop his penchant for measuring skulls in the search for racial explanations of social difference.2
Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America
By Douglas Cazaux Sackman
Oxford University Press, 384 pages
In order to find common ground between the two “wild men,” the author has a tendency to exaggerate Kroeber’s social activism. “The deep prejudice that had engulfed California’s Indians for a century—a prejudice that held that they were ‘diggers’ who lived off roots and insects and had no culture or even language—was swept away by Kroeber’s relativistic research,” asserts Sackman. This is wishful thinking. Kroeber certainly had an impact on the field of anthropology, but almost no impact on the “deep prejudice” of public discourse. Throughout most of his lifetime, the popular press and publishing industry saturated a large and receptive audience of readers with relentlessly racist images of native peoples as stupid and brutish, backward, a drag on progress, childlike and predisposed to extinction. Moreover, Kroeber rarely spoke out against California’s genocidal past (though Theodora did so eloquently after his death), preferring to focus on what he called “the purely aboriginal, the uncontaminatedly native.”5
Sackman argues, as have others, that Kroeber was propelled into a personal crisis after the death from pneumonia of his first wife, Henriette, in 1913 and of Ishi two years later, and by news of the carnage taking place in Europe during World War 1 (his parents were immigrants from Germany). Kroeber could not write about Ishi, Theodora suggested in her memoir, because “he had lived too much of it, and too much of it was the stuff of human agony from whose immediacy he could not sufficiently distance himself.”6 There’s some support for this thesis in Kroeber’s decision to undergo psychoanalysis in 1917 and to begin a second career as a therapist. But Kroeber continued a furious output of anthropological writing during this period, and by the 1920s was again teaching full time at Berkeley and was remarried, to Theodora. Maybe he was occasionally haunted in his dreams by images of Ishi and death. Maybe not.
I share Doug Sackman’s desire to break with old-style radical history that simplistically posits good guys against bad guys, oppressors against resisters. He identifies, as I do, with “the new western historians,” such as Patricia Limerick and Richard White, whose “multiperspectival” approach advocates moving beyond overly romantic interpretations of the native past and demonization of settlers, pioneers and anthropologists. It’s one thing, however, to reject a black-and-white view of history; it’s another to throw out power along with the binaries. There’s no question that Kroeber had an impact on Ishi: He changed his life fundamentally and took action that exposed him to an infection that caused his death. But whether Ishi had an impact on Kroeber other than enhance a career brimming with success remains an open question.
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