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Tony Platt on Ishi—the Last of the Yahi

Posted on Dec 18, 2009

By Tony Platt

(Page 2)

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


book cover


Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America


By Douglas Cazaux Sackman


Oxford University Press, 384 pages


Buy the book

Kroeber himself did not buy into prevailing views about multiple human races. He was, as Sackman discusses, a cultural relativist who argued against the “hoary taboos” of white supremacy and ethnocentrism. But he was not immune to racialized imagery, a topic that Sackman tends to sidestep. “By temperament,” Kroeber observed in a speech to the Commonwealth Club of California in 1909, the “California Indian is docile, peaceful, friendly, sluggish, unimaginative, not easily stirred, low-keyed in emotion, almost apathetic.”3 Nor does “Wild Men” acknowledge Kroeber’s public description of Ishi as a “puppy” who “comes running when you call him, and if you were to tell him to stand in the corner or stand on his head, if he were able he would do it without hesitation.” 4

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.

Tony Platt is working on a book about the history of anthropology in Northern California, and with the Coalition to Protect Yurok Cultural Legacies at O-pyúweg (Big Lagoon, Calif.). See his blog on history and memory at

1. On the politics of the apology, see Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes: Anthropology and Genocide,” Anthropology Today, Vol. 17, 2001, Pages 12-19.
2. See, for example, Edward Gifford, Californian Anthropometry, University of California Press, 1926.
3. A.L. Kroeber, “The Indians of California,” Transactions of the Commonwealth Club of California, Dec. 4, 1909, Page 434.
4. A.L. Kroeber, “It’s All Too Much for Ishi, Says The Scientist,” San Francisco Call, Oct. 8, 1911.
5. A.L. Kroeber, “Two Papers on the Aboriginal Ethnography of California,” Reports of the University of California Archaeological Survey, No. 56, March 1, 1962, Page 58.
6. Alfred Kroeber, “A Personal Configuration,” Page 93.

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By oyunlar, January 30, 2010 at 11:44 am Link to this comment

This Old Indian gave Gordy the best words available in what is not one’s Native language.  Still, it’s only words, with all their limitations and potential for inadequately transmitting some sense of what is essentially always beyond them anyhow.  Nothing “personal” whatsoever was intended….as a “put down” or otherwise.  Since he was asking about things essentially outside his experience, it’s only to be expected the descriptions he gets will “sound” Oyunlar
Oyunsomewhat strange to him.  His own frame-of-reference is that of a life-long inmate of an exploitative “dominance” paradigm.

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By Chuck Wilkerson, December 24, 2009 at 11:28 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

My currently favorite T-shirt is one showing a Native American Ancestor in war paint & feathers looking out somewhere. In the background
is a teepee, in the foreground are running horses and a wolf. I wear it on special occasions, in full honor of them.

I awoke at 1:30 a.m. to release some water, got back in bed and found the next 1 1/2 hours were spent in thinking of my own Native American ancestry, in the sense of honoring them, past and present.

At first thoughts were coming out thusly: HAD2BE meaning-Honoring Ancestors Decimated by Europeans….

Then my thoughts turned to this: HAS2BE meaning-Honoring Ancestors Slaughtered by Europeans…..

Why? Because I wonder if this isn’t STILL going on in various forms .......... Something to think about….
Chuck Wilkerson

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By TAO Walker, December 24, 2009 at 11:12 am Link to this comment

If Gordy’s felt “need” here is for some kind of self- validation, it isn’t surprising he’s disappointed, and even upset, by our exchange.  Us surviving Savages simply don’t “deal” in that “currency,” which is subject to so much arbitrary manipulation there’s never any way to make any reliable determination of its “worth”....a lot like “money” in that regard.  This inevitably leaves those trying to “trade” on such make-believe CONceits frustrated and feeling unappreciated….as illustrated by his latest submission here.

If, on the other hand, the object of participation is just to get some information that might enable one to better engage our Living Arrangement to more mutually beneficial effect, it’s a lot easier to stay away from those psycho-emotional booby-traps of the type Gordy seems to’ve triggered here.  Questions are raised.  Responses are offered.  There’s no need to “invest” what happens here in cyberspace with any more “social” significance than that….and plenty of good reasons not to do that.

This Old Indian gave Gordy the best words available in what is not one’s Native language.  Still, it’s only words, with all their limitations and potential for inadequately transmitting some sense of what is essentially always beyond them anyhow.  Nothing “personal” whatsoever was intended….as a “put down” or otherwise.  Since he was asking about things essentially outside his experience, it’s only to be expected the descriptions he gets will “sound” somewhat strange to him.  His own frame-of-reference is that of a life-long inmate of an exploitative “dominance” paradigm. 

He asks, however, about a Way that has no place in it for the rule-of-fear ‘operating system’ he’s been told all his life is all there is.  No wonder it isn’t easy for him, or others in his predicament, to not feel belittled by suggestions he’s being kept captive in a virtual world-o’-hurt that is in-fact a device designed and run to CONstrict his access to the whole Living Universe outside its own entirely artificial (and shrinking) boundaries. 

This Old Man is only here to remind our tame Sisters and Brothers there’s a much larger “world” outside the CONfines of this “global economy” that is the terminal CONfiguration of the particular “civilization” process in-place here for over ten thousand years now….with its DEAD END ethos encapsulated in a “zero sum” arrangement even now manifesting the CONsiderable “down-side” always inherent in its self-serving assumptions and methods.  If Gordy is offended or otherwise put-off by the plain statement of that CONdition, he is welcome to ignore it.

No hard feelings.


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By Gordy, December 24, 2009 at 8:33 am Link to this comment

Wow, for an Old Savage you certainly know how to
sneer like a snooty know-it-all.  Is looking better
than someone on the Internet really important to
Mother Nature?  What function do your put-downs serve
other than to serve your ego?  Are you making me any
wiser by insulting me and explaining nothing? 

I say what the world really needs is the Wee Jimmy
Krankie Way.  It’s got something to do with being
natural and it’s against CONstruction workers,
CONvivality and CONtraception.  And if you need any
more details than that you’re obviously just an
inferior captive human who can’t understand these
things.  Just agree with me - I’m a wise old savage,
goddammit, haven’t you ever seen Dances With Wolves!? 

Hoots the noo!

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By TAO Walker, December 23, 2009 at 8:24 pm Link to this comment

Maybe Gordy’s acquired taste for intellectual complexity leaves him unsatisfied by the biological simplicity of The Tiyoshpaye Way, as described below in what this Old Man offered in pretty basic English.  If he would give some specifics about whatever it is exactly that’s puzzling him, this Old Savage would endeavor to respond in-kind.

If, on the other hand, Gordy is merely begging the question because he is unwilling to accept the offered answer, we’re at a kind of conversational impasse here that may, for the time-being, make further exchanges fruitless for all concerned.  Trying to cater to the cultivated appetites of domesticated “individuals” is admittedly not something this Old Man has any talent for anyhow, nor much inclination, either, to be honest….maybe another “difference” between the free and the be-haved.

Anyhow, he did call it “....your Way,” which among us does in-fact suggest “ownership.”  Meantime, Gordy can rest assured that here in Indian Country the critical distinction between free wild Human Beings and tame two-leggeds means plenty to us surviving members of the former breed.  That it is apparently lost on Gordy is likely due to his never having gained any first-hand experience of anything but the captive CONdition in which he finds his self today….“no blame….” (as some followers of The Tao might say), “....just fact” (as Grandpa McCoy often did).  The mention of Al Gore was intended as a reference to the ubiquitous presence of captivity’s CONsequences….one citing some common cultural “currency.”

Finally, it isn’t so much “the world who would benefit by more of Her Human Children recovering the integrity of their Organic Function, though She sure would appreciate that, it is those inmates of the “civilization” CONtraption regaining their free wild Natural Estate who would really feel its mutually beneficial effects.

It’d be immediate relief, too, from the CONfusion so besetting them, as they try to figure-out the CONvoluted toils of the “global” CONstruct in which they are (like 600-plus billion factory-farmed chickens) so helplessly CONfined.


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By Gordy, December 23, 2009 at 7:30 pm Link to this comment

Oh well that’s as clear as mud, thanks! 

Bloody hell… 

I ask a straight, perfectly innocent question and you
make a bizarre accusation at me, that I have somehow
claimed that you ‘own’ the Tiyoshpaye Way - I did not
imply that you own the Tiyoshpaye Way; I only said
that it would be nice for you to explain or
illustrate it seeing as you are always recommending

And what’s with the tangent about climate change and
Al Gore!?  I didn’t mention anything about that;
neither does the article. 

If your Way is important enough to mention at every
opportunity then you are failing it by not even
trying to reach out to people who want to understand

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By TAO Walker, December 23, 2009 at 7:17 pm Link to this comment

From his acquired “proprietary” point-of-view Gordy below projects a kind of Personal claim to The Tiyoshpaye Way onto this Old Indian, who has never attempted to take any “credit” for what is really The Way given for Human Beings to belong to the Natural Living Arrangement of our Mother earth.  Domestication is a descriptive term for the condition the process of “civilization” inflicts on not only Humans but (mainly by tame two-legged agency) any number of our Native Relations here, too.

Without exception, domestication results in weakness and disease in its subjects.  The present twin obsessions with both “healthcare reform” and “global climate change” are occasioned by relatively sudden geometric increases in the degenerative effects of this CONdition on both its Human sufferers/carriers and virtually all of the “other” Kinds upon which homo domesticus feeds in one way or another.  Since even the wannabe “gods” (and their “god”-esses) ARE what they eat, however, it is (to be both literal and blunt) idiotic to expect that the inmates of factory farms and feedlots will ever truly nourish those who must be free and wild to be healthy.

This, though, is an “inconvenient truth” even Al Gore has neither the wit to recognize nor the will to face.  He’s hardly alone in that, either.

Misery does indeed “love” company.


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By Gordy, December 23, 2009 at 6:31 pm Link to this comment

Well, you are always on this website saying that your
Way is what the world needs.  If I want to take your
advice, I have to know what you’re talking about. 
Simply telling people to be ‘wild’ instead of
‘domesticated’ isn’t going to mean much to anyone.

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By Gordy, December 23, 2009 at 6:31 pm Link to this comment

Well, you are always in this website saying that your
Way is what the world needs.  If I want to take your
advice, I have to know what you’re talking about. 
Simply telling people to be ‘wild’ instead of
‘domesticated’ isn’t going to mean much to anyone.

Report this

By TAO Walker, December 23, 2009 at 5:24 pm Link to this comment

It is no exaggeration to characterize the “difference” Gordy asks about below as the same as there is between a free wild Wolf, for example, and any mongrel dog being used as a stress-to-distruct “test subject” in some MAD lab experiment.  Even game-farmed Elk are not quite as worse-off, compared to their free wild brethren and sistren, as are domesticated Humans vis-a-vis us surviving free wild Natives.

As near as this Old Savage has been able to make it out, TAO-“ism” is essentially a self-CONtradictory CONceit….maybe best encapsulated in the observation that “One who says doesn’t know.  One who knows cannot say.”  Though it seems only fair, and wise, to wonder who it was said that. 

Meantime, it might be better to neither know nor say anything about “psychology,” whatever in hell it is.


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By Gordy, December 23, 2009 at 4:05 pm Link to this comment

What does that mean psychologically, what is the
difference between a Way-walker and a domesticated

My frame of reference is more in Eastern philosophy and
I am familiar with Taoism.

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By TAO Walker, December 23, 2009 at 3:41 pm Link to this comment

Gordy’s question below is answered most “economically” as follows:  Tiyoshpaye is a Dakotah/Lakotah/Nakotah word for the Natural Organic Form of Humanity within the Living Arrangement of our Mother Earth.  Other surviving free wild Human Beings have different words for this.  The Dine People (called by americans “Navajo”), for instance, have a term that translates into Beauty Way.  Both can be made into English approximately as:  Genuine Living Human Community, to distinguish it from all those random collections of domesticated “individuals” called these days “communities,” but which are not.

The Form, of course, is in-keeping with our given Natural Organic Function as a component in Her immune system.  This will probably disappoint all those misled to believe that the subspecies homo domesticus is “the brains” of this outfit.  That function is reserved, rather, for the Elephants and Whales and Dolphins, among others, who are so much better equipped for it.  Your average “civilized” “individual” can’t even “think” their way out of this wet paper bag they call “the global economy.”

This Old Savage hopes that helps.


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By Gordy, December 21, 2009 at 3:01 pm Link to this comment

TAO Walker, what is the Tiyoshpaye Way?

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By TAO Walker, December 21, 2009 at 11:49 am Link to this comment

Ishi went “public” to satisfy for awhile the “civilized” people’s obsession with the Natural Living Arrangement they were (and are) trying systematically to destroy and replace with the false comfort and crippling CONvenience of artifice.  In doing so he provided for the rest of us surviving free wild Human Beings some time and space to essentially vanish into the safety of invisibility.  So that today we are free to go anywhere on Turtle Island to fulfill our organic function within the Living Arrangement of our Mother Earth. 

Meantime, homo domesticus here has CONtinued its run-amok rampage to self-destruction and oblivion.  As someone suggested below, the disease will run its course here, and we will have acquired the natural immunity necessary to resisting even better next time it rears its ugly head.

Still, if any of our half-lived tame Sisters and Brothers would rather recover the essence of their Humanity, and stick around to tell the Story of these Days to their GrandChildren, The Tiyoshpaye Way remains open.


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By NYCartist, December 21, 2009 at 8:53 am Link to this comment

Chuck Wilkerson, Thanks.  is a site to visit.

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By NYCartist, December 21, 2009 at 8:49 am Link to this comment

Jim Yell, Jews opt out of autopsy for religeous reasons and are usually allowed to.

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By Gordy, December 21, 2009 at 7:16 am Link to this comment

A question for the thoughtful commenters on this

If humanity continues to behave like a disease, we
will become our own cure - that much is obvious - we
will destroy our environment and experience a drastic
reduction in numbers.  My question is, if you could
send out a disease that would kill half the world’s
population tomorrow, would you do that in order to
give the environment more time, to delay total
collapse, to give humans more time to change their
ways, or would you refuse to release the disease and
let (human) nature take its course? 

Please ignore technical issues like mutation and
assume that the disease would disappear forever after
killing half of all humans.

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By bmeisen, December 20, 2009 at 2:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Sackman’s “white man’s body” tangent is promising. To understand this country’s culture and how we are both actors and artefacts you have to examine history. The progressive/conservative dynamic contributed substantially but since Bush II and especially now with Obama I, the post-liberal monolith looms ever more enigmatically. The oligarchy is evil, yes, but why don’t the uninsured march on Washington? It’s not just beer and TV. I think we have to go back to Kantorowicz and Foucault, to the notion of the American body-politic as both a body of legal thought and a body, a being, a psyche, at once ferel and civilized.

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By Chuck Wilkerson, December 19, 2009 at 7:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I appreciate the comments of NYCartist and coloradokarl. My understanding of the Indigenous peoples in America is that they live/lived in conjunction with the earth, taking what is/was needed for survival but also giving back in replenishment where possible for what was/is used. There remains a lesson here for all of this Nation from those very people who were almost decimated upon the arrival of the whites…..

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By lisa, December 19, 2009 at 12:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I too live not far from Ishi haunts, and there are acorn-pockets ground in the rock just feet from my well. We hear the ghosts, so to speak.

Y’all wanna know our future? The technical civilisation will deconstruct just about as fast as it rose, and we’ll be, those who make it through, living much as Ishi did, but with vast amounts of scrap iron - great stuff.

We are making a study of the local plants, carbon economy, and various factors defining that future - and it looks like the Yahi, the “digger indians in general” had a pretty good way of doing. ‘Course it’ll be some number of decades ‘till the salmon and the bears and the wolves come back into their natural relationships with men.

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By coloradokarl, December 19, 2009 at 8:48 am Link to this comment

I used to live in California down the road from where Ishi stumbed out of his cave. The natives could survive with only 18 hours of work per week to feed and shelter themselves before the gold rush distroyed their paradise. How many hours does it take us today?.......

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By Jim Yell, December 19, 2009 at 8:13 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We are all subject to autopsy depending up on circumstance of our deaths. It is not disrespectful of itself. It depends upon the motives. The urge to study and understand should not be dismissed in this way.

As to Ishi being a wild man that was a lie. I read about Ishi many, many years ago. He was a very civilized man. He also was ignorant of technical advances, but was probably an authority in subsitent living, although because of his cultural environment he may not have been as skilled as his group had been before their numbers became not more than a small family group. He certainly did not lose his humanity. However, I can’t even imagine the type of people who would have felt a need to kill, and steal from Ishi and his people. The same ones who think invading a country that caused us no harm was a good idea. Sadly nothing has changed.

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By NYCartist, December 18, 2009 at 10:45 am Link to this comment

Because this book title reminded me, I googled both Ishi and the name I remember, Two Trees.
This review (and the book it is reviewing), once again shows how women get short-shrift in history and in particular, wives who do writing along with the spouse, who gets major credit/history.  Mrs. Theodora Kroeber also wrote (fictional) “Ishi, Last of His Tribe”, NY:Bantam, 1973. 

I was reminded of Two Trees, the last Algonquin, and that book, “The Last Algonquin”, by Theodore Kazimiroff, NY:Walker, 1982.  Theodore Kazimiroff was a dentist with a love of natural history and related artifacts.  He founded the Bronx Historical Society and was called the “Official Bronx Historian”, 1953-1980 (when he died). He met the last Algonquin, Two Trees in 1924 and Two Trees told him the stories his father had told him.
I was so moved by Two Trees as he seemed in the book, an old man, that I did an assemblage (a 3D collage) in 1985, of objects mounted on matt board.

@Chuck Wilkerson, There are still many Indians’ bodies in the possession of US museums, I think and the indigenous people are still fighting to get their remains back for burial. I remember the Museum of Natural History (in NYC) was involved and I’m not sure if it’s finished. I find it rather disgusting that human remains are in museums.  I also find it disgusting that human bodies, no longer living, are traveling around in a show about Bodies, when plastic models could be used.  (My bio prof spouse agrees.)

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By Chuck Wilkerson, December 18, 2009 at 7:52 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When I read that Ishi was ‘autopsied’ like a piece of meat and having his brain removed, it sickened me, as a man, whose ancestry includes just under half
Native American. Another tragic example of the indigenous truly not having any value ‘other’ than to dissect and study!
Still doing it, white man!!!!

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