Born: c. 1860
Birthplace: Deer Creek Canyon, CA
Location of death: San Francisco, CA
Cause of death: Pneumonia
Remains: Cremated, Deer Creek Canyon, CA
Race or Ethnicity: American Aborigine
Occupation: Oddity, Victim
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Last of an extinct tribe
Ishi was the last of the Yahi people, a sub-tribe of the Yana which once populated a pocket of central California about 100 miles north of present-day Sacramento. Living in the heart of the California gold rush, the Yahi clashed with white civilization, contracted diseases brought by white pioneers, and lost numerous brutal battles with the US Army and armed settlers. As his people neared extinction Ishi's band scattered, and he spent years living nomadically in the foothills of Mt. Lassen in the California Cascades with his mother, sister, and two other tribesmen. After the last of his companions died in 1908, he lived alone in the woods for three more years before emerging, near starvation, and walking into a slaughterhouse in Oroville, California on 29 August 1911.
By this time America's white majority considered the "wild west" days to be long over, and this primitive man who spoke no English was considered an oddity and a problem. For lack of any better place for him, he was jailed by the local sheriff. A linguistics professor became intrigued by reports of this "wild man of Oroville", and came to meet him. After making some headway in translating his Yahi language, he was brought to the University of California at San Francisco. There he came under the care of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who telegraphed his colleague Edward Sapir on 6 September 1911: "Have totally wild Indian at the museum. Do you want to come and work him up?"
Among his people it was considered bad manners to mention one's own name, but he was called "Ishi" because that was the word for "man" in his language. Whether he was treated as a man is still a matter of some dispute. He became a living exhibit at the university's Museum of Anthropology on Parnassus Heights in San Francisco, where throngs of people watched him make bow-and-arrow sets, arrowheads, and traditional Yahi dwellings. He also worked as a janitor at the museum, ostensibly to pay for his lodging. From Kroeber's writings, it is clear that the professor and his family eventually came to see Ishi as human, perhaps even as a friend. Kroeber arranged a 1914 visit to Ishi's ancestral homeland, where Ishi fished and hunted while academics took photos and notes. Ishi taught bow-and-arrow skills to local physician Sexton Pope, who in turn helped popularize archery among non-natives in America. Lacking genetic defenses against white peoples' diseases, his health at the university was fragile, and Ishi died of tuberculosis at UCSF in 1915.
One of his last requests was that his body not be autopsied, as scientific probing of his corpse would be sacrilege to his people's beliefs. Kroeber, however, was out of town when Ishi died, and before it could be stopped Ishi's corpse was autopsied, then cremated, after his brain was extracted and shipped to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. For decades and as recently as 1997 the Smithsonian denied having Ishi's brain, but after requests from native groups that wanted to give his remains a traditional burial, a Smithsonian spokesman acknowledged in 1998 that Ishi's brain was indeed in storage there. In 2000 his brain was turned over to two Native American tribes deemed to have a historical relationship to the extinct Yahi, and buried with his ashes in Deer Creek Canyon, near his presumed birthplace.
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