One-hundred and seven years ago today, a member of the Yahi band of the Yana people of Northern California walked out of the wilderness and into his place in history. The man, who was estimated to be about fifty years old, was foraging for food in a slaughterhouse in the small town of Oroville. We call him Ishi, and he is unique not just for being the last of the Yahi people but for being the last native person left in the country to have lived a life without Euro-American contact – until this day in history.
Still, it would be wrong to say that Ishi was untouched by white settlement. The California of Ishi’s youth was a relatively new part of the country, rushed into statehood after the population exploded with the discovery of gold by John Marshall on his farm in Coloma. Only a week before that discovery, modern California had been under Mexican control. The discovery of gold altered California’s trajectory forever; virtually no aspect of life was untouched. Land was plentiful and gold was a financial equalizer for many poor Americans, but increased immigration and domestic migration taxed the land and made food supplies scarce. For the rapidly industrializing west, the remaining native population stood in the way of personal prosperity and Europeanized progress.
When Ishi was just a few years old, he was one of only a few dozen survivors of a settler led massacre along the Mill Creek, which forced his family to flee into the forests and spend their lives in hiding to avoid cattlemen and prospectors who were paid by the scalp to eradicate the native population. He lived this way for most of the remainder of his life in the Western Sierra Nevadas, sometimes narrowly avoiding contact with settlers and curiosity seekers.
It’s also technically wrong to say his name was Ishi. Yahi custom dictates that a man may not utter his own name unless introduced by another member of his tribe. Having no one to beseech him that honor, he was instead reduced to adopting the moniker of Ishi, meaning “man.” He died the only person to know the name he was given at birth, which only seems appropriate.
Ishi’s interactions with the Euro-American settlers are well documented; two anthropologists from the University of California brought him to live on campus, studying him and cataloguing his transition from the “last wild Indian” to a man living in the modern world – or at least the modern world of the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology. He was frequently ill – having no resistance to the scourge of disease brought west by settlers, yet was put on display as a living artifact, demonstrating things like hunting techniques and toolmaking.
This kind of exploitation of the exotic and different for the viewing pleasure of others wasn’t unique to the United States – France had its own infamous version of this exercise in abuse, the Jardin d’Argonomie Tropicale, and even the World’s Fair boasted a menagerie of human “curiosities” during the Victorian Era. But, regardless of the locale or the particular details, all share a common thread – the people on display tend to be part of a minority group of race, religion, or ability level and the patrons tend to be anything but. Ishi seemed to have little choice in the matter – with no community to call his own, and no means to support himself, he was forced to accept the charity of his benefactors and the gawking of the audience they brought forth to his feet.
Even in death, Ishi couldn’t escape the post-modern slavery that bound him – so close to his ancestral lands, and yet so far away. His body was autopsied and cremated, against his wishes and the custom of the Yana. His brain was held by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, along with thousands of other physical and cultural artifacts of our nation’s first people until national law established a protocol to return remains to native tribes for proper and ceremonial burial. He was finally returned to the ancestral lands of the larger Yana tribe, but hundreds (if not more) native remains are still scattered in museums around the country with estimates that full repatriation may take decades more to come.
Touted in newspaper headlines as the “least civilized man,” perhaps the true lesson here is what it really means to be so. Did Ishi leave the savage world behind when he walked out of the wilderness, or was he actually walking into one?
Ishi became, in death, so much of what he was in life: a man without a home, his true name, or many choices. His unique tale also guarantees him a special place in our nation’s troubled history of interactions with its indigenous people, and perhaps a reminder of a time we never want to return to.