The Story Of Ishi, The Last Yahi

The Story Of Ishi, The Last YahiIshi in San Francisco. Photos: UC Berkeley
Shoshi Parks
Published on April 17, 2016

At the turn of the 20th century, the American public was captivated by romantic and pseudo-scientific ideas about native peoples of the Americas. As a result, more than 25,000 “uncivilized savages,” as they were often billed, were conscripted into the entertainment industry in the United States and Europe between 1880 and 1930. 

Traveling shows, circuses and even World’s Fairs featured “human zoos” in which native peoples were dressed up in their traditional finery (or in what organizers thought would fit audience expectations of what an “Indian” looked like) and put on display, propped up in sets replicating native villages or required to perform or act as “scientific” subjects of live studies of racial differences. 

Like in other American city, San Franciscans flocked to occasional performances featuring Indians. And for a time, it would be the home to one at a museum on Parnassus Heights. 

Ishi Appears

Ishi and his family appeared near a slaughterhouse outside of Oroville, California on August 28, 1911, some four decades after gold miners had all but ended his tribe in a series of massacres.

No one was more excited than esteemed anthropologist Alfred Kroeber at the early UC Berkeley system. He had, in fact, been searching for Ishi and his people, the Yahi, the southernmost tribe of the Yana Indians, since 1909.

The tribe's story is not unfamiliar in the history of western expansion in the United States. 

As white populations grew, their encroachment on native territories often resulted in deaths by disease, massacres and removal of the remaining population to reservations. Located in the Sierras near the early mines, the Yahi were thought to number some 400 people when gold was first discovered, but were reduced to under 100 due to a series of massacres at the hands of miners and settlers in the 1860s and ‘70s, plus loss of traditional food sources and disease.

The extermination of the Yahi was so complete that by 1872, anthropologists and Indian Affairs officials believed there to be only around a dozen surviving Yahi. By the time land surveyors stumbled across them in 1908, only Ishi's family — his mother, a sister and an uncle — remained. By 1911, Ishi was the sole survivor.

From the moment of Ishi’s arrival in San Francisco that September 6th, he was a sensation. Stepping off the train in his new hometown, this man who had intentionally avoided white people for his whole life was suddenly surrounded by photographers and well-wishers. Kroeber declared to the press that Ishi was "without a doubt the most uncontaminated aborigine in the known world today.”

Because Ishi refused to give his name for fear that it might be stolen from him, the anthropologists called him “Ishi,” meaning “man” in the Yahi language.

Ishi was immediately ushered to the Museum of Anthropology on Parnassus Heights (part of the Affiliated Colleges, the early University of California system, the museum was moved to the Berkeley campus in 1931).

In their initial analysis of Ishi, Kroeber and anthropologist T.T. Waterman determined him to have some intelligence but they and other officials remained unconvinced of his ability to survive in the city without their protection. "He could no more, in my opinion, subsist on his own resources than a child of six years old," declared Charles E. Kelsey, special agent for the California Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

A “Wild Man” In Our Midst

The relationship between Kroeber, Waterman and Ishi was a complicated one. The Museum of Anthropology housed Ishi in the rooms they kept for visiting Indians. They requested no rent from the Yahi but in exchange for his free home and free medical care at the University hospital next door, put him to work caring for the Egyptian room of the museum and assisting the janitor in other parts of the building.

Protected in this academic womb, Ishi was subject to the control of the anthropologists that sought to study him. And study him, they did, analyzing everything from the size of his head (one of the broadest measured in natives in Northern California) to his tool-making abilities to recording his traditional songs on wax cylinders, and bow-hunting techniques. Today you can listen to Ishi via a remastering by Bernie Krause, available on Wild Sanctuary.

And yet, the documentation produced about him tells us little about his perspective and experiences.

This paternalism was characteristic of the wider attitude of white men towards native peoples in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Having received no complaints about the “wild man’s” treatment, government officials responsible for the welfare of indigenous peoples expressed no interest in Ishi’s situation after December 1911, leaving the anthropologists full control over the man.

Those officials may have been the only ones not interested in Ishi — the Museum turned down multiple bids by private amusement companies that sought to purchase him to appear in their shows. Four theaters, including the Empress and Portola on Market Street, made lucrative offers for Ishi to star on the vaudeville stage. Ishi made only one formal stage appearance outside the museum at the Orpheum Theater in 1911.

But it wasn’t that Museum officials didn’t want Ishi to perform, it was that they didn’t want him to perform to the benefit of any other commercial outfit. Instead of existing in a “human zoo” among other native captives, Ishi was stuck in a private zoo whose objectives in exhibiting the Indian were to the benefit of “science” versus entertainment.

Every Sunday the Museum held a reception day for the last Yahi. In his first receptions, Ishi was required to shake the hands of museum goers which could number in the thousands but, as the weeks progressed, so did Ishi’s performances. A typical Sunday might include demonstrations of stone tool making, the use of a bow and arrow or weaving fishnets along with a slide show and the display of tribal artifacts. On one special occasion on January 22, 1912 Ishi was pitted against a visiting Yuki Indian, Ralph Moore, in a gambling competition.

That Ishi’s presence at the Museum of Anthropology was a huge boon for ticket sales was probably no surprise to any of the university staff that regulated his life. "Ishi has not been a bad advertisement for the museum," stated special agent Kelsey matter-of-factly. "He has run up the attendance [from] 30 per week to more than three thousand some weeks." 

Despite his exploitation by the museum, Ishi was not a captive — he regularly explored San Francisco's parks and open spaces and apparently frequently visited a cave on Mt. Sutro above the museum. He enjoyed visiting the bison enclosure in Golden Gate Park, learned the streetcar and ferry system and put on 40 pounds over the years, as he developed a taste for doughnuts and ice cream sodas.

A Man Is More Than His Body

With time the public lost interest in Ishi the last Yahi and he spent the last years before his death from tuberculosis in 1916 under care of the museum. After deducting his medical expenses, Ishi had only $171 to his estate which he made by selling picture postcards of himself to museum goers, despite five years of work as a research subject and janitor.

Ishi was terrified of the concept of a human autopsy and the way it tore away body from spirit after death. Before he died in 1916, Ishi requested that his body be burned to liberate his soul. 

His cremation was granted in a clearly-stated letter from Kroeber — but because Kroeber was away at the time of Ishi’s death, a medical team was permitted to conduct an autopsy and to remove and preserve Ishi’s brain. Having no use for the preserved brain he encountered upon returning to the museum in October, Kroeber offered it to the National Museum (now the Smithsonian) in Washington D.C.

It was there, in a Smithsonian storage facility in Maryland, that Ishi's brain was discovered floating in a jar of formaldehyde in 1998, sparking two years of work by Native American activists and allies to have his brain repatriated to the closest related tribe remaining in the area, the Redding Rancheria and Pit River Indians. In August 2000, after a vigorous public effort, Ishi finally made it home, back to the forests of Northern California.