Perhaps California’s best known and most misunderstood Native, Ishi was labeled “the last wild Indian in North America” when he stumbled into an Oroville rancher’s barn unable to speak English or a known Native language on August 28, 1911.
Cited for vagrancy, Ishi was held in the Butte County jail until San Francisco anthropologists T.T. Waterman and Alfred Kroeber determined him to be from a previously unknown Yana tribe in the Deer Creek region. An overnight media sensation, newspapers across the country were quick to emphasize Ishi’s primitiveness and hastily conclude his lack of tribe members was the singular result of his Native people’s extinction. Under authorization from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington DC, Waterman and Kroeber brought Ishi to the University of California’s Associated Colleges Museum in San Francisco, where he worked as a living diorama until his death in 1916, teaching the world much about his Native customs and culture in his 5 years at the museum.
Over the years he was with Krober, Ishi’s continued sensationalized media coverage on the progression of his assimilation into American culture made him an icon and a symbol of the purported disappearance of Native Americans. As modern anthropologists have determined 100 years later, however, many Indians went into hiding and later married into other tribes, where they not only survived but continue to thrive in modern day California.
For the 100th anniversary of Ishi’s discovery, an enhanced display in “California Indians: Making A DIfference” chronicling the known life and legacy of “the last wild Indian in North America” investigates the facts and fallacies surrounding Ishi and his Yahi tribe’s extinct status. Additionally, collection of historical newspaper articles examines his significance as the icon and symbol of Native Americans disappearance as well as his effect on both history and popular culture.