California Museum opening exhibit on 100th anniversary of day Ishi was found
By Stephen Magagnini
Published on August 29, 2011 on Page 1B
Exactly 100 years ago, a starving Indian who spoke no recognizable language was captured near an Oroville slaughterhouse.
Here’s how The Bee described the incident in its Aug. 29, 1911 edition: “Wild Man Caught In Suburbs of Oroville – Evidently Last of Savage Tribe of Deer Creek Indians.”
The Indians – members of the Yahi and Yana tribes – had been massacred in 1865, 1866 and 1871. A few survivors hid out near Mill Creek east of Red Bluff.
Sheriff’s deputies fed the rangy, famished native doughnuts and beans – he preferred doughnuts – and turned him over to San Francisco anthropologists T.T. Waterman and Alfred Kroeber, who called him “Ishi,” meaning man in Ishi’s Yahi dialect.
Today, the California Museum unveils a new exhibit honoring Ishi, California’s most famous and misunderstood Indian.
The sensational headlines – and his reputation as a noble savage – made him one of the most beloved American Indians, celebrated in books, plays and film.
Kroeber, one of the fathers of modern anthropology, proclaimed Ishi “the last wild Indian of North America.” His story has been taught to generations of California schoolchildren. But he wasn’t the last of his tribe, and likely was not a full-blooded Yahi.
The exhibit helps unravel the mystery of Ishi, who learned some English but never revealed his real name.
“He believed names are sacred and come to you in a dream from the Creator,” said Museum spokeswoman Brenna Hamilton.
Ishi believed his name could be stolen just as his spirit – something he never lost during his five years in captivity.
The museum now has Ishi’s plush cape made from bobcat and raccoon fur, which ranchers had stolen from his cave, which he called “Grizzly Bear’s Hiding Place,” northeast of Red Bluff. He got it back in captivity and wore it until his death.
There’s also an arrowhead he made from a Clorox bottle while he was being studied in San Francisco, and actual recordings of Ishi sharing his “Doctor’s Song For Sucking Sickness” and “Thunder Song,” along with newspaper accounts of his visit to a vaudeville show at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre.
Ishi lived at the University of California Museum of Anthropology, where he worked as a janitor and gave demonstrations on how to make fire and craft arrowheads.
He gave an arrowhead to a 6-year-old boy recovering from a broken leg next door at the University of California Medical Center.
“He was a warm, compassionate guy who used to visit patients,” said Christiaan Klieger, the anthropologist who curated the museum’s new permanent exhibition: “California Indians Making a Difference.”
When Ishi surfaced, the population of California Indians had dwindled from more than 700,000 before European contact to approximately 25,000 by the start of the 20th century.
“He really shared a lot when people started to be curious about native peoples,” Klieger said.
“Ishi’s probably the best-known Indian ever – he was a great ambassador bridging both worlds,” Hamilton said. “He’s still a cult hero.”
He gained 40 pounds living in San Francisco eating doughnuts and drinking ice cream sodas, Klieger said.
“At around age 50, he died in 1916 of tuberculosis, a very western disease that was a result of him living in San Francisco,” he added.
In 1984, more than 41,000 rugged Tehama County acres about 20 miles east of Red Bluff and in the shadow of Lassen Peak – where Ishi lived most of his life – became the Ishi Wilderness.
The idea of an autopsy terrified Ishi, and he asked that his body be burned to liberate his soul. Against his wishes, his body was autopsied and his brain sent to the Smithsonian. It floated in formaldehyde for 83 years before California Indians retrieved it and buried his remains in the Ishi Wilderness.
That was the last of a series of indignities Ishi and his people suffered. When his cave was raided in 1908, settlers came across Ishi’s dying mother, along with his uncle and sister, Klieger said.
“They left his mother near the cave. His sister could have been adopted by a rancher.”
When Ishi was captured his hair was singed, a sign of mourning, Klieger said.
“I’m thinking he was now finally alone after caring for some family members.”
Before the Spanish established the missions, there were about 3,000 Yahi, who were decimated by disease and Indian wars. The exhibit includes a $103 “war bond” California sold in 1860 to finance the “Indian war.”
The Yahi tribe was an offshoot of the Yana. Its men typically stood under 5-foot-3, anthropologist Jerald Johnson told The Bee in 1996. Ishi was 5-foot-9 and had one of the broadest heads measured in Northern California. There’s a strong possibility he was at least half Maidu or Wintu, the Yahi’s traditional enemies.
Anthropologists were able to communicate with Ishi through another California Indian who spoke Yana.
Klieger said Ishi “was never wild and he was not the last Yahi, but he represented the perceived extinction of native people. He was the right person at the right time.”
IF YOU GO
The California Museum, 1020 O St., is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon-Fri, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.