Belli: There once was a man not named Ishi
Writers on the Range
One hundred years ago, an iconic Native American died. We do not remember him as a tribal leader, holy man or an activist. His biggest accomplishment was simply enduring.
We know him by the name “Ishi,” because if he had a name for himself, we never learned it. When he wandered down from his homeland in the California foothills of Mount Lassen and was found huddled in a corral near the town of Oroville, he entered history. His people, the Yahi, had supposedly vanished decades earlier, and because they were the last Natives living freely in the West, Ishi became famous as “the last wild Indian.”
Anthropologists at the University of California arranged to have him placed under their supervision and he spent the remainder of his life in San Francisco. They called him Ishi, a Yahi word for “man,” because in Yahi culture personal names were private, not to be uttered casually.
Ishi adjusted surprisingly well to urban society. He was employed as a custodian, rode trolleys, saw airplanes, witnessed surgeries and relished ice cream. But there were darker elements to his story. His “home” was actually a museum, and he was, for a time, put on display. New to modern life, he soon contracted tuberculosis and died fewer than five years after he arrived. His body was then subjected to an autopsy, during which his brain was removed and sent to the Smithsonian, where it languished for decades before being returned to the Pit River Tribe to be accorded a traditional burial.
Ishi seems to have always represented something larger than himself. Now, on the centennial of his passing, it’s time to see him as an individual human being. “Ishi,” after all, means “man.” That means trying to imagine what his life was like before Oroville.
Ishi was born around 1860, when the Yahi people and the invading Gold Rush settlers were entrenched in bitter, bloody hostilities that raged for years. By the early 1870s, the Yahi numbered only 15, and all of them went into hiding, adopting such a secretive existence that they were presumed to have died out. Several decades later, only four remained: Ishi, his mother, sister and uncle. Those four persisted in anonymity until November 1908, when everything fell apart.
Surveyors stumbled upon their hidden village while Ishi was away; his uncle and sister fled and were never seen again. His mother, ill and immobile, was left unharmed but died soon after. Afterward, Ishi entered an era of solitude, the likes of which you and I will never know, let alone comprehend.
For a thousand days, Ishi was utterly alone. It’s not the length of time that’s so difficult to grasp, it’s the poignancy and magnitude of his isolation. He’d lived his entire life in a tiny world that had shrunk until he was the only one left in it. He wasn’t just the last of his family, he was the last of his culture, of his nation. What toll did that extract from him? What happens to hope when the future offers nothing but more isolation?
How that affected Ishi we’ll never know, for he was reluctant to talk about his life in the wild. I don’t know whether anyone ever asked him why he undertook his fateful journey in the summer of 1911. Some say he lost the will to live; others think that he was starving. If he was hungry, I believe it was for something other than food.
People have long wondered what effect “civilization” had on Ishi. Another question is to wonder what effect Ishi had on society. His greatest impact has been as a symbol — of the end of the Wild West, or of Anglo-Native American relations, a 500-year-old culture clash encapsulated in one man’s experience.
Today, there might be another interpretation of his life: Ishi as inspiration. It’s not just that he endured, but how he did. Ishi lived out his days in an unfamiliar world but he was no lackey. He may have been given a suit and tie to wear but he never did reveal his name. And he never lost his humanity. He didn’t withdraw upon entering a strange new world. He forged friendships and made the most of his new life, touching those who knew him with his gentleness and forbearance.
Ishi was much more than “the last wild Indian.” He was a man who had looked into an abyss of genocide and loneliness and somehow emerged with his mind and senses intact and alert; he was able to adapt, as much as possible, to the world that had ended his. He handled “civilization” far better than it handled him.
Joseph Belli is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a wildlife biologist and lives along Pacheco Pass, California.