Monday, October 19, 2009

Ishi of the Yahi Yana Nation

The man called Ishi died 25 March 1916 in his rooms at the Anthropology Museum, California University. He was around 50. Tuberculosis killed him. For almost 100 years Ishi has mostly been referred to as "The last of the Yahi", the term used in 1979 as title of Heizer and Kroeber's book of assembled documents on his life and death.

Ishi was a native American whose reclusive people, the Yahi, had lived in remote wooded hills and gullies of northern California, east of the Sacramento River in the foothills of the Cascade Range. 10,000ft volcanic Mount Lassen was the eastern boundary of Yahi lands. To the immediate north were their Yana relatives; west were the Wintun; south-east the Maidu; still further south - Shoshone. The Yahi had remained hunters and gatherers.

We will never know Ishi's personal names. The word ishi in the Yahi dialect simply meant a full-grown man. Anthropologists Professor Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Waterman, knowing this much of native name taboo, never pressed him to reveal name-magic, and in over four years, living and working at the Museum demonstrating his people's traditional crafts, the Yahi man never volunteered it. So, just "Ishi" he became. Why was he so special?

On 29 August 1911, ill and emaciated, Ishi had been found in a state of collapse near the small mining town of Oroville, forty miles south of his tribal land and by grim irony at the corral of a slaughterhouse. The rest of his small band had fallen to starvation and influenza after years hiding in the hills. Much later, when he and the university researchers who befriended him were able to communicate somewhat freely, Ishi said he had expected to be killed. Theodora Kroeber in her book Ishi in Two Worlds, quotes her late husband's writings: "He knew the white man only as murderers of his people."

Studies in the 1990s, in part linked to legislation requiring the repatriation of native American remains from museum collections to the descendants, turned up a couple of new things about Ishi. His arrowhead-making skill (from obsidian flakes) has been shown to match not the type found in the archaeology of Yahi lands but rather that of different groups, which would indicate he had learned from incomers to the Yahi. Was Ishi himself of mixed heritage? The jury is still out on that. Could DNA evidence help?

As for repatriation of his cremated ashes, at first the Smithsonian (in 1999) "did not know he had living relatives" - but relationship was claimed by clans among the Yana. Ishi's remains were returned 10 August 2000 to be re-buried at an undisclosed location.

The loss of Ishi's tribe through deliberate killings and finally by disease could qualify as genocide. Documented massacres occurred, for example in 1865. The Civil War (1861-'65) meant that the Government saw other needs as more pressing than to protect small native American tribes from rifle-toting vigilantes styling themselves "Indian hunters", in effect guns for hire. The tragedy of the Yahi Yana played out with Ishi's death in 1916.

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