Ishi: The Last of the Yahi Nation

In August 1911, the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe of Native Americans was found cowering by a fence in a cattle ranch at Oroville CA. He had been hiding from the white man for the past four decades. His real name was never known, but he became known as “Ishi”.


In 1848, much of California was wilderness, except for a few port towns on the coast. The area had been surrended to the United States by the Treaty of Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican War, but it remained populated mostly by dozens of small Native American tribes. One of these was the Yana, with about 1500 people divided into four different bands. One band, the Yahi, lived in the area around Mt Lassen.

In 1849, however, gold was discovered in California, and a flood of settlers arrived from all over the continent. The Gold Rush of “Forty-Niners” was a disaster for the natives. One by one, the California tribes were conquered and destroyed.

At the time of the white invasion, the Yahi band had about 400 members. Their remote homeland was at first safe. But in the period just before the Civil War, white ranchers began encroaching into Yahi territory. After the war, the conquest of the Yahi began in earnest. A series of raids by white settlers reduced their numbers: in 1866 alone some 75 Yahi were killed in the massacres at Three Knolls and Dry Camp. By 1870, the entire band had been reduced to fewer than 25 individuals, and in a desperate bid to survive, the remaining Yahi separated into a number of small groups and dispersed into the countryside to hide in the area around Mill Creek. One of these was Ishi, then about ten years old, his mother, his sister, and one of the surviving adult males. For the next forty years, they lived by furtively hunting and gathering in the small patches of remaining wilderness around the white ranches.

On November 10, 1908, a land surveying party accidentally came across the Yahi group. They saw three Natives fleeing into the hills, but one, an elderly woman, was too frail to move and had been left behind. The surveyors took some articles from the camp, briefly discussed whether to carry the old woman back with them, but in the end decided to leave her. When they got back to town, they told the story of the fugitive natives they had encountered. Several groups of local citizens went to look for them, but the camp had been moved. Ishi’s sister and her companion left on their own–Ishi never saw them again. His mother died shortly after. For the next three years, Ishi lived alone in the hills.

Finally, at around age 50, Ishi decided that he could not go on alone any longer. He walked to the nearby town of Oroville, slumped by the side of a slaughterhouse on one of the ranches, and waited to be captured. It was August 29, 1911. He had been in hiding, in the midst of the white civilization, for 41 years.

At first, the local Californians did not know what to do with the “wild man”. The local Sheriff housed him in the jail. Several different Native Americans were introduced to him in the hopes of communicating, but none of them knew the language that he was speaking or what tribe he belonged to.

The next day, word of the incident reached TT Waterman, professor of Anthropology at the University of California. Waterman had already heard the stories of the “wild Indians” that had been encountered by the surveying party back in 1908, and assuming that the new “wild man” had been one of them, he took the train to Oroville, took responsibility for the Indian, and brought him back to San Francisco. There, he and fellow anthropology professor Alfred Kroebler figured out that the stranger was a Yahi, a band which had long been assumed extinct. With a combination of an old collection of Yahi words and teaching English to the Native, the two professors began piecing together the amazing story.

They never knew the man’s real name. By Yahi tradition, a person can never tell another his own name; if you wanted to learn someone’s name, you had to ask another member of the tribe–and here there were no other members of the tribe. Alone with no other tribal members, he explained, he had no name. So Waterman and Kroebler called him “Ishi”, the Yahi word for “man”. It is the name he is still known by today.

For the two professors, Ishi was a gold mine of information. Virtually nothing was known about the Yahi band–it had been completely wiped out before anything could be learned about it, and only a few brief accounts by missionaries and settlers survived. For the next four years, Ishi (who as a young boy had survived the Three Knolls Massacre) told the anthropologists everything he knew about Yahi history and culture, teaching them the language and ritual customs, and demonstrating how they made shelters, baskets, pottery, and stone tools. During trips to the Lassen foothills, Ishi pointed out areas where the traditional Yahi villages had been located, where the hunting grounds were found, and then places where his little fugitive band had camped. A medical doctor at the university, Saxton Pope, had a special interest in archery, and Ishi became his close companion, teaching him how to make sinew-backed bows, arrows from reeds, and chipped stone arrowheads from volcanic obsidian. Today, virtually everything we know about the Yahi people, comes from Ishi.

But sadly, while Ishi survived four decades of guerrilla existence, he did not survive his exposure to life in San Francisco. He contracted tuberculosis, and died on March 25, 1916. There were no other Yahi to sing his death song or mourn for him.

Kroebler, Waterman and Pope, who had all become Ishi’s friends, were adamant that his body not be dissected and used as an anthropological exhibit. But despite their wishes, Ishi’s brain was removed at the autopsy and preserved, sent to the Smithsonian Institution in a ceramic jar. Almost 100 yearslater, when a search of old records revealed the existence of the remains, the jar was found in the archives and was repatriated to the Redding Rancheria and Pit River tribe of California Native Americans, descendents of the Yana and Ishi’s closest living relatives.

Since Ishii’s death, archaeological evidence has indicated that his surviving band of Yahi may have had members of other tribes with them. Yahi had been taught to make arrowheads by the un-named adult male member of his band (Yahi tradition prevented Ishi from revealing the names of the dead), and these were long narrow points with side notches. Excavations at known Yahi sites, however, produced a different style: short arrowheads with basal notches. Ishi’s arrowheads did, however, match those made by the neighboring Nomlaki and Wintu tribes, indicating that the adult male who taught Ishi was actually a member of one of those tribes. Although traditional enemies, the shrinking native population, caused by encroachment and massacres, apparently forced all of these local tribes together in a desperate bid to survive.

Today, the land around Mt Lassen where the last of the Yahi hid out from the white man has been designated as the Ishi National Wilderness Area.

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