Ishi: The Last California ‘Wild Indian’ We Never Really Knew

Ishi making a wood harpoon in Deer Creek in 1914

Most California school kids have heard the story of Ishi, the last “wild Indian” to emerge from the wilderness in 1911, the stone age man who surrendered to what must have seemed like an incomprehensible white man’s world. Probably the last living Yahi Indian, Ishi had lived alone for the three years prior to being discovered, battling starvation and hiding out from the ever-growing hoards of white settlers flooding into his ancestral lands.

But what do we really know of Ishi? Probably not enough. Even though he was the subject of intense study and scrutiny for the 4 ½ years he lived at the University of California Museum of Anthropology, social, cultural and language barriers solidified into an impenetrable wall even one of his handmade obsidian arrow points would have failed to penetrate. In the hundred plus years since his death, Ishi has been the subject of books, plays and movies capturing the imagination of millions, yet we will never entirely know what was going on inside of him. We don’t even know his real name.

“Ishi” is simply the word for “man” in the Yana language given to him by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. Ishi’s tradition dictated that he not speak his own name until introduced by another Yahi. But there were no other Yahis to make that introduction. When people asked his name, he answered, “I have none, because there were no people to name me.”

Ishi was born around 1861 in the Lassen foothills east of Red Bluff, Chico and Oroville. As a child he lived through the Three Knolls Massacre of 1865 when at least 40 of his tribesmen were murdered. His remaining family tried to scratch out a living while gold miners ruined the salmon runs and the once-abundant deer fled the area. Smallpox, measles and starvation took their toll. The Native California genocide was also in full swing where a bounty of five cents per scalp and five dollars per head was paid to make room for land-hungry immigrants.

In 1908 a group of surveyors discovered and ransacked Ishi’s small camp. At that time there were only four Yahi left, Ishi, his aging mother (who was sick), his uncle and younger sister. All but his mother escaped, and she died a few months later.

Cornered by a pack of dogs, a malnourished Ishi first appeared at a slaughterhouse east of Oroville. Sheriff J.B. Webber handcuffed a smiling Yahi and brought him back to the jail for his protection. Not knowing what to do with him, the sheriff reached out to the University of California Berkeley anthropology department, and museum director Alfred Kroeber proposed housing Ishi in his museum as a sort of “living exhibit.”

Over the next 4 ½ years, Ishi became a sensation. He could come and go as he wished, and learned enough English to communicate with enchanted museum-goers. Ishi spent much time hand-chipping obsidian projectile points, making fires by hand and recording stories and songs in the Yahi language. Because he enjoyed the work, the museum paid him to become a live-in custodian and research assistant. He was even known to take his bows and arrows to Mount Parnassus and go hunting.

San Francisco was battling a tuberculosis epidemic in those days, and like so many, Ishi eventually succumbed to it. During his years in the museum, Ishi was often sick, having no natural immunity to countless diseases. 

At face value, the story of Ishi coming out of the stone age into downtown San Francisco makes a pretty good story. It evokes images of headlines that go something like San Fran Going Gaga for Stone Age RockStar! I mean, it sounds great and all, but come on. Somehow I can’t get past the fact that Ishi ends up a trained “performer” for the very people who exterminated his family.

Maybe it wasn’t really like that, but we will never know for sure. If you go to the website for Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, the same museum that was Ishi’s home, there are some clues that shed a different light on the story.

They admit Ishi’s relationship to the museum and Alfred Kroeber “resembled indentured servitude.” They say that Ishi was “objectified” as a living exhibit, and that Kroeber used his unequal friendship with Ishi to advance his career and to promote the museum. 

As serious as these admissions are, I find them rather satisfying. Maybe in the hundred years since Ishi’s death, we have come to view such situations with more humanity, more humility. We will never know for sure how Ishi felt about the arrangement with the museum and the Kroebers, or if he realized he was being killed by tuberculosis, a white mans’ disease. Was he happy? Was he lonely? How did he feel about being the last of his people? I would like to have known the real Ishi.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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