A Lost Indian Tribe
But the Spirit Lives On
In Lassen National Forest in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California, a remote wilderness area has been proclaimed by Congress, in honor of America’s last Indian living in the wild.
This is a sad tale of loneliness and isolation, almost incomprehensible in this great land, and in this century. The lost tribe of Yahi Indians inhabited the remote cliff country, which was protected from view by dense brush and tall timber and isolated to hide from human intrusion. There were about 400 members of this tribe in 1850.
Within 15 years, the tribe was virtually annihilated in a series of massacres described by anthropologists as the “fiercest, most inhumane and most uncompromising resistance met by Indians on the West Coast.”
The tiny band of 16 remaining Yahi members began a long seclusion and concealment in 1866. “They made up the smallest free nation in the world, a nation that succeeded in holding out against the tide of civilization,” said Anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber.
The lost tribe dwindled further, until only one man remained. “Ishi”, as he has come to be known, lived alone for three years without a single encounter with another human being. He emerged on August 29, 1911, emaciated and starving, a bewildered and frightened man of about 50, convinced that he would be shot and killed by the white man, as had happened to so many of his people.
A stone age survivor confronting the 20th Century, he spoke a language no one could understand. When Ishi stumbled out of the wilds, he was taken to the University of California’s Anthropology Museum in San Francisco, where he spent the next four years and seven months, until he succumbed to tuberculosis on March 25, 1916.
No one ever actually knew his name, as it was a Yahi tradition never to say one’s own name. So Kroeber, the anthropologist, called him Ishi, Yahi for man. While living at the museum Ishi mastered a vocabulary of about 600 English words, and Krober compiled a dictionary of the Yahi language.
The museum attracted a throng of people every weekend who came to watch Ishi chip arrowheads, shape bows and answer questions with Kroeber’s help.
During the brief remaining years of his lifetime, Ishi developed a close friendship with physician Saxton Pope, his doctor, who became fascinated with the Indian’s skill with the bow and arrow. That friendship triggered a renaissance in archery in America and throughout the world.
Ishi shared his secrets of Yahi country, virtual Stone Age world; and he in turn was interested in everything about modern man. He adapted rapidly, proving that Stone Age man and modern man are essentially alike.
In the summer of 1914, Pope, Kroeber and anthropologist Thomas T. Waterman toured the remote wilderness area of Yahi country. They were facinated with Ishi’s demonstrations of how he stalked and hunted deer with his bow and arrow. He showed them how he speared salmon, and they observed how he gathered and ate acorns, brodiaea bulbs and green clover.
When Ishi died his body was cremated, as was the Yahi custom, with one of his bows, five arrows, acorn meal, beads, tobacco and obsidian flakes.
Each summer, the University of California’s Lowie Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley has a small exhibit of its Ishi material and photographs of America’s last wild Indian.
“Ishi’s spirit is still here,” said Frank Norick, assistant director of the museum and curator of the Ishi collection. The last wild Indian in North America abandoned the safety of his concealment and inadvertently walked into the modern world with enough time to leave a legacy of his people to be recorded for posterity.
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