I Am Sorry, Ishi. We Met Again.

by. Michael E. Carter

On an August day in 1911, a man emerged from California’s Butte County wilderness into the world of settlers. To the Americans, the starving Indian would be forever known as Ishi. Ishi was by all accounts the last of the Yahi people as well as the last remnant of, their parent language/cultural group, the Yana. His name meant “man” in the Yana language, an alias provided by anthropologist Theodora Kroeber, because Ishi’s culture required one Yahi to introduce another to strangers. Therefore, the silence of the grave had rendered their final son anonymous even while he still lived. Ishi was considered an anthropological marvel and a living personification of the early 20th century’s perception as the American Indian as a vanishing and subjugated people mandated by eugenic inferiority to cease to exist.

In the 1840s, prior to the California Gold Rush and the genocidal violence it fueled, there were approximately four hundred Yahi people while the wider Yana were estimated at one-thousand five hundred. This was two decades before Ishi’s birth. The following period was drenched with blood. In 1865, a series of massacres murdered seventy-four of the Yahi. The next year, the Three Knolls and Dry Camp Massacres murdered forty and thirty-three respectively. In 1871, the Morgan Valley Massacre murdered an additional thirty. Its lead perpetrator, Norman Kingsley, is recorded as describing the atrocity that he and three others committed down to the detail of exchanging his .56 caliber Spencer rifle for his .38 caliber revolver due to how the former “tore” the bodies of their targets apart “so bad”. The damage made it more difficult to claim the dead for scalp and head bounties. These massacres led to a period where the survivors went into hiding including a remnant of between five and twenty Yahi in northern California’s Mill Creek region. This strategy worked for the most part. On November 10, 1908, surveyors stumbled upon a party of four which included Ishi, his mother, his sister, and an elderly man sometimes attributed to be his uncle. The party separated ultimately leaving Ishi alone as the surveyor seized their survival tools as loot.

This led, seemingly, to Ishi becoming the last of his people as his mother died within days and he never saw the rest of his family again. For the next three years, he survived before leaving that life behind. He was brought into the world of white Californians which included speaking to anthropologists, showing them his ancestral ways, and working as a janitor at the University of California, Berkeley. He was quoted as responding to an offer to be returned to his homeland with, “Live like the white people from now on. I want to stay here I am. I will grow old here, and due in this house”. Unfortunately, this new life did not last long. On March 25, 1916, Ishi died at a hospital of tuberculosis. His body was cremated and buried but his brain was preserved prior to being shipped to the Smithsonian. Since it appears that Ishi’s remains have been returned to his descended indigenous community of California and reburied to the best of their abilities with dignity. 

The story of Ishi the Yahi is worth reflecting upon amid more a recent tragedy. On August 24th, another sole survivor, known as the Man in the Hole, of an uncontacted tribe living amid the Tanaru Indian territory within the Brazilian Amazon was announced dead. His people were presumably depleted over the decades by genocides perpetrated by Brazilians, not dissimilar to those in California a century before, and his passing came amid the reign of the openly anti-indigenous Presidential Jair Bolsonaro.

While the general public can become mystified by the idea of a mostly or entirely uncontacted indigenous group in the 21st century, as exemplified by the media sensation over the death of missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of the Sentinelese after he illegally ventured onto their island, it is much more difficult for them to grapple with the wealth of human experience, wisdom, language, culture, etc. that is wiped out when an entire people are rendered extinct. The 19th century idea of the “vanishing Indian” appears all too incompatible for the age of nuclear weapons and social media sites. But, unfortunately, it isn’t.

We had over a hundred years as a hemisphere to realize the lesson of Ishi’s legacy as we put his arrows behind museum glass but didn’t. It is unknown how many tribes and/or languages are on the brink, but we know that the Man in the Hole’s experience was not a novel one. The Yana-Yahi were destroyed by settlers seeking mineral riches, ranching land, and bounty rewards. Many uncontacted indigenous people have been victims of atrocities in the Amazon due to the damage rout by ranchers, loggers, missionaries, and potentially even the drug trade as well as diseases that they had little or no immunity from. Although there is some debate over Ishi’s true status as the last of his people, just as there very well may be other full or ethnically mixed Tanaru Indians in hiding among the Brazilian Amazon, these stories of two men, anonymous to the world in the end, relate the same tale of the slow totality of genocide when a vulnerable people spend decades under siege.

Indigenous people, especially in regions of the world with ecologies that must be preserved including the Amazon, are the best stewards of their own land. The knowledge of California’s Native Americans is already being called upon to help curtail the damage of climate change and the long term aftermath of colonialism in that region; we cannot afford to lose the lungs of the Earth to the genocidal avarice of ranchers and loggers.

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