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Morality Tale


A California morality tale, the story of Ishi is in itself, like parables in general, a simple one. It is the tellers, each with different involvement and different intent, who complicate it.

In late August 1911, a middle-aged man, with buckskin threaded through his ears and a small stick piercing his nose, was found cowering in the upriver scrub woods of the northern Sierras by some itinerant slaughterhouse workers. Unable to communicate with him (they tried both Spanish and English), they turned him over to the local sheriff, who, not knowing what else to do with him, deposited him in the town jail. Brown-skinned, with straight black hair, he was apparently some sort of Indian. But sure there were no independent tribes left in the area—they had all been wiped out, removed to micro-reservations, or reduced to indigence by the dispossessions of the Gold Rush—it was uncertain what sort.

The man best equipped to find out what sort was only 150 miles away: Alfred Louis Kroeber, first curator of the Native American collections in the newly formed Department of Anthropology at the state university in Berkeley. Kroeber, then thirty-five, had come from New York to Berkeley at the beginning of the century. (Or, more exactly, to San Francisco, where the museum of anthropology founded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst—senator’s widow, press lord’s mother—to house her collection of Indian artifacts was being built.) He had been a student and sometime assistant at Columbia of Franz Boas, the country’s leading anthropologist and founding spirit of holistic ethnography, and, like his mentor, he was a strong-minded, detail-passionate scholar, determined to learn anything and everything that could still be learned about traditional, “precontact” Indian life before its last representatives disappeared. Recording myths, classifying languages, comparing kinship terminologies, and excavating settlements—a project he called, probably to his ultimate regret, “salvage anthropology”—he made himself, in the space of a decade, into a sort of Boas West: the go-to authority on California’s hundreds of small, particulate, dismembered tribes.

When Kroeber heard, via press reports, of the mysterious prisoner, he immediately shot off a peremptory telegram to the county sheriff—professors were personages in those days—who had jailed him (HOLD IN-DIAN TILL ARRIVAL…WILL TAKE CHARGE AND BE RESPONSIBLE FOR HIM…MATTER IMPORTANT ACCOUNT ABORIGINAL HISTORY), and thereby projected himself into the middle of what would turn out to be a repetitive, wandering, theatrical, and accusatorial public controversy, lasting, still bitter, still ambiguous, still expanding, until today, nearly a century on.

After a colleague determined, through linguistic inquiry, that the prisoner was a Yahi, thus a remnant survivor—perhaps the last one altogether—of a group that had been essentially exterminated in the impressments, landgrabs, and Indian hunts of the 1850s and 1860s (the state’s native population, originally perhaps 300,000, declined by 94 percent in a generation), Kroeber had him brought to the museum in San Francisco, where he remained for four and a half years before dying of tuberculosis. At the museum, located adjacent to the university hospital, he became at once a popular attraction—chipping arrowheads, making fire by spinning sticks, imitating bird calls—and also a celebrity of the yellow press: “The Last Aborigine,” “A Genuine Survivor of Stone Age Barbarism,” “The Wild Man of California,” “An Indian Enigma,” “The Only Man in America Who Knows No Christmas.”

Named “Ishi,” the Yahi word for “man,” by Kroeber (he refused to disclose his proper name, or anything else of his personal history, including what had become of the rest of his family), he lived in the museum, practiced recreational archery with the hospital’s chief surgeon (who claimed to outshoot him because “like all savages,” he failed “to understand the optics and ballistics of archery”), learned to play jacks with neighborhood children, and was a constant source of public interest, amusement, and confabulation as he rode his first trolley, tied his first cravat, smoked his first cigar, watched his first vaudeville. His death, which came after a long decline while Kroeber, whose young wife had just died, also slowly, also of tuberculosis, was away on sabbatical leave, raised the problem of the proper, that is, culturally appropriate, disposal of his remains.

Kroeber wrote to his colleagues from New York that those on the scene, most particularly Saxton Pope, that chief-of-surgery archery companion who had become, at the end, the Indian’s personal physician, should see to it “that the matter…be decently attended to and [Ishi be buried] like a gentleman instead of reverting to the state.” In particular, given Yahi beliefs about the soul’s bodily journey to repose after death, it was essential that no autopsy should be performed:

I do not…see that [it] would lead to anything of consequence, but would resolve itself into a general dissection…. Please shut down on it…. If there is any talk about the interests of science, say for me that science can go to hell. We propose to stand by our friends…. [No] scientific value is…involved…. The prime interest…would be of a morbid romantic nature.

Pope, apparently unaccustomed to accepting direction from laymen, no matter how eminent, and perhaps considering by then that the Indian belonged as much to him and medical science as he did to Kroeber and ethnology (a final photograph, which Kroeber later suppressed, shows the surgeon looming over the dying Indian, witlessly brandishing a bow), performed an autopsy anyway. He removed the brain—the generally dissected rest was cremated—packed it in formaldehyde, and left it for Kroeber to find waiting for him on his study mantle. Apparently unnerved by all this, Kroeber wrote to Ales Hrdlicka, chief of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian:

I find that at Ishi’s death last spring his brain was removed and preserved. There is no one here who can put it to scientific use. If you wish it, I shall be glad to deposit it in the National Museum Collection.

Hrdlicka, who had vats full of preserved brains, a number of them Indian, as well as crates full of their skulls and skeletons, in pursuit, apparently, of some vaguely racist agenda, replied that he’d be pleased to have the object, and it was duly shipped, thus ensuring Ishi a stranger and more eventful afterlife than anything envisaged in his tribal tradition.


That afterlife began only in 1961, when Theodora Kroeber, Alfred’s second wife, published Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America.1 Working from newspaper clippings, local histories, ethnographical surveys, university archives, and most especially from her husband’s troubled recollections of the times and of the Indian (he rejected all suggestions that he write an account himself), she produced a compact, vivid, sometimes moving, sometimes cloying, just-so survivor story: a shy, bewildered, proud, and self-possessed “red man,” his sylvan existence first disrupted and then destroyed by “the Ibero-American invasion of California,” is taken into their company by a small band of knowledgeable and sympathetic university scholars, among whom he lives for a few short, confused but happy friendship years as an oddity, a ward, an exhibit, and a linguistic informant, before, stoic and accepting—“You stay, I go”—he meets “death in a museum.”

Appearing on the eve of the outburst of Native American activism associated with the Sixties—Wounded Knee, Alcatraz, the Trail of Broken Treaties—the book was an enormous success, selling nearly a million copies, and generating a string of popular culture offshoots: children’s books, documentaries, pageants, made-for-television movies (Jon Voigt played Kroeber; Graham Greene, of Dances with Wolves, played Ishi), even a “meditation” in The Catholic Worker on “the spiritual impoverishment of modern American life” by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.2

It was, however, this same upsurge of Indian self-assertion, together with the worried and uncertain white response to it, that, as it broadened and solidified in the decades following, made Ishi’s story into a more equivocal, elusive, less uplifting romance. In 1990, the US Congress, under pressure from Indian lobbyists, and in the face of opposition from a wide variety of collectors, curators, archaeologists, and university administrators, enacted NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. All governmentally supported museums were required to inventory their Indian holdings, remains and artifacts alike, and, upon request, return any of them to their tribal “owners”—those from whose midst they had been originally extracted. Ishi’s brain, which Theodora Kroeber had barely mentioned even in passing and whose location was by this time, now that all the principals had died, no longer known, suddenly became an object of intense interest. Did it still exist? If so, to whom did it now belong? What did its removal, so many years ago, under such uncertain circumstances, tell us about the conscience of anthropology, and of anthropologists, then and now?

The first place to be struck by this rush of introspection—especially after the brain was discovered to be in fact still floating in the largely forgotten “wet collection” at the Smithsonian—was, inevitably, Berkeley. In the spring of 1999, the Department of Anthropology there met, “in response to numerous inquiries from members of the profession,” to “revisit and reflect on a troubling chapter of our history.” After what seems to have been a great deal of tense and acrimonious factional dispute, imperfectly resolved, the department issued a public apology, via the American Anthropological Association’s newsletter, saying that Ishi’s “family and cultural group …were murdered as part of the genocide that characterized the influx of western settlers to California,” that his relations with Kroeber and the other anthropologists on the scene were “complex and contradictory,” and that Kroeber had “failed in his efforts to honor [the Indian’s] wishes not to be autopsied” and had “inexplicably arranged for Ishi’s brain to be shipped to…the Smithsonian.” We acknowledge, they concluded, “our department’s role in what happened to Ishi…[and] are considering various ways to pay honor and respect to [his] memory.”

That was, however, hardly an end on the matter. Over the next couple of years the university sponsored no fewer than three public forums dedicated to the affair: “Ishi’s Brain,” “Ishi, Past, Present and Future,” and “Who Owns the Body?,” the last a large international, multidisciplinary conference organized by the vice-chancellor for research. A part of the faculty, led by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a self-described “militant anthropologist…squarely on the side of humanity, world saving, and world repair,” read an even stronger statement at the repatriation hearings of the State Legislature in Sacramento. (“We are sorry for our department’s role…in the final betrayal of Ishi, a man who had already lost all that was dear to him at the hands of Western colonizers.”)

George Foster, an eminent, longtime chairman of the department, now retired, who had been a student, friend, and colleague of Kroeber’s, issued a strong rebuttal to the department statement. (“I believe that the behavior of the anthropologists [in the Ishi affair] was highly ethical and that apologies are out of order.”) Alfred and Theodora’s son, Karl, Mellon professor of humanities at Columbia, invited to address the “Who Owns the Body?” conclave, angrily attacked “public pronouncements by professional scholars schematizing Ishi’s history in the service of current ideological agendas,” “creative falsifiers” producing “postmodern…cartoons,” and “scapegoaters” applying “current prejudices [to] circumstances, actions, and motives different in time, place, or culture from ourselves.” “A dead body,” he said, invoking Achilles’ desecration of Hector on the walls of Troy, “is un-ownable.” And the brain finally recovered (the Smithsonian, apparently fearing adverse publicity amid a fund drive, at first denied having it, saying it had been long ago incinerated), a painful, comic, and laboriously microtechnical bureaucratic controversy ensued over its appropriate destination. Where, among whom, as what variety of Indian, was Ishi finally to be interred?

  1. 1

    University of California Press, second expanded edition, 1976. Theodora married Kroeber in the late 1920s, well after the events in question. Kroeber himself died, at eighty-four, the summer before her book appeared.

  2. 2

    Originally, 1968—collected in his Ishi Means Man (Unicorn Press, 1976). In the same year, Theodora herself (together with Robert F. Heizer, Alfred’s pupil and successor) published an inventory of materials on the case “to encourage new research into all aspects of Ishi’s experience.” See Ishi, the Last Yahi: A Documentary History (University of California Press, 1968). For more recent material, see Richard Burrill, Ishi Rediscovered (Anthro Company, 2001).

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