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 …

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