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The Last Wild Indian: In 1911 Ishi Emerged From the Wilderness in California, The Last Member of His Tribe

1900s | June 13, 2017

In August 29, 1911, a weak, starving native American man emerged from the Butte County wilderness into Oroville. He became an instant sensation.

UC anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and T. T. Waterman identified him as the last member of the Yahi tribe, people native to the Deer Creek region in California.

When they asked the man his name, he said: “I have none, because there were no people to name me.” In the Yahi culture, it is forbidden to speak the name of the dead. The UC anthropologists brought him to live on the Parnassus campus and named him “Ishi” which means “man” in the Yahi language.

He was 50 years old when he was first introduced to the modern “civilized world” as he lived most of his life outside the modern society. He was widely known as the “last wild Indian” in America and journalists followed him everywhere to capture his initial reaction to his new world. Ishi was often the headline in newspapers, filled with anecdotes referring to his reaction to 20th-century technological wonders like airplanes and streetcars.

Eventually, Ishi had adapted to modern society and spent the rest of his life as a research assistant in a university in San Francisco.

Ishi in 1913

But who was Ishi before he became the last man of his tribe?

In 1800, there were about 300,000 Indian people living in California's wilderness. By 1900, after the arrival of the white man, only 20,000 remained.

The gold rush brought tens of thousands miners and settlers in northern California, forcing Indians from there native lands onto reservations and into cities. The mining acitivites damaged water supplies; the fish were killed, and the deer fled the area. Besides destroying the natural habitat of the natives, the settlers brought with them diseases such as smallpox and measles. Eventually, the Northern Yana group became extinct, and the central groups of the Yahi population dropped dramatically.

In the search for food, they came into conflict with settlers.

Ishi and his tribe were attacked in the Three Knolls Massacre in 1865, in which 40 of their tribesmen died. The massacre happened while the Yahi people was asleep in bed. Around 33 Yahis, among which was Ishi, survived. For the next 44 years, Ishi and his family went into hiding; their tribe was slowly going extinct. Before the California Gold Rush, the Yahi population was at about 404 in California.

In 1908, a group of surveyors stumbled upon a camp with two men, a middle-aged woman, and an elderly woman. Those people were Ishi, his uncle, his younger sister and his mother. Ishi, his sister and uncle, fled; his mother was left behind as she was very sick and unable to flee. Ishi’s sister and uncle never came back and his mother died soon after he returned to the camp.

Ishi spent the next four of his life years starving and wandering alone in the wilderness. With nowhere to go and starving to death, in August 29, 1911 Ishi walked out from the wilderness and emerged into the western world.

Ishi

The local sheriff took Ishi into custody for his own protection as he was stirring so much attention.

The “wild” man without name picked the interest of thousands of onlookers and curiosity seekers. The University of California housed on campus in an old law school building.

While being studied by the University, Ishi also worked as a research assistant. He lived in an apartment for most of the remaining five years of his life. Alfred L. Kroeber, the director of the museum, studied Ishi over the years to reconstruct Yahi Culture. Ishi provided valuable information, such as describing family units, naming patterns, the ceremonies, and everything that he knew about his culture.

Ishi’s quiver of arrows

Unfortunately, Ishi didn’t last long in the modern world. Being from the wilderness, Ishi had no immunity to the ‘diseases of civilization’ and was often sick. Ishi’s health was closely supervised by Saxton T. Pope, the Professor of Medicine at UCS, and the two became close friends. Ishi taught the doctor how to make bows and arrows in the Yahi way and they often hunted together.

On March 25, Ishi died of tuberculosis.

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