Ishi — Last of the Yahi
from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"

Book: 
Our Fascinating Earth

Ishi — Last of the Yahi

It was early morning on August 29, 1911, in Oroville, California, about seventy miles north of Sacramento. The excited barking of dogs awakened the ranchers, who, upon investigating the disturbance, found a man crouched against the corral fence. He was barefoot, and his only clothing was a ragged canvas poncho. He appeared to be a Native American, and his blackened face and singed hair suggested that he was in mourning. Exhausted, frightened, and emaciated to starvation, he submitted readily to his captors.

The rancher called off the menacing dogs and notified the sheriff that they were holding a wild man and would like to release him to authorities. The sheriff was unable to communicate with the captive, who made no attempt to resist being handcuffed and taken to jail. His understanding of the white man was that these were killers of his people, so he fully expected to be put to death. Actually he was being placed in protective custody away from curious people who clamored to view the wild man.

Although no one realized it at the time, he was the last living member of a Native American tribe know as the Yahi. His tribe had been a true casualty of the California gold rush days, as the encroaching white men displaced them from their home. Cattle, sheep, and pigs ranged the meadows and hills, depleting and destroying their native plant foods. Mining diminished their supply of salmon as silt from the disturbed earth poured into their rivers.

Forced to move farther into the volcanic terrain of the foothills of Lassen Peak, they were unable to find sufficient plant and animal food for survival. Their only resource was to raid and steal from the ranchers and miners who had taken over their valley. This caused enmity between the settlers and natives, and a private war began. The settlers were often frustrated in their scalp—hunting expeditions but were convinced that their mission was to eradicate the elusive Yahi and the grizzlies alike.

On August 15, 1865, the Yahi were attacked by a party of whites who murdered every man, woman, and child they could find. The attackers ransacked the wrecked village and went triumphantly home, dangling no one knows how many scalps from their belts. So reduced were the number of Yahi and so desperate were they that they left unburied the rotting corpses of their dead in their wrecked summer village.

Several years later four vaqueros followed a trail of blood, apparently from a wounded steer, to a cave upstream. With dogs to guide them, they discovered the remote spot where more than thirty Yahi were gathered with their food and provisions. When the morning's massacre was finished, it was generally believed that the Yahi whom the white settlers has sworn to exterminate had been killed to the last woman and infant. However, when they revisited the caves the settlers were unable to explain how the bodies of the victims of this final massacre had disappeared completely.

The wild man discovered in Oroville had been a child of three or fours years at the time of the first massacre and eight or nine at the time of the slaughter near the cave. He probably took part in the ritual burial of the victims. The story, as pieced together later by Indian fighters, was that this once numerous and thrifty tribe had been reduced to five members — two men, two women, and a child. For almost the next fifty years they hid in the shadow of the expanding white civilization. No trace of their presence was ever found, and the Yahi were considered extinct.

Anthropologists from the University of California, Berkeley, were notified of the wild Native American in Oroville County prison with whom no one could communicate. Released from his jail cell into their custody, the "Wild Man of Oroville" began his ordeal with civilization. Eventually, as the scientists managed to elicit information from him, they pieced his story together. He was in truth the youngest and last living member of the Yahi tribe that had lived in the shadow of Lassen Peak.

Researchers were most amazed that the Stone Age native and his companions had lived so near to civilization for almost half a century and had rarely betrayed their presence. There had been reports from white settlers of Yahi raids, but no one had ever seen more than a fleeting glimpse of a wild Native American. He had been totally alone for three years after the death of his last companion. Unable to find food, he finally surrendered himself to white men, resigned to whatever befell him.

After his rescue from the Oroville prison the Native American was moved to the Berkeley Museum of Anthropology, where he was employed as a janitor. He performed his duties very well, became financially independent, learned about 600 words of English, and quickly became part of the twentieth—century civilization. He demonstrated for museum visitors how to use a fire starter and how to make bows, arrows, points, a rope snare from hemp fibers, a salmon harpoon, and other crafts essential to the Stone Age lifestyle. This provided him a buffer against loneliness and strangeness, for there was no one with whom he could share experiences, and communication was limited.

The last Yahi made many friends among the museum and university staff with whom he worked but was somewhat selective of companions, choosing those who wanted to learn from him as he learned from them. He often toured San Francisco and enjoyed riding the cable cars and ferries and practicing with his bows and arrows at the shooting range. He was alarmed by crowds and avoided contact with others — even a handshake was uncomfortable to him. With little hesitation he adopted most of the clothing of his new world but held out against shoes for several months.

He was unimpressed by tall buildings, which certainly did not match his mountains and canyons, but admired the convenience and comfort of the civilized houses. Running water and flush toilets were very clever, as were electric lights and telephones, but less intriguing than his penny whistle or kaleidoscope. He was captivated by numerous tools and became skilled in their use, and he considered matches and glue to be the true delights of civilization.

Despite his assimilation into a modern lifestyle, he continued to follow the sacred rituals and taboos of his people. The Yahi were forbidden ever to utter their own names or the names of their dead friends and relatives. Unable to discover his name, the scientists therefore adopted a word from his language and called him Ishi — meaning "man." Although Ishi was a willing and cooperative biographer, he could not transgress the taboo of speaking of the dead. Therefore he was unable to reveal any information about the companions of his years in hiding.

In the spring of 1914 Ishi's benefactors at the museum prevailed on him to lead them on a camping trip into the wilderness and to show them what life had been like in the "Stone Age." With the help of a map drawn by Ishi they were able to camp in places where he had lived. He demonstrated to them how the Yahi stalked deer and speared salmon, and how they used ropes to climb up and down perpendicular canyon walls and to swim in swollen, dangerous streams. He pointed out favorite areas for hunting, fishing, and gathering and took them to a cave that could still be used for shelter when it rained. At first reluctant to retrace the tracks of his earlier painful experiences, Ishi found the trip to be most therapeutic. He was now able to close the gap between his former and present world and returned to his new life with enthusiasm.

On March 15, 1916, the last wild Indian of North America died of tuberculosis. His friends buried him according to his specified rituals, and after announcing his farewell with "You stay, I go," Ishi returned to sit by the council fire of his tribe forever.