Remembering Ishi, the last ‘wild’ Indian

One hundred years ago today, the last known “wild” American Indian stumbled out of the Sierra foothills into the corral of a slaughterhouse near Oroville, Calif., starving, sickly and alone. 

Ishi had seen his tribe, called the Yani, killed off by disease and white settlers, many of whom came to California to take part in the gold rush.

Prior to the discovery of gold in the Sierras in 1848, it’s estimated Ishi’s tribe, called the Yahi, numbered about 400. The Yahi were part of a larger group called the Yaha, which had numbered about 3,000 and had lived in the western foothills of Mount Lassen for several thousand years, according to the book “Ishi: Last of His Tribe.”

With the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, a little more than an hour south of where Ishi eventually gave himself up, thousands of prospectors and settlers inundated northern California. In addition to attacking native Americans, miners often damaged the environment the Indians lived off while prospecting. Sometimes, the Indians attacked whites, as well.

Before long, the populations of native tribes throughout Northern California began to plummet.

Ishi is believed to have been born between 1860 and 1862.

As a young boy in 1865, Ishi and his family were attacked in the Three Knolls Massacre, in which about 40 Yahi were killed. Approximately 30 Yahi escaped, but a short time later cattlemen killed about half of the survivors.

The few survivors, including Ishi and his family, went into hiding for the next 40 years, and their tribe was believed to be extinct.

By late 1908, just four Yahi remained. They were discovered in November of that year by a surveying team hired by a utility company. As the surveying party stumbled into the Yahi camp, an older Indian man and younger woman escaped. An elderly woman was too sick to get away, and she’d been covered with blankets, in the hope that she wouldn’t be seen.

The surveying party proceeded to strip the camp of everything of value, even the food, effectively passing a death sentence on the Indians.

The old man and young girl never returned; it’s likely they died in their escape attempt, possibly having drowned or been killed by the predators that still roamed the Sierra foothills a century ago, according to a 2002 article in the Old California Gazette.

A short time later, the elderly woman who’d been left in camp, Ishi’s mother, died, as well. He was now the last of his tribe.

Some three years later, despite having seen many of his family and tribe killed by whites, he staggered into the outskirts of Oroville, approximately 70 miles due north of Sacramento.

The local sheriff took Ishi into protective custody and it wasn’t long before the “wild man” caught the attention of thousands.

Professors at the University of California at Berkeley read about him and brought him to their facility. Studied by the university, Ishi also worked with them as a research assistant and lived in an apartment at the museum for most of the rest of his life.

Anthropologist T.T. Waterman and Alfred L. Kroeber, director of the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology, studied Ishi closely over the years and interviewed him at length to help them reconstruct Yahi culture.

Ishi, whose name means “man” in Yahi, not only described family units, naming patterns, and the ceremonies which he knew, but also information on the Yana language, which was recorded and studied by the linguist Edward Sapir, who had previously done work on the northern dialects.

Ishi died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. His remains were interred at a cemetery near San Francisco, along with one of his bows, five arrows, a basket of acorn meal, a boxful of shell bead money, a purse full of tobacco, three rings, and some obsidian flakes.

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6 thoughts on “Remembering Ishi, the last ‘wild’ Indian

    • Mab, it’s interesting how languages that would appear to have no possible way of being connected such as Hebrew and the dialect of a northern California Indian tribe have such odd similarities. I suppose sometimes it comes from assigning a word based on an emotion which might be common to different groups of people (such as being scared of something, or in awe of something), but your example is rather remarkable. Thanks for sharing.

  1. What was kind of sad about Ishi and his name is that when he was asked by the University of California anthropologists what his name was, he said he had none.

    Apparently, there weren’t enough members of his tribe left to perform the ceremony where he would have been given a name.

    So it was actually the anthropologists who named Ishi. Kind of fitting given his fate.

  2. I am at a conference on Ishi @ UC Berkeley 7Sept2011. Native American speakers suggest that he chose carefully what he shared with his White interrogaters, probably keeping his name, among other things, in reserve.

    • I had not heard that before. Very interesting. And, of course, with no one else around who spoke his language, there was no one to verify one way or the other what Ishi was saying.

      I’d imagine after 40 years on the run and having seen his family and tribe wiped out by the white man, he had good reason to be wary.

      Thanks for sharing this.

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