Ishi - the Last of the Yana Indians

By Metraux, Alfred | UNESCO Courier, May-June 1986 | Go to article overview

Ishi - the Last of the Yana Indians


Metraux, Alfred, UNESCO Courier


Ishi-- the last of the Yana Indians

ONE night in the summer of 1911, a butcher in a small town in California was woken up by the furious barking of his dogs. He went outside and found near his house a "wild man' leaning against a wall, quite clearly in the last stages of exhaustion. The sheriff was called, and after handcuffing the strange creature, he took him off to the county gaol where, as an extra precaution, he locked him up in the cell reserved for dangerous lunatics. Ishi, the Indian, had made a lonely and painful entry into civilization.

It is curious to note that Ishi did not etain any unpleasant memories of his first contact with white men. The prison had impressed him as a fine house and he was grateful for the food he had been given and the way in which he had been treated. Ishi had, in fact, been expecting to be killed. He could not imagine any other fate at the hands of the white men who had massacred his own people. Towards 1872, when Ishi must have been about ten years old, the small tribe of the Yahis, belonging to the Yana group of Indians, had been virtually wiped off the ethnic map of America. There was barely a handful of them left.

It is difficult to imagine the existence of a dozen Indians who have chosen to live like hunted animals rather than give themselves up to subjection. They were forever on the move, taking the utmost precautions to conceal every trace of their passage and living only on the animals they managed to kill or the fruit and herbs they gathered. Gradually, fatigue, age and illness took their toll of the fugitives.

By 1906, Ishi was alone. For five years he lived a solitary life in the forests of his territory. When he was discovered on the outskirts of one of the white men's villages, he had made up his mind to return to the community of men, even though they might be his worst enemies.

The American anthropologist Professor Alfred L. Kroeber had made a life study of the Californian Indians,(1) and his attention was attracted by the newspaper reports of the capture of a "wild man'. He telegraphed the sheriff, asking him to receive his colleague, Professor Waterman. The latter went to the prison equipped with vocabularies of the Indian languages of the Californian district, and read lists of these words to Ishi. He listened patiently, but his face did not betray the slightest sign of comprehension.

(1) Ishi--in Two Worlds was published by Theodora Kroeber, widow of Alfred L. Kroeber (University of California Press, 1961).

Waterman was beginning to be discouraged and was about to give up his attempt to communicate with the "savage' when he pronounced the word "siwini', at the same tiem touching the wood of the bed on which the Indian was sitting. …

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