Ishi's Long Road Home

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, January 8, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Ishi's Long Road Home


Bower, Bruce, Science News


A California Indian's preserved brain accentuates his tragic, mysterious life

Inside a sealed tank in a Suitland, Md., warehouse rests a brain that, for the past 83 years, has refused to die. The lump of preserved tissue doesn't pulsate or glow like the gory centerpiece of some late-night monster movie. Rather, it reaches out and grabs people because it's infused with the symbolic power of a real-life horror story--the near-destruction of several Native American tribes by white California settlers in the late 1800s.

This disembodied organ assumes even more vitality for having come from a man who survived unspeakable tragedy with an uncommon courage and grace that inspired a best-selling biography.

This is Ishi's brain. Officials at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where the brain was sent in 1917 by one of anthropology's most eminent practitioners, hope to return it soon to the two surviving Indian tribes most closely related to Ishi. Once legal and logistical hurdles are cleared, the tribes will conduct a traditional burial uniting Ishi's brain with his cremated body, now held in a California cemetery.

The reappearance of this long-forgotten brain, which surprised even some Smithsonian scientists, has ignited fierce debate over the ethics of the researchers who befriended and studied Ishi. It has also focused scientific and public attention on the ongoing repatriation process, by which anthropologists return skeletal and cultural remains to Native American groups.

Moreover, the saga raises questions about how much can ever really be known about Ishi, a man who has attained near-mythic status among anthropologists, Native Americans, and others, especially in California.

"Ishi has become an icon of our guilt and regret about past mistreatment of Native Americans," says Nancy Rockafellar, a medical historian at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). "He's been admired for his resilience and heroism, and now he's a symbol of the repatriation struggle. There are many Ishis."

In August 1911, only one Ishi existed, and that just barely. Starving and almost naked, he straggled into the northern California town of Oroville. In a wicked irony, he took shelter in the local slaughterhouse. Most of the approximately 400 members of the Yahi tribe to which he belonged had been massacred by white vigilantes and bounty hunters.

The 1849 California gold rush had set off bloody attacks on Indian tribes in mining areas, many occurring in the years just after Ishi's birth around 1860. From 1870 to 1911, Ishi and 5 to 20 Yahi hid in wooded areas not far from Oroville. As apparently the last surviving member of that hardy band, a desperate Ishi crossed into the white world. The sheriff turned him over to University of California anthropologist Thomas T. Waterman, who on Sept. 4, 1911, took Ishi to live at his institution's anthropology museum, then located in San Francisco.

Waterman and his colleagues, including anthropology department head Alfred Kroeber, took an immediate liking to their outgoing, intelligent boarder. So did the general public. In his first 6 months at the museum, 24,000 visitors watched Ishi demonstrate arrow making and fire building. Kroeber referred to him as the last Stone Age Indian in North America.

Ishi also spent much time demonstrating archery techniques to Saxton Pope, the UCSF surgeon who became his personal physician. Famed linguist Edward Sapir worked with Ishi to document the Yahi language.

Ishi, whose life story was first described in the popular book Ishi in Two Worlds by Theodora Kroeber (1961, University of California Press), died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. Theodora Kroeber, the wife of Alfred Kroeber, notes in her book that Ishi's brain was removed during an autopsy, although she makes no mention of what happened to it.

The issue drew little notice until 1997, when four Maidu Indian tribes in northern California's Butte County formed a committee to campaign for the return of Ishi's remains for reburial in the Yahi homelands.

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