Ishi in Three Centuries

By Karl Kroeber; Clifton Kroeber | Go to book overview

12
Ishi’s Spanish Words

ORIN STARN

A reporter from the San Francisco Examiner in 1911 described Ishi as “absolutely innocent of modern life” and “unspotted by the world.”1 This view of the man discovered at Oroville’s slaughterhouse just two weeks before as a member of an untouched aboriginal people has persisted across the decades. A belief in Ishi as “the last Stone Age Indian in North America” has indeed been part of the fascination, sadness, and romance of his story for many Americans. In 1979 Theodora Kroeber and Robert Heizer still insisted that Ishi was a “true forest person … who existed quite outside white civilization.”2

But were Ishi and the Yahi really so completely cut off from the rest of the world? Ishi certainly possessed a storehouse of Yahi myths, music, and knowledge that must have come down through the generations, even if recent research shows he knew Maidu and Atsugewi as well as Yahi songs.3 Yet much evidence now suggests that the story of Ishi and his people is far from a saga of primordial isolation, of unbroken tradition and cultural conservatism. Especially revealing has been the rediscovery of Bear’s Hiding Place in the early 1990s by researchers Brian Bibby, James Johnston, and Jerald Johnson in the course of making Ishi the Last Yahi, filmmaker Jed Riffe’s important documentary. Bear’s Hiding Place was the camp in Deer Creek’s ravine inhabited by Ishi and the other last survivors of his band in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bibby, Johnston, and Johnson found a house pit, metate, and other signs of Native occupation there. Yet Bear’s Hiding Place was also littered with cans, Log Cabin syrup tins, bottles, coffee pots, and other white goods, all likely pilfered from settler cabins. These finds strongly suggest that Ishi and the others by no means subsisted by the traditional methods of hunting and gathering alone.4 To be sure, they gathered acorns, hunted deer with bow and arrow, and harpooned salmon; yet they also pilfered liberally from white homesteaders, cooking acorn

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