Ishi in Three Centuries

By Karl Kroeber; Clifton Kroeber | Go to book overview

15
When the World Was New
Ishi’s Stories

JEAN PERRY

When Ishi died in 1916 and made his own journey to the Land of the Dead, he left behind a legacy that is only now coming to light. With great patience he told a number of traditional Yahi stories to various researchers during his time at the museum in San Francisco. Early on, he recorded a variety of texts and songs on wax cylinders for Thomas T. Waterman and Alfred L. Kroeber. Unfortunately, the quality of these recordings is very poor. Waterman made an attempt to transcribe several of these narratives from the wax cylinders and to translate them with the help of Sam Batwi, but the results were disappointing. Waterman, of course, did not know Yahi, and Batwi’s Central Yana was a different though closely related language. The relationship among the Yanan languages is similar to that among the Romance languages, with Yahi and Central Yana being as similar as Spanish and Italian (speakers can partially understand each other), and Northern Yana more like French (not mutually intelligible).

During the summer of 1915 Ishi worked with the linguist Edward Sapir. He dictated six stories, five of which include sporadic translations. The longest one is not translated. Sapir transcribed by ear the stories Ishi told him, but they were never mechanically recorded. None of the stories was left in a form that anyone could easily read. It has not been until recently, with the assistance of a computer and further study of Ishi’s language, that a reasonably full translation has become possible. Language analysis software developed by Ken Whistler has in large part made this task possible.

The two stories included here suggest the wide range of Ishi’s storytelling. In the first, “Journey of the Dead,” told to Waterman and Kroeber, Ishi described the journey of the spirit to the afterworld when someone has died. Souls travel, usually underground, toward the south, aided by fires lit for them and food left for them by their relatives in the days immediately following their death. They are conveyed, after some hesitation, into the other world by an unnamed gate-

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