Ishi in Three Centuries

By Karl Kroeber; Clifton Kroeber | Go to book overview

17
The Days of a Life
What Ishi’s Stories Can Tell Us About Ishi

HERBERT LUTHIN AND LEANNE HINTON

In the summer of 1915, six months after Ishi showed the first signs of the tuberculosis that would shortly claim his life, Edward Sapir came to California in great urgency to work with him, hoping to record what he could, while he could, of Ishi’s Yahi language and oral traditions. He was all but too late. Ishi soon became too ill to continue the work and had to be hospitalized. Sapir returned home to Canada in September. When Ishi died in March 1916, Sapir was left with several notebooks of unfinished and partly finished materials. For one reason or another, he never really managed to return to them.

After Sapir’s death, the notebooks came back to California, where they now (after an untimely walkabout in the 1960s, when no one could find them for Morris Swadesh during the preparation of his Yana Dictionary) reside in the Bancroft Library. This chapter is based on work from an ongoing group project to translate Ishi’s stories as Sapir transcribed them. Because of the great fascination the public has with Ishi, people have long wanted to know what these tales are like and what they tell us about Ishi himself. They are, after all, the only example we have of Ishi’s own words.

At the outset, we were full of anticipation, but when we finally started looking over the materials, we were – some of us, even if we admitted it only to ourselves – just a bit disappointed. We had imagined finding all sorts of things in Sapir’s old black notebooks. It would have been wonderful, we thought, to find an oral history, an autobiography, an account of his years, especially those he spent in hiding. Instead, the notebooks contained grammatical information, an origins myth, and five traditional tales. We found ourselves wishing we had discovered more than we did. The tales, after all, were just traditional stories being transmitted by and through Ishi and had little of personal interest to say about Ishi himself. Or so we thought.

Our first impressions were mistaken. The tales Ishi told truly are unique,

-318-

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