Monday, August 29, 2016

This Day on August 29, 1911: A Survivor of American Indian Genocide Walks Out of the California Wilderness

Ishi, the Last Yahi Indian Speaker (center), at an Unveiling of an Indian Monument,
Lincoln Park, Alameda, California, 1914
California Historical Society

In the early part of the twentieth century—following the near annihilation of California’s Native Americans the century before—a singular event occurred. In many ways, Natives and non-Natives still experience the impact of this event on communities across the state.

In the summer of 1911, at a slaughterhouse corral near the town of Oroville in northern California’s Butte County, a middle-aged man—most likely of the Yahi tribe native to the Deer Creek region—was discovered in a state of exhaustion and emaciation. The sole survivor of a small band of Indians thought to have been extinguished during the California Indian Wars, he had come out of isolation in the mountains.

Ishi at Time of His Capture, Oroville, Butte County, September 1911
Published in Popular Science Monthly (March 1915)
Courtesy of Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

Bruce A. Hardy (Photographer), View of “Ishi Site,” Oroville, CA, 1963
Courtesy of Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

This “unprecedented behavior,” Theodora Kroeber observed in her book Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (1916), had resulted from crossing “certain physical and psychic limits” from which Ishi—as he was simply called, from the Yahi word for man—made choices as courageous and enlightened as the scope of his opportunities permitted.”

Kroeber was the wife of the famous anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, under whose care, along with that of Thomas T. Waterman, Ishi was placed. Ishi would live the remainder of his life adapting to the twentieth century at the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco. There he was closely studied for five years until his death in March 1916.

 (Left to right) Sam Batwai (Yahi translator), Alfred A. Kroeber, and Ishi, 1911
Courtesy of Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

To the museum’s anthropologists, staff, and visitors, Ishi imparted his language, survival and crafts skills, culture, and personal beliefs. To them—and to us even today—his life brought new understandings of Native American heritage in the context of and in contrast to twentieth-century urban life.

Ishi Salmon Fishing on Deer Creek, May 1914
Courtesy of Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Native and non-Native scholars, artists, cultural and educational leaders, and community members continue to explore these understandings. At the California Historical Society, for example:

  • ·         In conjunction with our year-long 2015 exhibition celebrating the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair, the projected light artist Ben Wood examined Ishi’s life within the context of the fair, which Ishi attended. Wood’s piece Lopa Pikta (Rope Picture), a sound and light installation, was displayed in the windows of the California Historical Society after dark. See

Ben Wood, Lopa Pikta (Rope Picture), 2015
California Historical Society
  • ·         Beginning this July CHS offers two Native American exhibitions. One examines the impact of California’s only major Indian War (the Modoc War of 1872–73). The other features contemporary tintype portraits by photographer Ed Drew of members of the Klamath, Modoc, and Pit River Paiute tribes, some of them descendants of Modoc War survivors. See

  • ·         This month in Los Angeles, and this October in San Francisco, CHS invites author Benjamin Madley to speak about his newly published book An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873. As the New York Times began its review, “The state of sunshine and pleasure is drenched in the blood of Indians.” See

Benjamin Madley Discussing His Book (right) at Skylight Book in Los Angeles, May 2016
Courtesy of Shelly Kale

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager


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