March 25, 2008

March 25 | Ishi

1860 - March 25, 1916: Age 55 or 56

Ishi was the last surviving member of the Yahi people of California. Even though he spent the last five years of his life in San Francisco, we do not know his name because it was taboo among his people to say one's own name, and nobody else who knew it was alive. Nobody in the world could speak his language, or even say his name.

Most of his people had been killed by settlers and cattlemen. He lived most of his life in hiding with the few remaining Yahi, but when they had all died, he approached a group of butchers at their corral in August 1911. He was kept in jail, not because he was a threat (he very obviously wasn't) but to protect him from curious townspeople, who wouldn't leave him alone. Later he was taken to work and live at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of California in San Francisco. He helped anthropologists learn about the way of life of his people, and about his language. The name he used, "Ishi", simply means "man" in Yahi.

Unlike the tragic Ota Benga, Ishi was able to find some contentment in his new life. This was probably because Ishi was still in the land where he had grown up. He was close friends with his his doctor, Saxton Pope, with whom he went bow-and-arrow hunting in the mountains of California using bows and arrows Ishi made. In 1916 Ishi caught tuberculosis and died, to the great grief of his friends and all who had met him.

His brain was removed, out of anthropological interest, and only recently (in 2000) was finally reunited with the rest of his cremated remains, re-interred together at an unnamed location.

There have been a couple of TV movies about Ishi and, more recently, a documentary, the trailer for which can be viewed here on YouTube. Here is a link to the website about the doc.

Sources:, Wikipedia, Jed Riffe Films

No comments: