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Ishi portrait.jpg
BornUnknown (first documented in 1865)
Northern California Sierra Foothills, U.S.
DiedMarch 25, 1916 (age 55–56)

Ishi (c. 1861 – March 25, 1916) was the last known member of the Native American Yahi people from the present-day state of California in the United States. The rest of the Yahi (as well as many members of their parent tribe, the Yana) were killed in the California genocide in the 19th century. Ishi, who was widely acclaimed as the "last wild Indian" in America, lived most of his life isolated from modern American culture. In 1911, aged 50, he emerged near the foothills of Lassen Peak in Northern California.

Ishi, which means "man" in the Yana language, is an adopted name. The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber gave him this name because in the Yahi culture, tradition demanded that he not speak his own name until formally introduced by another Yahi.[1] When asked his name, he said: "I have none, because there were no people to name me," meaning that there was no other Yahi to speak his name on his behalf.

Ishi was taken in by anthropologists at the University of California, Berkeley, who both studied him and hired him as a janitor. He lived most of his remaining five years in a university building in San Francisco. His life was depicted and discussed in multiple films and books, notably the biographical account Ishi in Two Worlds published by Theodora Kroeber in 1961.[2][3][4][5]


Early life[edit]

Ishi's quiver of arrows (Richard Burrill, 2011).

In 1865,[6] Ishi and his family were attacked in the Three Knolls Massacre, in which 40 of their tribesmen were killed. Although 33 Yahi survived to escape, cattlemen killed about half of the survivors. The last survivors, including Ishi and his family, went into hiding for the next 44 years. Their tribe was popularly believed to be extinct.[7] Prior to the California Gold Rush of 1848–1855, the Yahi population numbered 404 in California, but the total Yana in the larger region numbered 2,997.[8]

The gold rush brought tens of thousands of miners and settlers to northern California, putting pressure on native populations. Gold mining damaged water supplies and killed fish; the deer left the area. The settlers brought new infectious diseases such as smallpox and measles.[9] The northern Yana group became extinct while the central and southern groups (who later became part of Redding Rancheria) and Yahi populations dropped dramatically. Searching for food, they came into conflict with settlers, who set bounties of 50 cents per scalp and 5 dollars per head on the natives. In 1865, the settlers attacked the Yahi while they were still asleep.[citation needed]

Richard Burrill wrote, in Ishi Rediscovered:

"In 1865, near the Yahi’s special place, Black Rock, the waters of Mill Creek turned red at the Three Knolls Massacre. 'Sixteen' or 'seventeen' Indian fighters killed about forty Yahi, as part of a retaliatory attack for two white women and a man killed at the Workman’s household on Lower Concow Creek near Oroville. Eleven of the Indian fighters that day were Robert A. Anderson, Hiram Good, Sim Moak, Hardy Thomasson, Jack Houser, Henry Curtis, his brother Frank Curtis, as well as Tom Gore, Bill Matthews, and William Merithew. W. J. Seagraves visited the site, too, but some time after the battle had been fought.

Robert Anderson wrote, "Into the stream they leaped, but few got out alive. Instead many dead bodies floated down the rapid current." One captive Indian woman named Mariah from Big Meadows (Lake Almanor today), was one of those who did escape. The Three Knolls battle is also described in Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds.

Since then more has been learned. It is estimated that with this massacre, Ishi's entire cultural group, the Yana/Yahi, may have been reduced to about sixty individuals. From 1859 to 1911, Ishi's remote band became more and more infiltrated by non-Yahi Indian representatives, such as Wintun, Nomlaki, and Pit River individuals.

In 1879, the federal government started Indian boarding schools in California. Some men from the reservations became renegades in the hills. Volunteers among the settlers and military troops carried out additional campaigns against the northern California Indian tribes during that period.[10]

In late 1908, a group of surveyors came across the camp inhabited by two men, a middle-aged woman, and an elderly woman. These were Ishi, his uncle, his younger sister, and his mother, respectively. The former three fled while the latter hid herself in blankets to avoid detection, as she was sick and unable to flee. The surveyors ransacked the camp, and Ishi's mother died soon after his return. His sister and uncle never returned.[citation needed]

Captured into American society[edit]

After the 1908 attack, Ishi spent three more years in the wilderness, alone. Finally, starving and with nowhere to go, at around the age of 50, on August 29, 1911, Ishi was captured attempting to forage for meat near Oroville, California, after forest fires in the area.[11]

The local sheriff took the man into custody for his protection. The "wild man" caught the imagination and attention of thousands of onlookers and curiosity seekers. Professors at the University of California, Berkeley, Museum of Anthropology—now the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology (PAHMA)—read about him and brought him to their facility,[11] then housed on the University of California, San Francisco campus in an old law school building. Studied by the university, Ishi also worked as a janitor and lived in an apartment at the museum for most of the remaining five years of his life. In June 1915, he temporarily lived in Berkeley with the anthropologist Thomas Talbot Waterman and his family.[12]

Ishi (right) with Alfred L. Kroeber in 1911

Waterman and Alfred L. Kroeber, director of the museum, studied Ishi closely over the years and interviewed him at length in an effort to reconstruct Yahi culture. He described family units, naming patterns, and the ceremonies that he knew. Much tradition had already been lost when he was growing up, as there were few older survivors in his group. He identified material items and showed the techniques by which they were made. Ishi provided valuable information on his native Yana language, which was recorded and studied by the linguist Edward Sapir, who had previously done work on the northern dialects.

Lacking acquired immunity to the diseases common among European Americans, Ishi was often ill. He was treated by Saxton T. Pope, a professor of medicine at UCSF. Pope became close friends with Ishi, and learned from him how to make bows and arrows in the Yahi way. He and Ishi often hunted together.

Ishi died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. It is said his last words were "You stay. I go."[13] His friends at the university tried to prevent an autopsy on Ishi's body, since Yahi tradition called for the body to remain intact. However, the doctors at the University of California medical school performed an autopsy before Waterman could prevent it.

Ishi's brain was preserved and the body cremated. His friends placed grave goods with his remains before cremation: "one of his bows, five arrows, a basket of acorn meal, a boxful of shell bead money, a purse full of tobacco, three rings, and some obsidian flakes." Ishi's remains were interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Colma, near San Francisco.[14]

Kroeber put Ishi's preserved brain in a deerskin-wrapped Pueblo Indian pottery jar and sent it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1917. It was held there until August 10, 2000, when the Smithsonian repatriated it to the descendants of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River tribes. This was in accordance with the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 (NMAI).[15] According to Robert Fri, director of the National Museum of Natural History, "Contrary to commonly-held belief, Ishi was not the last of his kind. In carrying out the repatriation process, we learned that as a Yahi–Yana Indian his closest living descendants are the Yana people of northern California."[16] His remains were also returned from Colma, and the tribal members intended to bury them in a secret place.[15]

Possible multi-ethnicity[edit]

Ishi in 1913

In 1994, Steven Shackley of UC Berkeley learned of a paper by Jerald Johnson, who noted morphological evidence that Ishi's facial features and height were more typical of the Wintu and Maidu. He theorized that under pressure of diminishing populations, members of groups that were once enemies may have intermarried to survive. Johnson also referred to oral histories of the Wintu and Maidu that told of the tribes' intermarrying with the Yahi.[17] The debate on this remains unsettled.

In 1996, Shackley announced work based on a study of Ishi's projectile points and those of the northern tribes. He had found that points made by Ishi were not typical of those recovered from historical Yahi sites. Because Ishi's production was more typical of points of the Nomlaki or Wintu tribes, and markedly dissimilar to those of Yahi, Shackley suggested that Ishi may have been of mixed ancestry, and related to and raised among members of another of the tribes.[17] He based his conclusion on a study of the points made by Ishi compared to others held by the museum from the Yahi, Nomlaki and Wintu cultures.

Among Ishi's techniques was the use of what is known as an Ishi stick, used to run long pressure flakes.[18] This is known to be a traditional technique of the Nomlaki and Wintu tribes. This suggests that Ishi may have learned the skill directly from a male relative of one of those tribes. These people lived in small bands, close to the Yahi. They were traditional competitors and enemies of the Yahi.[18]

Similar case[edit]

Ishi's story has been compared to that of Ota Benga, an Mbuti pygmy from Congo. His family had died and were not given a mourning ritual. He was taken from his home and culture. During one period, he was displayed as a zoo exhibit. Ota shot himself in the heart on March 20, 1916, five days before Ishi's death.[19]

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • Ishi is revered by flintknappers as probably one of the last two native stone tool makers in North America. His techniques are widely imitated by knappers. Ethnographic accounts of his toolmaking are considered to be the Rosetta Stone of lithic tool manufacture.[20]
  • Kroeber and Waterman's 148 wax cylinder recordings (totaling 5 hours and 41 minutes) of Ishi speaking, singing, and telling stories in the Yahi language were selected by the Library of Congress as a 2010 addition to the National Recording Registry. This is an annual selection of recordings that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[21]
  • Writer and critic Gerald Vizenor led a campaign to have the courtyard in Dwinelle Hall at the University of California, Berkeley renamed as "Ishi Court".[22]
  • The Ishi Wilderness Area in northeastern California, believed to be the ancestral grounds of his tribe, is named in his honor.
  • Ishi Giant, an exceptionally large giant sequoia discovered by naturalist Dwight M. Willard in 1993, is named in his honor.
  • Ishi was the subject of a portrait relief sculpture by Thomas Marsh in his 1990 work, Called to Rise, featuring twenty of such panels of noteworthy San Franciscans, on the facade of the 25-story highrise at 235 Pine Street, San Francisco.[23]
  • Anthropologists at the University of California, Berkeley wrote a letter in 1999 apologizing for Ishi's treatment.[24]

Representation in popular culture[edit]



  • Lawrence Holcomb wrote a novel, The Last Yahi: A Novel About Ishi (2000).[29]
  • Othmar Franz Lang's young adult novel, Meine Spur löscht der Fluss (1978), is a fictional account in German.[30]
  • Merton, Thomas (1976). Ishi Means Man. Unicorn keepsake series. 8. foreword by Dorothy Day, woodblock by Rita Corbin. Greensboro, N. C.: Unicorn Press.

Stage productions[edit]

  • Ishi (2008), a play written and directed by John Fisher, was performed from July 3–27, 2008 at Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle review said the work "is a fierce dramatic indictment of the ugliest side of California history."[31]


Depicted in the video for "Blue Train Lines," a song by Mount Kimbie and King Krule. The video follows the story of the two anthropologists falling out. One proceeds to sell all of Ishi's possessions on eBay. (kimbie.2017)


  • Osamu Tezuka: The story of Ishi the primitive man, (first appeared in Weekly-Shonen-Sunday, Shogakkan in Japan, issue of Oct. 20th 1975, total 44 pages).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "ISHI: A Real-Life The Last Of The Mohicans". ISHI: A Real-Life The Last Of The Mohicans. Retrieved February 1, 2015.
  2. ^ Fleras, Augie (2006). "Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America". Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development. 27 (3): 265–268. doi:10.1080/01434630608668780.
  3. ^ Japenga, Ann (August 29, 2003). "Revisiting Ishi". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 31, 2019.
  4. ^ O'Connor, John J. (December 20, 1978). "TV: 'Ishi,' a Chronicle Of the Yahi Indian Tribe". New York Times. Retrieved January 30, 2019.
  5. ^ Higgins, Bill (March 20, 1992). "Makers of HBO's 'Tribe' Given a Warm Reception". The Los Angeles Times.
  6. ^ "Butte".
  7. ^ Ishi: A Real-Life Last Of The Mohicans, Mohican Press
  8. ^ Rockafellar, Nancy (date unknown). "The story of Ishi: A Chronology". Retrieved on 2011-01-14 from
  9. ^ "Ishi Biography"
  10. ^ Burrill, Richard (2001). Ishi Rediscovered. Barron's art guides, Anthro Company, 2001. ISBN 1878464515, 978-1878464514.
  11. ^ a b "FIND A RARE ABORIGINE.; Scientists Obtain Valuable Tribal Lore from Southern Yahi Indian". The New York Times. San Francisco. September 6, 1911. Retrieved September 2, 2012.
  12. ^ Ishi in Two Worlds, 50th Anniversary Edition. University of California Press. Retrieved August 28, 2012.
  13. ^ Kevin Starr (2002). The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s. Oxford University Press. p. 330. ISBN 978-0-19-515797-0.
  14. ^ "Ishi's Hiding Place", Butte County Archived July 16, 2006, at the Wayback Machine, A History of American Indians in California: Historic Sites, National Park Service, 2004, accessed November 5, 2010
  15. ^ a b Fagan, Kevin (August 10, 2000). "Ishi's Kin To Give Him Proper Burial: Indians to bury brain in secret location in state". San Francisco Chronicle. p. A-5.
  16. ^ "NMNH – Repatriation Office – The Repatriation of Ishi, the last Yahi Indian". Retrieved August 11, 2013.
  17. ^ a b 02.05.96 – "Ishi apparently wasn't the last Yahi, according to new evidence from UC Berkeley research archaeologist", News, University of Berkeley
  18. ^ a b "Some Inferences For Hunter-Gatherer Style and Ethnicity". Retrieved August 11, 2013.
  19. ^ Kroeber, Karl & Kroeber, Clifton B. (editors) (2003). Ishi in Three Centuries. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0803227576.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  20. ^ Whittaker, John (2004). American flintknappers: Stone Age art in the age of computers. University of Texas.
  21. ^ "The National Recording Registry 2010". Library of Congress. Retrieved April 10, 2011.
  22. ^ Samson, Colin (2000). "Overturning the Burdens of the Real: Nationalism and the social sciences in Gerald Vizenor's recent works". In Lee, A. Robert (ed.). Loosening the Seams: Interpretations of Gerald Vizenor. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. p. 288. ISBN 978-0-87972-802-1.
  23. ^ "Called to Rise". Public Art and Architecture from Around the World.
  24. ^ "UC Berkeley looks back on dark history, abuse of Yahi man 106 years later". The Daily Californian. Retrieved August 30, 2019.
  25. ^ "Local Screenwriter Dies". Ventura Breeze. January 20, 2011. Archived from the original on February 6, 2011. Retrieved January 26, 2011.
  26. ^ "The Last of his Tribe". ahafilm. Archived from the original on March 1, 2007. Retrieved December 11, 2011.
  27. ^ "Jed Riffe Films + electronic Media". Retrieved August 11, 2013.
  28. ^ dwpollar (April 18, 2001). "Ishi: The Last Yahi (1992)". IMDb.
  29. ^ Holcomb, Lawrence (2000). The Last Yahi: A Novel About Ishi. ISBN 978-0595127665.
  30. ^ Lang, Othmar Franz (1978). Meine Spur löscht der Fluss. Köln and Zürich: Benziger Verlag. ISBN 978-3545330726.
  31. ^ Hurwitt, Robert (July 14, 2008). "Ishi, Gripping Drama at Theatre Rhino". San Francisco Chronicle.

Further reading[edit]

  • Burrill, Richard. 2003. Ishi rediscovered. Chester, Calif: The Anthro Company. ISBN 1878464515, 978-1878464514.
  • Kroeber, Theodora; Kroeber, Karl (2002). Ishi in two worlds: a biography of the last wild Indian in North America. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-22940-2. OCLC 50805975.
  • Anthropologist Theodora Kroeber's book, Ishi in Two Worlds (1961), is a popular account of Ishi's life story. She published it after the death of her husband Alfred, who had worked with Ishi.
  • Theodora Kroeber published Ishi: Last of His Tribe (1964), a partially fictionalized version of his account.
  • Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History (1981), edited by Robert Heizer and Theodora Kroeber, contains additional scholarly materials.[1]
  • Ishi in Three Centuries (2003), edited by anthropologists Clifton and Karl Kroeber, Theodora and Alfred Kroeber's sons,[2] is the first scholarly book on Ishi to include essays by Native Americans. Native writers, such as Gerald Vizenor, had been commenting on the case since the late 1970s.
  • Samuel J. Redman's Bone Rooms: From Scientific Racism to Human Prehistory in Museums (2016), explores the complex story of efforts by tribes and the Smithsonian to collect and repatriate Ishi's bodily remains.
  • Anthropologist Orin Starn's book, Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last "Wild" Indian (2004), recounts the author's quest to find the remains of Ishi, while interpreting what Ishi meant to Americans and the modern American Indians today. (In 2000, Ishi's brain was returned to the descendant tribes, who placed it with his cremated remains.)[3]
  • Waterman, T. T. (1917). "Ishi, the Last Yahi Indian". The Southern Workman. 46. Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. pp. 528–537. See also audio narration at LibriVox's Short Nonfiction Collection Vol. 026 (2012).
  • Waterman, T. T. (January 1915). "The Last Wild Tribe of California". Popular Science Monthly. 86. pp. 233–244.
  • Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last 'Wild' Indian Starn, Orin, New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. (ISBN 0-393-05133-1)

External links[edit]

  1. ^ Heizer, Robert F. & Kroeber, Theodora (May 5, 1981). Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History. ISBN 978-0520043664.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  2. ^ Kroeber, Clifton & Kroeber, Karl (Editors) (June 1, 2003). Ishi in Three Centuries. ISBN 978-0-8032-2757-6.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  3. ^ Starn, Orin (2004). IIshi's Brain: In Search of America's Last "Wild" Indian. ISBN 978-0-393-05133-9.