University of California San Francisco
CHC Home About the Center Research Education News Events Administration
Exchange Archives

22 September 2000

Ishi Laid to Rest, But His Story Doesn't Die

Eighty-four years after his death, Ishi is finally in his proper resting place. Last month, a small group of leaders of the Pit River tribes - descendants of Ishi's extinct Yahi Nation through the Yana tribe - reunited and buried his remains somewhere in the Northern California foothills of Mount Lassen.

This was Ishi's homeland, the place his people believed to be the center of the world. The ceremony was private, and the exact burial site was kept secret. That is how the tribal leaders -- who spent three years to remove Ishi from a spiritual limbo - wanted it. "That's quite appropriate," says Nancy Rockafellar, a research historian in the UCSF department of anthropology, history and social medicine. "Through the actions of the community of California Native Americans, Ishi's spirit has now been treated with dignity according to his own cultural traditions."

It was Rockafellar who helped trace Ishi's brain -- which, despite his wishes, had been autopsied by pathologists at UCSF in 1916 -- to a storage vault at the Smithsonian Institution. The Butte County Native American Cultural Committee began an effort in 1997 to locate and place Ishi's remains and spirit in his native homeland. According to Ishi's belief, a person could not find the land of death until all his parts were together. Everyone knew his ashes rested in a Colma cemetery, but the circumstances surrounding the removal of his brain -- and its whereabouts -- were a mystery. The attempts of the Native American group prompted UCSF Vice Chancellor Dorothy Bainton to commission an investigation by UCSF pathologist Walter Finkbeiner and research historian Rockafellar. With the assistance of Duke anthropologist Orin Starn, they finally located Ishi's brain at the Smithsonian in January of 1999.

A report by Rockafellar the following month set in motion a repatriation process mandated by the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires federally funded institutions to return Native American remains in their possession to the individual's lineal descendants or cultural affiliates. After an often frustrating year and a half, which included red tape delays and pressure from California legislators, the Smithsonian finally turned over the brain to California Indians.

Although Ishi's burial on Aug. 10 ends a chapter, it perhaps does not close the book, says Rockafellar. The story of "California's most famous Indian" or "the last wild Indian" is well-known to generations of fourth-graders studying California history. But the curriculum needs to be updated, she says, to recast the Ishi story in terms of the events of the past three years.

It was in August of 1911 when the near-starved Ishi emerged from the wilderness near Oroville. He was jailed by the local sheriff before being turned over to anthropologists at UCSF. They learned that he was a member of the Yahi tribe, which was massacred by white bounty hunters during the Gold Rush era. His father was killed in 1865, but Ishi and a handful of Yahi survived in hiding for more than 40 years.

He refused to divulge his given name because doing so would have been a breach of tribal etiquette, so anthropologists gave him the name Ishi, the Yahi word for "man." He would live the rest of his life at the Parnassus campus, which at the time housed the UC anthropology museum. Here, he readily became part of the medical community, befriending the doctors, nurses and patients. He worked as a janitor in the museum for $25 a week.

Ishi taught anthropologists about his language and tribal arts. On Sundays, he thrilled museum visitors who came to watch him start a fire with sticks, chip arrowheads and demonstrate his bow and arrow.

Anthropologists Thomas Waterman and Alfred Kroeber befriended Ishi and attempted, in their way, to protect him from excessive exploitation. But in the years before effective antibiotics they could not protect him from a disease that devastated California's Native Americans after the arrival of Europeans. In 1916, Ishi died of tuberculosis in a bed in the old UC Hospital. And his friends could not protect him from scientific zeal, as Rockafellar's report in February 1999 would reveal. When he died, UC physicians performed a routine autopsy and his brain was removed and preserved. Wrongly believing cremation was part of the Yahi custom, the rest of Ishi's body was cremated with artifacts thought meaningful to him -- a quiver of arrows, a basket of acorn flakes and a purse of tobacco. The ashes were poured into a small black jar, and on it the words were inscribed: "Ishi, the last Yahi Indian, died March 25, 1916." Less than a year later, after determining it could not be put to scientific use in California, Ishi's preserved brain was shipped to the Smithsonian.

While it was well-known that Ishi's ashes were placed in Olivet Memorial Cemetery in Colma, the mystery of the brain and its storage for eight decades at the Smithsonian was not solved until Rockafellar's report, which included some embarrassing truths and lessons.

"The inconsistency of cremating Ishi's remains and some of his belongings without the brain, in the face of their knowledge of his beliefs, reveals an odd rationale on the part of Pope, Gifford, Waterman, and Kroeber [the scientists who cared for Ishi]. As Gifford wrote at the time, they were truly attempting a 'compromise between science and sentiment,'" Rockafellar wrote.

"The lesson here is not merely an indictment of anthropologists and physicians of the past, but a harsh reminder of the destructive power of hubris," reported Rockafellar. "All participants in academic life must recall the historical context of individuals like Pope, Kroeber, and Waterman -- and remember that the source of their conviction that they were 'doing the right thing' was the scientific certainty of the day."

"This may be one of the most egregious cases of violating a Native American," Rockafellar last month told U.S. News and World Report. "He was a real friend to the white man. He spent virtually all his waking hours telling us about his culture and he was anxious to return to the land of the dead when he passed away."

But Ishi was perhaps more valued as an informant, scientific specimen and anthropological treasure than as a wonderful human being, says Rockafellar, who feels it is her role -- and that of other historians -- to amend and retell Ishi's story.

"Like all Anglo accounts of the story of Ishi that are based upon written documents and photographs produced by whites, we fall short of the mark in attempting to 'know' Ishi," Rockafellar said in her report, which also looked at the primary documents produced during Ishi's lifetime. "We are forced to see him through the recollections of his white companions in the early 20th century."

Yet, Ishi's reburial has brought a new dimension to his story. Last weekend, the Pit River tribes and the Redding Rancheria hosted a repatriation celebration at Mount Lassen National Park, inviting all who were involved to honor Ishi once again "in a good way." The event included a salmon and venison feast, as well as traditional Yahi and Yana songs and ceremonial dances.

Thomas Killion from the Smithsonian, park rangers, and UC Berkeley faculty and students attended. Rockafellar came as a UCSF representative and reported "a strong message of reconciliation between the Native American people and white people of California. I got a feeling for the preciousness of the songs and dances that had been passed down the generations in spite of white attempts to stamp out Indian culture. And now Ishi had come home to a very vibrant world of traditions and honors."

The return of Ishi to his homeland steered attention back to Rockafellar's 1999 report and recommendations, which, she says, still apply.

The saga and events of the last three years provide an opportunity to "enhance and consolidate the record of Ishi's story," says Rockafellar. She has put together an "Ishi Chronology" listing relevant dates, from 1840, when about 400 Yahi existed in California, to Ishi's time at UCSF and the events leading to reuniting of his body parts. The chronology could soon be available via the library's Ishi history web site.

She also suggests that the campus, through its connections with teachers in the San Francisco area, aid in the rewriting of curriculum and refurbishing and distribution of classroom materials once used to teach youngsters California history. Teaching kits from the Phoebe Hearst Museum, for example, contain Ishi photos and tapes of Yahi songs he recorded, but they are not used much today and require some restoration.

Her report also suggests a center or reading room at UCSF that could serve as a place for reflection and study of the complex story of Ishi.

One of the stark realities revealed by her report was the utter helplessness of the UCSF medical community in the face of infectious disease in the early 20th century. She recommends that the campus explore establishing a scholarship fund for Native American students, and utilize current outreach and care programs to expand work done on behalf of Indian health and tuberculosis prevention.

And although Ishi is finally at rest, she says, the issue of American Indian repatriations is far from resolution. The Ishi affair it turns out is an exception. Ten years after Congress ordered the return of Native American remains, federal records show only 10 percent of the 200,000 remains estimated to be in public collections are accounted for.

A Compromise between Science and Sentiment: A Report on Ishi's Treatment at UC, 1911-1916
UCSF Library's Ishi Web site

Copyright 2014 The Regents of the University of California