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Adventures in Anthropology  

Synopsis of Ishi's Life

by Richard Burrill

Ishi [pronounced ISH′-ee] was a child when his Yahi/Yana people were murdered in a series of massacres by settlers in the northern California region. After these horrific massacres, the young child we now know as Ishi and a small group of his relatives retreated into the wilderness for almost thirty- five years (called the “Long Concealment”). On August 28, 1911, hungry and wearing his hair burned short in mourning, Ishi wandered to the outskirts of the city of Oroville and was found at the Charles Ward Slaughterhouse. Ishi was taken to the jail house, for lack of anywhere else to take him, and immediately became a sensation. The newspapers called him the “Wild Man of Oroville,” and newspapers all over the country wrote of his appearance. The anthropologists at the University of California had long been piecing together the rumors about the existence of this small hidden band, and T. T. Waterman was dispatched to Oroville to meet with him. Waterman brought a Northern Yana word-list with him, and succeeded in opening communication with the Yana language representative. Waterman brought Ishi to San Francisco, where he lived for the rest of his life in the UC Museum of Anthropology that opened for the public for the first time on October 1, 1911. Less than five years later on March 25, 1916, Ishi died of tuberculosis, which ended an epoch in human history.


    Ishi’s death was deeply mourned by his friends and by all the public who had met him. His friend, surgeon Dr. Saxton Pope Sr., however, directed his staff to do an autopsy to determine exactly how his friend died, and Ishi’s brain was preserved for science, contrary to what Professor Alfred Kroeber wanted. Efforts to find (in the Smithsonian) and repatriate Ishi’s brain were rewarded in August 2000. All of Ishi’s physical remains were buried in the Ishi Wilderness in a privately conducted Native American ceremony.


    Theodora Kroeber, author of Ishi In Two World (1961) reflected about this man, “Howsoever one touches on Ishi, the touch rewards. It illuminates the way.”

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