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LEGEND OF ISHI REVISED.

Byline: Stephen Magagnini Scripps-McClatchy Western Service

Ishi, the most famous Indian in California history, isn't quite what he was thought to be, two California anthropologists have said.

In 1911 Ishi - starving and near death - stumbled out of the foothills near Oroville and became an international sensation as the "last wild Indian in North America."

Alfred Kroeber of Berkeley, one of the leading anthropologists of the 20th century, proclaimed Ishi the last of the Yahi Indians, a lost tribe dating back to the Stone Age. The subject of books, plays and documentaries, Ishi earned a place in California history books as one who transcended man's inhumanity to man.

But contrary to what millions of California fourth-graders have been taught for half a century, Ishi was not the "last Yahi in the world," but was of mixed Indian blood, said Steven Shackley, an archeologist at the University of California at Berkeley. An analysis of Ishi's arrowheads, Shackley said Monday, indicates one of his parents probably belonged to the nearby Wintu or Nomlaki tribes - enemies of the Yahi.

"He produced arrow points that had long blades and were side-notched and bear a striking resemblance to those of the Wintu or Nomlaki," Shackley said. In contrast, Yahi arrowheads had small blades and were notched at the base.

Shackley's findings amplify those of Jerald Johnson, an anthropologist at California State University, Sacramento. Johnson contends that Ishi's extremely broad head and relative height were more typical of the Wintu and Maidu.

The Yahi were a sub-group of the Yana, considered the shortest Indians in California, Johnson said. "The women were under 5 feet tall and most of the men were less than 5 feet 3 inches. They had fine features, very small bones and long narrow heads compared to other American Indian groups.

"Ishi was large for an Indian, over 5-foot-6, and had one of the broadest heads they've measured in Northern California," Johnson said. "He looked completely different (from the Yahi) and would have stood out as a completely different person. There's a very good possibility that he's at least half Maidu or Wintu."

Maidu historical accounts tell of Maidu women stolen by the Yahi and taken into Mill Creek Valley 17 miles southeast of Red Bluff where Ishi lived, Johnson said.

There is also evidence that the Yahi married Wintu to perpetuate their tribe, which never exceeded 300 people, Johnson said.

The Yahi spoke a variation of Hokan, one of the oldest language groups in North America, "so their ancestors could be 12,000 years old," Shackley said. By 1000 A.D., the Yahi were being pushed into remote mountain areas of Northern California by the Wintu and Nomlaki.

That the Yahi were forced to marry their traditional enemies to survive only adds to the romance and tragedy of the Ishi legend, Shackley said. "He's an indication of how we can still survive through very dire circumstances."

Robert Bettinger, an anthropology professor at UC Davis, called Shackley and Johnson "both credible scholars" and said their findings aren't surprising, since most Indian groups in California intermarried.

Ishi probably learned Wintu or Nomlaki arrowhead-making from a male relative, Bettinger said.

More puzzling, Bettinger said, is why Ishi spoke Yahi, "this dead language," and not the language of the Wintu, Nomlaki or Maidu, who still number in the thousands.

Ishi was found outside a slaughterhouse near Oroville on Aug. 29, 1911, with his hair burned short in mourning. Local Indians couldn't communicate with him, and he thought the "Saltu", or "ghost whites," would kill him. Instead, he was taken to the UC Berkeley Museum of Anthropology, where he helped experts record his language, customs and delighted audiences by making fire or arrowheads.

Because he never gave his name, Kroeber called him "Ishi," which means "person" in Yana.

Ishi learned some English, and eventually became the museum's janitor. He died of tuberculosis in 1916, leaving an estate of $350.

The California State Indian Museum has its own Ishi wing, including Ishi's bobcat cape, and sponsors an annual Ishi Day (March 9) and an Ishi art/essay contest for fourth and fifth graders.

Ishi's popularity was due largely to his personality, said the museum's lead ranger, Tom Tanner.

"A lot of his group were hunted down like animals and shot" by white bounty hunters and ranchers, Tanner said.

Though he witnessed the extermination of his tribe, "he was exceedingly gentle and open, and had no bitterness or rancor," Tanner said.

Despite his genial disposition and amazing adaptability, "Ishi felt Western society was essentially silly - the only things that impressed him were matches and glue," Tanner said.

Ishi was embraced by Kroeber and other scholars, Johnson and some others say, partly because whites wanted to feel better about themselves for the genocide of Indians.

"A lot of people like to make him the symbol of the noble savage," Johnson said. "He was a remarkable person because of his willingness to share his culture, even though he was so badly abused."

There is a chance, however slight, that other Yahis roam undetected, in the remote Southern Cascade Mountains between Red Bluff and Chico, Johnson said.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 11, 1996
Words:854
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