This Man was Called "the Last Wild Indian in America"
This Man was Called “the Last Wild Indian in America”

This Man was Called “the Last Wild Indian in America”

Mike Wood - May 17, 2017

American history is full of firsts – it befits a nation as young as the United States – but few lasts. If if you’re a Native American, however, you might see that statement completely the other way around. If you were Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe, you almost certainly would see it that way.

Ishi was the final Native American to live without European contact, something that he managed for the vast majority of his life. Born in the wilderness interior of California during the Civil War era – his exact birthdate is unknown – and raised as a member of the Yahi tribe, Ishi’s early life was a microcosm of the early American colonization of the West.

His tribe were massacred, their land forcibly taken and their livelihood decimated. Alienated from anyone who spoke their language and unable to practice their culture, the Yahi lived nomadically in the huge forests of the Californian hinterland, surviving on the few deer remaining to hunt and their extensive knowledge of their environment. They avoided contact with the white man, an aversion based on well-founded fear. Gradually, as members of the group died off, the man who came to be known as Ishi became the last of his tribe.

This Man was Called “the Last Wild Indian in America”
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The circumstances of Ishi’s life cannot be separated from the history of Native Americans in the western United States. Prior to European contact, the Yahi people were just one of the larger group of Yana that inhabited the areas of Northern California around the Sierra Nevada, living on the plentiful fauna of the forests and the vegetables that could be harvested from their environment. Anthropologists chart their numbers in the late 18th century as being around 1500-2000 individuals, scattered in small groups that roamed between the Yuba and Feather rivers, not far to the north of what is now Sacramento.

Before Ishi was even born, the writing was on the wall for his people. The defining moment in the history of the Yana would take place in 1848, when gold was discovered in the town of Coloma, some 100 miles to the south. Once it had been announced to the US Congress in late 1848, 300,000 people arrived in California – which was at the time not even a state – within a year to seek their fortunes mining gold. The “Forty-Niners”, as they were known, completely changed the demographics of the area from predominantly Native American, californios (Spanish-speaking settlers) and a smattering of White missionaries and agricultural farmers to a free for all of Americans, Chinese, Europeans and Latin Americans.

There was, unsurprisingly, little place for Native Americans. When the first round of easily attainable gold was gone, the prospectors moved further into the mountains, seeking their fortunes upstream. The indigenous residents of these areas were paid little heed when there was gold at stake: they attempted to resist but, lacking guns, were massacred consistently.

To compound that, the Forty-Niners brought a whole host of diseases with them to which the Yana had no immunity. The salmon of the Yuba and Feather rivers, from which they had derived food for generations, was taken too. A population that was estimated at 3,000 in 1848 was reduced to barely 400 by Ishi’s birth in the early 1860s. It was into this maelstrom that Ishi was born.

This Man was Called “the Last Wild Indian in America”
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Ishi’s true name is not known – the Yahi, his subgroup of Yana, had a taboo against naming themselves or the dead – and his was given the epithet because “Ishi” means “man” in the Yahi language. When he was an infant in 1865, his tribe were attacked while sleeping and some 30 members killed, leaving the rump of the group to flee further into the mountains. Historians estimate that the whole Yana/Yahi tribe was now comprised of just 60 people.

Understandably afraid, Ishi and his family were reticent to have further contact with white settlers. They lived in near complete isolation for the next 40 years. Ishi was raised completely without White influence and in the traditions of the Yana culture, probably the last individual to do so. After a further encounter with white surveyors in 1908 killed his mother and three remaining tribesmen, he wandered alone for three years. When an extreme forest fire in August 1911 caused extreme food shortages, Ishi was found foraging for food near the town of Oroville, CA and captured by authorities. He was the first – and indeed, last – Yahi to have any contact with Europeans.

When Ishi walked down from the mountains, he was around 50 years old. There was a huge local interest in him as the last of his tribe. Anthropologists from the University of California, Berkeley brought him to the Bay Area to discover more about the Yahi culture. He revealed their complex structures of naming – that he himself had never been given a name, for there was nobody to name him – and their familial structures, their rituals and ceremonies, their language and their technologies. He stated that there was much of the old culture of the Yahi that he did not know, because the elders of his tribe had all been killed.

This Man was Called “the Last Wild Indian in America”
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While in White society, Ishi was often sick. He lacked immunity to many diseases and required regular medical treatment. Saxton T. Pope, a medical profession in San Francisco, treated and befriended him and they would go hunting together, with Ishi showing Pope the techniques he had used in the wilderness to survive, such as making bows and arrows. The two anthropologists who had studied Yahi culture, Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Talbot Waterman – who had housed Ishi in his own home – made hours of recordings of recordings of Ishi talking and singing in his native language, as well as teaching him to speak rudimentary English.

Ishi remained susceptible to European diseases and in 1916, he succumbed to a tuberculosis infection and died. Despite the traditions of Yana culture, an autopsy was performed and his body cremated. His brain was sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where it would remain for over 80 years. Finally, Ishi was laid to rest in a secret location near the rivers and mountains that he once called home by the Pit River Tribe, one of the remaining bands of Native Californians, some 50 miles or so from where he first stepped into the modern world in 1911.

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