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.
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.