May 2, 2015

Ishi: in Two Worlds

by Theodora Kroeber

Ishi was the sole survivor of his tribe- one of the Yani that had lived in California for centuries before the gold rush overran their land with settlers and miners. Displaced by the encroaching white man and loosing their already tenuous livelihood when game was driven away or slaughtered, his people naturally turned to hunting the new animals settlers brought with them- cattle, sheep, horses. They didn't realize these animals belonged to men, as their only domestic animals were dogs. Retaliation was harsh. To keep it short, his tribe was deliberately exterminated. When Ishi was ten years old, the remaining few dozen of his people went into hiding after a devastating massacre. They were pretty much unseen, unheard of for several more decades until in 1908 a group of surveyors happened across a hidden camp where three or four people were living- including Ishi. He fled one way, his sister another, they never saw each other again. Three years later, in 1911, Ishi stumbled out into the modern world. He was in his early fifties. He had lived his entire life in a state of warfare, hiding from enemies, in fear of his life, watching his people dwindle, seeing his loved ones die. Can you imagine, after decades of living in a small group forever in hiding, after having wandered alone for months perhaps several years without a person to speak to, to then walk into the camp of your lifelong enemies, probably expecting to die at their hands?

And yet Ishi, to all accounts, seems to have handled his introduction into the modern world very well, After the initial shock, he realized people meant him no harm. People were so curious to see "the wild man" he was at first locked up in jail for his own safety, then taken to a university where eager anthropologists wished to learn about his vanished tribe, to study him. It sounds as if they were very gracious about it. Ishi had living quarters in the museum. A member of another California tribe was found who spoke a neighboring dialect, so language was not a complete barrier. Ishi learned enough rudimentary English to communicate fairly well. He adapted quickly to using modern conveniences; it was interesting to see which modern implements he admired and appreciated for the work they saved, and which he found puzzling or amusing- the telephone he seemed to consider a toy. He did not pine for his old way of life, in fact rarely spoke of it and never divulged much about his past- probably the memories were too painful. But he was content to demonstrate his skills over and over again to museum visitors and others- making bows and arrows, starting a fire, knapping arrowheads and so forth.

It is a very sober and intriguing story. Parts of it I found very interesting, others quite dry. This account is written in such a straightforward fashion, very factual and often dull to read. It's only by reading between the lines that you start to wonder what this man was really like, what a shock he must have experienced. The way Kroeber tells it, he was so grateful and glad to have human company again, he always wanted to be surrounded by others, to be among friends, never desired to go back and live in the hills again. Was cheerful, easily amused, patient and steady temperament, content with his life. A lot of the book is about the history of the area, the linguistic development of his tribe, what is known about their distribution and culture, early accounts from settlers in the area of conflicts and so on. It's very informative, but hard to get an idea of the human experience, the real person. I am glad to have read the book, to know what it contains, but it's not one I'm likely to read again just for enjoyment.

Rating: 3/5        255 pages, 1961

1 comment:

bermudaonion said...

That sounds like a fascinating story. I cannot imagine having such an abrupt change in my life. I wonder what happened to his sister.