Theodora Kroeber

Ishi in Two Worlds

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Ishi in Two Worlds Summary

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Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (1961), a biography by Theodora Kroeber, tells the story of Ishi, the last known Native American of the Yahi tribe of Northern California, who worked closely with Kroeber’s husband, Alfred, at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of California Berkeley. Ishi, found outside a slaughterhouse in 1911, was unable to communicate and an enigma to local authorities. Once he began his work with California anthropologists, however, he became a resource on the Yahi way of life, teaching academics and museum visitors about his culture, which, without his efforts and the efforts of the anthropologists who helped translate his words, would have been completely lost.

Theodora and Alfred Kroeber were both anthropologists. Theodora spent much of her life writing about Ishi and creating published story collections of folktales and myths from a number of tribes from northern California. Her work stretched fifty years from the early 1920s into the 1970s; her writing about Ishi was based primarily on her husband’s experiences working with him at the Museum of Anthropology from 1911 to Ishi’s death in 1915. She also wrote a fictionalized account of Ishi’s life a few years after publishing his biography. Ishi: Last of His Tribe tells the story of Ishi’s early life before he came down from the mountains and joined contemporary society.

Ishi in Two Worlds is broken into two parts – the first section of the book is an extensive history of the California Gold Rush settlers and their interactions with Native Californians during the mid to late 1800s. The Yana Indians, whose tribal lands were on the western edge of the central Sierra Nevada mountains, were almost completely destroyed by the California Genocide. Ishi was part of the southern tribe of the Yana Indians, the Yahi tribe. His people were completely eradicated except for one small group. This band of natives was determined not to let white settlers destroy what was left of their culture and their people, and so they hid in the mountains for almost fifty years, living their traditional way of life, speaking their language, and practicing Yahi customs.

Fifty years later, Ishi emerged from the wilderness near Lassen Peak, California. He was alone and about to die of starvation. The authorities found this “wild man” near a slaughterhouse and were unsure how to treat him or where he should be housed. Anthropologists at the University of California Berkeley, including faculty member Alfred Kroeber, hearing about Ishi, suspected he might be one of the few surviving members of the Yana tribe. They offered Ishi a home at their facility in Berkeley, and using a list of Yana words, Ishi and the anthropologists began to learn how to communicate with each other.

Because Ishi had lived his entire life up to that point in the wilderness and living off the land, he was amazed by the modern technology he discovered at the university. He found doorknobs, clocks, and typewriters fascinating. After he became more comfortable with the anthropologist team and more familiar with the English language, Ishi began to explain his tribal customs and history to the researchers. Fascinated by his Yana stories and his accounts of fishing and hunting practices and descriptions of handicrafts, the anthropologists began to thoroughly document Yahi culture in an attempt to preserve it. Ishi agreed to work in the museum, where he demonstrated some of his tribal customs to museum visitors, academics, students, and visiting researchers.

Unfortunately, much of Ishi’s culture was already lost by the time he talked with researchers. He described his family structure, some names, and ceremonies, but because of the California Genocide, most of the older and most knowledgeable members of his tribe had been killed long before he was born. The customs he knew were passed down from his ancestors, but much of his cultural knowledge had been lost before he came into the world.

Ishi’s name, which means “man” in Yana, is a stand-in for his full name. Anthropologists gave him this name after he told them that he could not tell them his name – in Yahi culture, a person must be named by another member of his tribe; Ishi, the last surviving member, thus had to remain nameless. In her biography, Kroeber details Ishi’s loneliness, the relationships he had with researchers, and his last five years in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is clear in the book that Kroeber is aware that telling his story to white researchers was Ishi’s last hope at preserving his culture, and that he had conflicted feelings about sharing his story with the descendants of the very people who had wiped out his tribe.

Ishi died five years after he emerged from the wilderness, at age 55 or 56. Because he hadn’t been raised in an urban environment around modern diseases, he was often sick. He developed a close relationship with his doctor, Saxton Pope. In 1916, Ishi contracted tuberculosis, and he died shortly thereafter. Theodora Kroeber wrote the biography of Ishi’s life nearly fifty years after his death, recreating his story from her husband’s notes, diary entries, newspaper clippings, and other archival information.