Theodora Kroeber

Ishi, Last of His Tribe

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Ishi, Last of His Tribe Summary

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Published in 1964, Ishi, the Last of His Tribe is a biographical narrative written by American author and anthropologist Theodora Kroeber. The book is a children’s version of Kroeber’s 1961 title, Ishi in Two Worlds. Kroeber tells the “story from history” of Ishi, the final surviving member of the Native American Yahi people, from his boyhood in the hidden village of Tuliyani, to his death in 1916. Kroeber’s second husband, Alfred Louis Kroeber, was Director of the UC Berkeley Museum of Anthropology where Ishi came to live in 1911. Alfred Kroeber worked with Ishi, studying his culture and becoming his friend. Theodora Kroeber never met Ishi but based her books on her husband’s notes.

The Yahi were the southernmost group of the Native American Yana people, who lived in Northern California. A reclusive group of hunter-gatherers, the Yahi were adversely affected by the California Gold Rush. Their lands were closest to the gold mines, and white settlers and prospectors drove the Yahi from their food supplies and fought them for territory. A series of raids by settlers and Indian hunters in the mid-1860s decimated the Yahi population: the Yahi had no firearms and were quickly massacred.

Ishi was born in either 1861 or 1862, and the book begins when Ishi is thirteen years old. He lives with his Mother, Elder Uncle, Grandmother, Grandfather, girl-cousin Tushi, and Timawi, a young man from a different village. Tuliyani is hidden in the foothills of the Waganupa mountain. Living cautiously, the group is safe from the saldu, or whiteskins.

Ishi is now taller than his mother, and nearly a man. He goes to live with the men in the watgurwa. He is ready to build his first hunting bow and become a strong wanasi, or warrior, like Timawi. The two pick out a juniper branch for Ishi’s bow, working it from the tree with rasps and knives, since Grandfather warns the sound of chopping can be heard too easily.

The saldu are an ever-present threat. They make trails and hunt and fish on the Yahi’s land. One day, on his lookout rock, Ishi sees a saldu searching for gold. Ishi worries he will see Ishi’s trap line. Timawi cautions Ishi not to set his traps too close to trails. Ishi talks with pretty, gentle Tushi about the saldu. To Ishi, the saldu aren’t like real men: they are covered with hair like badgers or bears, they smell bad, and don’t know enough to keep their water clean.

The group prepares for their Harvest Feast and the coming winter by gathering wood, and covering the watgurwa, the storehouses, and the Mother’s house with a fresh coating of earth. They ensure that the baskets in the storehouses are filled with acorns, dried dear meat, smoked salmon, nuts, seeds, berries, tobacco leaves, and herbs for curative teas. No one fears the saldu in the winter, as the whiteskins don’t venture up the icy trails. During the snow moons, the Grandfather tells tales of Olden Times and the arrival of the whiteskins.

Grandfather relates his first encounter with the saldu. He had never seen a man on horseback, and thought they were dawana, or crazy. Horrified, he saw the scalps hanging from their belts. Grandfather, Elder Uncle, and Ishi’s father drove away the first saldu, and Ishi wonders why the People could not repel them all. Grandfather says there were simply too many, and they came too fast with their firesticks. Ishi learns that his father taught the villagers how to hide and tried to draw the saldu away from the villages. Ishi’s father was killed by the saldu.

Three years pass. Ishi journeys to the old villages and caves. He remembers the terrible stories of what happened to the People who used to live there. He visits Ancestor Cave, where his father’s bones are buried. When he returns to Tuliyani, the others know that he is “no longer a child in his mind, but a man; and, more than ever, like his father.”

One day, Ishi sees a saldu on horseback about to lasso and kidnap Tushi. Ishi shoots, hitting both man and horse. The horse dies, but the man escapes. The tribe realizes they are no longer safe and must leave Tuliyani. Timawi and Ishi go to look for a new village site. They travel near Timawi’s old village, where the young warrior sets a saldu storehouse on fire. Pursued by settlers, Timawi is killed. Ishi takes his body to Ancestor Cave.

Ishi finds a massive cave up a canyon that will be perfect for their new home. It is an old bear’s den they call Grizzly Bear’s Hiding Place, or Wowunupo-mu-tetna. The group settles into their “House of Flint,” though the grandparents die soon after. More time passes and saldu press closer. One day, saldu come to the cave. Mother is unable to walk. Ishi hides, and Elder Uncle and Tushi flee to the creek. The saldu take their food and possessions, but do not harm Mother. Ishi discovers that Elder Uncle and Tushi are dead: swept away by the flooded creek. Mother also dies. Alone and starving, Ishi leaves the cave to visit the old places, seeking the Trail to the Land of the Dead.

Ishi wakes beside a saldu slaughterhouse in Oroville, California. A kind sheriff takes Ishi to the jail and gives him clothes and food. Ishi doesn’t understand his speech and thinks the saldu will kill him. Soon a stranger arrives who can speak to Ishi in his language. He asks if Ishi wants to return to the Yahi world, but Ishi says that world is no more. The stranger, whom Ishi calls Majapa, takes Ishi on the train to his museum-watgurwa. At the museum, Ishi makes friends with a doctor and his son Maliwal, teaching them to build bows and to hunt. Ishi finally agrees to take Majapa and Maliwal to visit his old Yahi homeland. Ishi lives in the museum for four years until he dies of tuberculosis in 1916.