Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
August 12, 2000 - Issue 16

Ishi Goes Home
by Jacqueline Trescott Washington Post Staff Writer
photo courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst
Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley

After 83 years, the Smithsonian Institution is returning the brain of Ishi, one of California's most famous Native Americans, to his closest relatives.

Ishi was something of a sensation in the early part of the century. He wandered out of the woods near Oroville, Calif., and was believed to be the last of a tribe wiped out by disease and massacres. He was taken to the University of California at San Francisco, where he lived and worked in the anthropology museum until his death. Against his express wishes, he was autopsied after his death and his brain was sent to the Smithsonian, where anthropologists were amassing a collection of 300 brains for a study of brain size and race.

Over the years the brain was largely forgotten, according to the museum. The recent discovery that it was in a tank of preservatives at the National Museum of Natural History's warehouse in Suitland led to pressure for its return.

The transfer is expected to take place during a private ceremony with representatives of the Redding Rancheria and the Pit River Tribe, two Native American groups from Northern California. Ishi was a Yahi-Yana Indian and was believed for many years to be the last of his kind. After interviewing many representatives of the tribal governments who had some ties to Ishi's own lineage, Smithsonian officials decided last May that the two tribes were the closest living relatives and truly represented the Yana

The transfer was delayed, said Thomas W. Killion, a Smithsonian archaeologist, because the tribes also had to get permission to remove the cremated remains of Ishi from a cemetery in Colma, Calif. In addition the tribes had lengthy discussions about how to reunite the remains of Ishi. They are keeping their plans for his burial private.

The handing over of the brain--"the repatriation process"--will take place Tuesday during a religious ceremony at the Natural History Museum.

The case of Ishi's brain is one of the best-known aspects of the Smithsonian effort, beginning in the early 1980s, to return Indian remains as well as some cultural artifacts to Native American groups. The Smithsonian once had remains from some 18,000 Native Americans; it has returned 4,000 of those in recent years.

Yet none of them generated the pointed and emotional argument that surrounded the Ishi case. His name was familiar to nearly everyone who had studied California history. The case revived public debate over the treatment of Native Americans by white settlers, discussions that reached the California General Assembly and the U.S. Senate.

Ishi was better known than most Native Americans of his time because he survived what was believed to be the destruction of the Yahi, and then crossed over into a highly visible position in the white world. For 40 years he had lived in the forests of California with the remnants of his tribe. He apparently survived all of his companions and then emerged, starving and alone, in 1911. A local sheriff alerted an anthropologist at the University of California at San Francisco, and Ishi was hired at the anthropology museum there. For five years he worked as a janitor, posed for endless photographs and demonstrated arrowmaking and fire-building to visitors.

He cooperated with research projects, notably one that documented the Yahi language. It was the anthropologists who christened him "Ishi," which linguists believed was his tribe's word for "man."

He died of tuberculosis in 1916. His brain was donated to the Smithsonian by California anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who worked with Ishi at the university.

Letters from Kroeber, unearthed by Orin Starn, an anthropologist from Duke University, proved that the brain had been sent to the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian confirmed that it had been in the collections since 1917 and had hardly been touched.

In 1998, four tribes decided to reunite Ishi's remains in the Yahi homelands. It will be possible to complete that effort when the brain is handed over next week.

Ishi The Last Yahi

© 2000 The Washington Post Company
[In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]



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