Students offer a new way to experience the story of Ishi at Chico State’s anthropology museum
For Niles Reynolds and Robert Stevens, the current exhibit at Chico State’s Museum of Anthropology is more than just an opportunity to learn about Ishi, the “last wild Indian,” who walked out of the wilderness and into Oroville 100 years ago. For these two graduate students, it’s also an opportunity to see their education at work. As part of the Anthropology 467 course, titled Exhibit Research, Design, and Installation, they actually had a hand in what’s on display.
“It was a really collaborative effort,” said Stevens during a recent walk-through of Coming Home: Ishi’s Long Journey at the Valene L. Smith Museum, located on the first floor of Meriam Library on campus. “It was very rewarding.”
Adrienne Scott, curator of education at the museum, said even after a decade working there, she learns something new with each new crop of students. Because it’s a “teaching museum,” each exhibit offers students of the aforementioned class an opportunity to put their knowledge of gathering artifacts, handling them, writing labels and physically transforming the exhibit space into practice. Each student—there were 22 in the fall semester’s class—is responsible for one section, but they work together to create a cohesive experience, Scott explained.
“Anthropologists estimate Ishi was born in 1860, so that’s where we start,” she said, pointing to a timeline near the beginning of the exhibit. The timeline breaks Ishi’s story into three main sections: before he came out of the wilderness in August 1911, his life in San Francisco, and the repatriation of his ashes and brain to his ancestral lands.
Enlarged photographs are scattered throughout and several show Ishi in the wild during a trip taken with the UC Berkeley scientists who were studying him. They hoped the return to his homeland would offer insight into how Ishi and his small band of Yahi survived when so many others were either killed or gathered into encampments. Scott was careful to point out that even those photographs were staged.
“Some have argued that they depict more what [Alfred] Kroeber thought they should be than what really was,” she said, pointing to a photo of Ishi shooting a bow and arrow. Indeed, much of the exhibit explores the idea that despite much study, there is still quite a bit of mystery surrounding Ishi. A replica of part of the museum where Ishi lived in San Francisco shows some of the misunderstanding of Ishi, too, in that it lumped artifacts from many different Native American tribes together.
“We don’t even know his name,” Stevens offered, referring to the fact that Ishi simply means “man” in Yahi.
“There was a lot he held back, and rightfully so,” Scott added.
Reynolds, whose portion of the exhibit focuses on the songs and stories that Ishi recorded onto phonograph wax cylinders, hypothesizes that actually hearing Ishi sing and speak may be the closest we can get to the “real” Ishi.
“The myths and songs give us a closer understanding of his life before contact,” Reynolds said, standing next to two sets of headphones, one offering a listen to a song and the other an excerpt of the myth of Wood Duck. “Some have theorized that this version of the story of Wood Duck is his story, the story of his life. But still, it’s hard to know.”
By offering museum-goers the ability to sit and listen to Ishi, Reynolds is testing his theory that interactivity leaves people with a more lasting impression than merely looking at something and reading an explanation of it.
In the last third of the exhibit, which delves into what happened after Ishi died of tuberculosis—another consequence of contact with settlers. A nice video toward the end includes a Maidu woman telling the story of how she and other members of her and other local tribes got together to repatriate Ishi’s remains—something that just happened within the past decade—and what it meant them.
Stevens’ portion of the exhibit wraps it all up, asking museum guests to participate by offering their thoughts on Ishi and what his story means to them. They can sit in a small booth equipped with a webcam and computer and record their story, which is then available to watch on YouTube (log onto www.youtube.com/user/IshiDigitalMemory to view clips already uploaded).
“In this age of the Internet and social media, it offers a new way for us to collectively remember Ishi,” Stevens said of the Ishi Digital Memory Project. “To me, he’s become part of our culture, a sort of legend.