Ishi’s legacy

A century later, the ‘last wild Indian’ continues to teach us about Native American life, California history and humanity

View of Ishi country along upper Deer Creek, Tehama County, 1995.

View of Ishi country along upper Deer Creek, Tehama County, 1995.

Photo By Steve Evans

10th annual Ishi Gathering and Seminar
This year’s event will take place April 29-30 in Oroville and is hosted by the Butte County Historical Society. Some of the events are as follows:
April 29, 1-4:30 p.m., at the Oroville Centennial Cultural Center, 1931 Arlin Rhine Drive: Seminar with a diverse group of panelists who will discuss what Ishi means today.
April 29, 5-6:30 p.m., at the Ehmann House, 1480 Lincoln St.: Author Richard Burrill will unveil his newest book about Ishi, Ishi’s Untold Story.
April 30, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., at the Butte County Historical Society Museum, 1749 Spencer Ave. and noon-4 p.m. at the Lake Oroville Visitor Center, 917 Kelly Ridge Road: Demos and hands-on instruction in such traditional activities as archery, flintknapping and fire-making, among others.
For more information on events and to register, log onto the historical society’s website at or call 533-0418.

The story of Ishi is familiar in part because it’s so remarkable. Known across California and beyond as the “last wild Indian,” he simply walked out of the wilderness one hot August day in 1911 and into civilization. He was 49 years old, or so they estimated, and he was to become one of the most famous Native Americans in history.

What seems to surprise people about Ishi was his ability to embrace Western culture while remaining true to himself. He wasn’t the “savage” that people thought he would be; he was amazingly similar in emotions and behaviors to the white anthropologists who became his friends.

“We make a big thing about these people being Russian, or these people being Indian. But we all have the same basic needs—we all cry, we all laugh,” said Richard Burrill, a teacher and author who’s been writing about Ishi for decades. “There are many more similarities than differences, and that’s what anthropology teaches us.”

Many of the photos of Ishi show his broad smile, big enough to be contagious. Everyone expected Ishi to be surprised by modern inventions, but nothing seemed to faze him. In fact, he adapted quickly to life in a big city. And he seemed happy to share his knowledge and the way he lived with others, even venturing out into his homeland with his scientist friends to teach them how he hunted and survived off the land.

“He showed people how to make bows and arrows, living off the land, being part of the land. He was one of the last bastions of knowledge of the old ways,” said Eric Josephson, a member of the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu. “Nowadays I can tell people how to do things in an Indian way and they look at me like I’m crazy. [For instance], if you grind up an acorn for flour and coat your hair, that’s instant hairspray. We weren’t stupid.”

But it took hindsight for white civilization to embrace the ways of the Native Americans, rather than shun them, casting them aside as “uncivilized.” In the hundred years since Ishi appeared on the outskirts of Oroville, countless people—authors like Burrill, documentary filmmakers, local tribe members and anthropologists—have studied him, hoping to learn more about how his people survived for so long without modern conveniences.

People continue to learn about Ishi and his way of life. Several new discoveries have been and are being made right now. Burrill, who created the annual Ishi Gathering and Seminar 10 years ago in Butte County, is about to release a new book with transcripts of Konkow Maidu oral history that points to the possibility that Ishi, heretofore thought to have been a Yahi Indian, was actually half Maidu. And over at Chico State, anthropology students are hard at work identifying animal bones found in a nearby cave inhabited for more than 1,000 years before white settlers came to California.

For Burrill, and others who have found themselves captivated by Ishi, there is no end to what the story of the “last wild Indian” can teach us.

Ishi was found outside a slaughterhouse near Oroville and immediately taken into custody at the Butte County Jail. Other Native Americans from the area, including relatives of Josephson, were called in to translate, but nobody spoke the language of this strange man. He apparently came from the Yahi tribe, which hailed from the area just southwest of Lassen Peak between Mill and Deer creeks. But that tribe had been wiped out, people thought—that is, until they met Ishi.

After his appearance, word spread quickly, catching the attention of anthropologists at UC Berkeley, who swiftly picked up the wild man and brought him to their facility in San Francisco. As he would not reveal his name—it was not proper to do so, at least not in reply to a direct question—they called him “Ishi,” the Yahi word for “man.”

Ishi lived out the last five years of his life in the Bay Area, much of that time being spent at the anthropology museum, where he lived, worked as a part-time janitor, and shared what he could with the men studying him.

“Ishi was animated and popular with all who met him. A special bond with Ishi by children was observed,” writes Burrill in one of his many books on the subject, Ishi Rediscovered. “This often occurred instantly. Ishi’s big flashing, friendly smile was contagious. It drew not only children to him but also the adults.”

It’s this positive attitude and good humor that make Ishi’s story so compelling. Few people today can imagine such forgiveness and strength of character considering what Ishi endured as a child and growing up in the wild, when white men were paid by the state of California for every Indian they killed.

This probable first photograph of Ishi was taken after he was found outside a slaughterhouse near Oroville on Aug. 29, 1911.


As a southern Yana or Yahi Indian, also known in this region as Deer Creek or Mill Creek Indians, Ishi endured several massacres of his people until there were just a few survivors. An article from the Chico Weekly Courant dated Nov. 18, 1865, reprinted in Lyn Dunlap-Batt’s book Conflicts Between Settlers and Indians in the Northern Sierra Foothills, provides a glimpse of the attitude of the times:

“Nothing but extermination will prevent them from committing their depredations. It is a false notion of humanity to save the lives of these red devils. There should be no prisoners taken, but a general sacrifice made of the whole race. … If necessary let there be a crusade, and every man that can carry and shoot a gun turn out and hunt the red devils to their holes and there bury them, leaving not a root or branch of them remaining….”

That story appeared just a few months after the Three Knolls Massacre, when about 40 Yahi were killed near Black Rock, their bodies sent floating down the swift current of Mill Creek. Ishi reportedly made mention of the attack, though he spoke little of his life in the wild, and said he and his mother escaped by floating in the water among the dead bodies. It is estimated that the number of Yahi after this attack was reduced to about 60. (In comparison, they numbered around 400 before the settlers arrived.)

Six years later, they had dwindled even further, and when a group of Indian hunters, including a man named Norman Kingsley, came upon a Yahi camp at a cave near Lassen Peak, they killed about 30 of them. It’s here that Kingsley notoriously said he switched guns inside the cave, where the children were—he could not bear to use his larger-caliber rifle because “it tore them up so bad, especially the babies.” That place, dubbed Kingsley Cave, is located in the Ishi Wilderness of Lassen National Forest.

Ishi once again survived the attack, but was now one of just a handful of Yahi left. They went into deep hiding for the next 40 years, their sightings becoming the stuff of legend because everyone believed them to be extinct.

Richard Burrill has become one of the foremost scholars on Ishi, having published several books on the man since first reading Theodora Kroeber’s best-selling book Ishi in Two Worlds back in 1970.

“I was very taken by that book,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Susanville. “It’s a little bit romanticized, but a very ahead-of-its-times book. It exposed the near genocide of the natives in California.”

Richard Burrill has dedicated much of the past few decades to studying and publishing books about Ishi. He founded the Ishi Gathering and Seminar that is now put on by the Butte County Historical Society.

Photo courtesty of Richard burrill

Burrill, an anthropologist and educator, sees importance in teaching about Ishi, and so has devoted much of the past few decades to gathering as much information as he can—from writings of the scientists who studied Ishi when he was alive to the history of Butte and Tehama county families who met him and members of local tribes whose stories include Ishi and his people.

In fact, since he began uncovering Ishi’s history, Burrill has discovered a number of things that contradict the very book that set him off on his journey. One of those things is the bloodline of Ishi, which has been called into question by other scholars as well because of the shade of Ishi’s skin, which was lighter than the Yana, and the shape of his face, which was round like the Maidu, not long and slender like the Yana.

Burrill has found further evidence of Ishi’s mixed heritage, based on Konkow Maidu oral history, that he explains in depth in his latest book to be released April 29 at the Ishi Gathering and Seminar in Oroville. The book, titled Ishi’s Untold Story, includes excerpts from a manuscript he’d been seeking since 1998, when its author, John W. Duncan III—a white man—passed away before being able to publish it. In February, 13 years later, Burrill finally obtained a copy of the manuscript from Duncan’s family.

The unpublished material includes verbatim oral history from Konkow Maidu shaman Bryan Beavers, now deceased.

“The crux of Bryan Beavers’ ‘The Good Yahi’ oral history is that in about 1830, a Yahi raiding party traveled south to the Feather River country and kidnapped one of the Maidu’s 9-year old daughters for a future bride for one of the Yahi raiders,” Burrill writes in his new book. “Time passed, and after the young girl came of age, she was married to the Yahi raider whose Northern Yana or Yahi name was Yètati. The second child, born to this blended couple in about 1854, was a baby boy who grew to adulthood. That male became known as Ishi.”

Burrill’s focus as an educator is on making sure younger generations get the whole story, particularly where it concerns the treatment of Native Americans by whites in the mid- to late-1800s.

“What we are telling our students in our history books is not all true,” Burrill said. “There was a near genocide of the California Indians, and Ishi’s tribe was right in the middle of it. I think we need to know that history and be better from it and not repeat it. That’s part of the Ishi story—his tribe was diminished by events that had to do with a lot of violence, and a lot of racism.”

The Ishi mural in Bicentennial Park, Oroville.

Photo By Meredith J. Graham

Ishi’s ability to adapt in a world where he was not only a minority, but also a spectacle because of his unique status as the last man to have been born and raised entirely apart from European-American civilization, has captured many imaginations.

“His is an amazing story of resilience and survival of the human spirit,” said Jed Riffe, producer of the 1992 documentary film Ishi, the Last Yahi. Riffe was in town for a talk at Chico State, the first in a series focusing on Ishi to mark the centennial of his coming out of the wilderness. “To survive after seeing your people massacred and come out of it as open as he was with us was really remarkable.”

During his 50-minute talk April 7, Riffe unveiled the beginnings of his newest film, tentatively titled Ishi’s Brain. In just the second screening of the first 15 minutes of the documentary, Riffe offered a glimpse into a more recent chapter in Ishi’s story. When Ishi died, his body was cremated, but his brain was preserved. The film follows a group of Maidu Indians from their home in Butte County to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., to which they’d tracked Ishi’s brain. (The 2004 book, Ishi’s Brain: in Search of the Last “Wild” Indian, by anthropologist Orin Starr, covers much the same territory.)

The brain was eventually given to the Redding Rancheria, whose members include Northern and Central Yana, the tribes found by the Smithsonian to be closest to Ishi. It brings up the emotional issue of repatriation of Indian remains, one tribes are still struggling with today. Eric Josephson said by phone from his home in Shasta County that he’s been working to try to get 230 of his people repatriated so that they can be reburied. Right now they’re in boxes in a museum in the Bay Area, he said.

“The information on Ishi—keep it all available for students to study,” he advised, “or there will be nothing left for them to study and they’ll go out and dig up more of my relatives.”

Josephson has a point. Part of the reason so much new information—including much of what was documented in Ishi, the Last Yahi—is still coming out is that one of the lead anthropologists who worked with him, Alfred Kroeber, sealed all his research after Ishi’s death.

“We were the first people to get to see Alfred Kroeber’s actual notes, and that was 25 years after his death [in 1960],” Riffe explained. (Kroeber’s wife, Theodora, published Ishi in Two Worlds in 1961, though she never met the man.)

Chico State professor Frank Bayham discusses the identification of an animal bone fragment found in Kingsley Cave with student Jake Martin during a zooarchaeology lab. Bayham will discuss some of the findings at an anthropology forum at 4 p.m. April 28 in Ayres 120.

Photo By meredith j. Graham

As Riffe was sitting at a table at a Chico restaurant following his talk, several professors in Chico State’s Anthropology Department approached and complimented his work. Many educators show Ishi, the Last Yahi in their classrooms, including Frank Bayham, who explained that even after multiple viewings the film is still amazingly powerful.

Bayham teaches zooarchaeology—the study of animal bones—at the university and is currently sifting through the remains found in Kingsley Cave. When the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, it set up a process for museums and the government itself to return certain cultural items to Native American tribes.

After Ishi’s brain was repatriated in 2000, Lassen National Forest began the process of returning culturally significant items, including the human remains found in Kingsley Cave, to local tribes. All the items found in Kingsley Cave, which was excavated in the 1950s, were part of the Native American collection at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, Bayham explained. When they were called upon to return the human remains and funerary objects to be reburied, they also returned the animal bones to Lassen National Forest officials, who in turn brought them to Chico State to be analyzed.

“Basically, all of these remains tell us how people lived on a day-to-day basis,” Bayham said in his archaeology lab, as he pointed to several students who were working to identify various fragments. “We can learn what species were important in their diet and how they butchered animals. It all gives us an idea of the texture of their lives.”

Kingsley Cave is a wealth of information because it was used for a very long time by native tribes—probably more than 1,000 years before they ever had contact with white settlers. Because of this, Bayham explained, he and his students hope to uncover not only how the tribe lived a thousand years ago, but also how their diet may have changed once the settlers encroached upon their land.

Bayham refrained from revealing to this reporter too many of his findings, offering instead to enlighten all who are interested at his anthropology forum April 28 (4 p.m. in Ayres 120 on the Chico State campus). He did say, however, that his hypothesis that the tribe’s behavior would have changed fairly drastically after the arrival of the settlers is not holding true.

There are well more than 1,000 bone fragments to sift through and identify, and each one takes painstaking work by students and teacher alike to first match with “known bones” and then catalogue.

“I’m not in a rush,” Bayham said.

Clearly, there’s plenty left to learn.