Anthropologist-author Orin Starn chronicles the journey to find and return the brain of the ‘last wild Indian’
Ishi, the “last Yahi,” has been styled for nearly a century as a larger-than-life legend, a relic from a primitive time when Indians ran “wild” as white civilization’s Manifest Destiny began to rage around—and over—them.
But that’s Ishi the legend. A book released Feb. 9 lets readers know Ishi as much more.
The bluntly titled Ishi’s Brain: In Search of American’s Last “Wild” Indian reads like a mystery novel, accessibly written with descriptive language and well-developed characters at every turn. Alternately sad, horrifying, inspirational and just plain creepy, Ishi’s Brain shows what Northern California’s most famous Indian can teach current generations about history and healing.
Anthropologist Orin Starn pulls no punches in recounting his journey to discover if the rumors were true: that Ishi suffered a disturbing, final injustice.
After Ishi died in 1916 of tuberculosis, his brain, the literal and symbolic centerpiece of the book, was preserved against his wishes that he not have an autopsy. According to his people’s tradition and spiritual beliefs, his body would have to be buried whole, in his homeland, for his soul to be at peace.
When Starn, a Duke University associate professor, speaks at Chico’s Barnes & Noble bookstore on Feb. 21, he will be just 10 miles as the crow flies from where Ishi and the last members of his family remained undetected for years at what they called Wowunupo Mu Tetna, Grizzly Bear’s Hiding Place, up what is now Highway 32 toward Deer Creek.
Ishi was thought to be the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, although later research indicated that he was likely of mixed blood—perhaps Yana or Maidu.
“The story of the destruction of his people was much more complicated than we had assumed,” Starn said.
Ishi’s Brain includes gruesome accounts of white settlers killing Indians, including children. The state of California funded a $1 million Indian-hunting campaign in 1850, and virtually all newspapers of the time called for the extermination or exile of the natives, since some Indians had raided pioneer homes and killed whites. Starn writes, too, of Chico founder John Bidwell—also complex in that he seized Mechoopda land and exploited Indians for labor but at the same time protected them from murdering bands of settlers.
By the time anthropologist Alfred Kroeber brought Ishi to live, work and exhibit his skills in the University of California anthropology museum in San Francisco, Indians were considered remnants of a past best forgotten.
It was Kroeber’s second wife, Theodora, who told Ishi’s story in Ishi in Two Worlds, published in 1961, and the subsequent children’s book, Ishi, Last of His Tribe. The books brought attention to the horrors dealt Native Americans. But they were also, Starn found, rife with errors.
“I was very surprised as I went back to look at primary sources,” he said, that Kroeber got names, locations and even facts such as the date Ishi came out of the wilderness—Aug. 28, 1911—wrong. “She made up details and parts of the story in order to tell the story she wanted to and add to the pathos.”
Mainstream white America has had an inconsistent attitude toward Native Americans, Starn pointed out. By the early 1900s, the perception had shifted from one of hated “redskins” to a romanticization of the population that had been decimated, assimilated or herded to reservations. In the 1960s and ‘70s, some saw the old Indian way of life as a refuge from modern trappings. But in the last 15 years or so, Starn said, “one sees a return of a skeptical, negative view of native Californians because of casinos [and] the fact that Indians have money and influence. Americans have always expected that Indians would be victims and we could sympathize with them as underdogs and losers.”
Starn himself had romanticized Ishi and Indian ways as a boy, and at 19, in 1981, the Berkeley native sought to “help” natives, dropping out of school and driving to the Navajo Reservation with a friend in a Volkswagen bug to volunteer—not even realizing that Native Americans lived on in California.
But the idea of the “noble savage” reduces Ishi to a caricature, Starn said. In writing Ishi’s Brain, he wanted to go beyond the Kroeber-sanitized version of Ishi, living purely and uninfluenced by whites.
“Part of the project is humanizing Ishi,” Starn said.
In doing so, he wanted to be balanced and frank. In the book, Starn is candid about what he witnessed, including some of the local Native Americans’ squabbles and the Smithsonian’s alternating helpfulness and defensiveness.
Starn did worry that Ishi’s Brain “would sound too much like the National Enquirer, like I was trying to sell the macabre angle of the story.”
Starn’s involvement with the missing brain began when he heard that Art Angle of Oroville, who is Maidu, and his Butte County Native American Cultural Committee were petitioning local and state politicians to get Ishi’s cremated remains repatriated from Olivet Memorial Park near Colma, where they had sat in a Pueblo pot since his death.
When he first contacted Angle, Starn recounts in his book, he was nervous. “Anthropologists have often been guilty of snooping uninvited into other people’s lives,” said Starn, who had the dual problem of being white and an anthropologist.
But the pair’s first meeting spurred Starn on a quest to find out, once and for all, what had been done with Ishi’s brain. Berkeley officials had told Angle outright that there was no way Kroeber would have preserved the native man’s brain, but Angle wasn’t buying it—and neither did Starn.
Nancy Rockafellar, a UC San Francisco historian who had been tasked with tracking the brain after an article about Angle appeared in the Los Angeles Times, told Starn of the rumor that the preserved brain had been sent to the Smithsonian—and perhaps even destroyed to avoid a scandal.
One afternoon, just before closing time at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, Starn decided to poke around in a box of letters that had to do with, not Ishi, but the Smithsonian.
“I was astounded to find this correspondence,” he said, “to all of a sudden see the words ‘Ishi’s brain’ on these faded, old letters, and this fancy certificate saying, ‘Brain of Ishi (California Indian).'” Starn recounts that he reflexively stood up and backed away from the table, “I couldn’t quite believe that that had happened,” he said, that Kroeber would pack his friend’s brain in cotton and ship it cross-country via Wells Fargo express to Ale×s Hrdlic×ka for the anthropologist’s vast brain collection.
Ishi’s brain, Smithsonian item No. 60884, was in a Maryland storage facility, in Hrdlic×ka’s “wet collection” wrapped in cheesecloth and floating in Pod 3, Tank 6, among 32 other brains.
When a delegation of Maidu traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of the Smithsonian’s repatriation office, Starn was invited. That he had proved the location of the brain “created a degree of trust with native advocates.”
There, Smithsonian officials, who had said they didn’t know anyone had been looking for the brain, finally brought it out for the delegation to see.
“It was an extremely emotional moment. That fact of Ishi’s brain sitting there in a jar on the table was a very graphic, jarring sight.” The organ symbolized at once terror and survival, Starn said, and it moved Native Americans in the room to tears.
“For me, as a modern-day anthropologist, to see Ishi’s brain there as a result of action that had been taken by one of my own disciplinary ancestors also made the moment more personal and wrenching for me,” he said.
The next step was to get the brain back into Native American custody.
The movement toward repatriation in the late 1980s, Starn writes, “allowed whites to assuage their guilt about the mistreatment of Indians—yet without any costly sacrifice of their own, such as giving up land once seized by tribes.”
Well into the 20th century, anthropologists and others dug up Indian graveyards and ceremonial sites with abandon. The Smithsonian alone has 18,000 Indian skeletons in its collection.
Ultimately, the Smithsonian chose to repatriate the brain to the Redding Rancheria and Pit River tribes, considering them Ishi’s closest cultural relatives—a move that offended Angle and other members of the Butte County Native American Cultural Committee, who had spent years searching for the brain and paving the way to repatriation. “Usually, anthropologists tend to write a bit at a distance,” Starn said, but, “I felt the Smithsonian should have granted joint custody of the brain to the Butte County Native American Cultural Commission [as well].”
Yet Starn also came to be on good terms with those who ultimately retrieved the brain and details their journey toward closure as well.
In 2000, Native Americans gathered privately in the foothills of Lassen Peak to join Ishi’s brain with his cremated remains, which had been recovered from the cemetery.
“I think the final burial of Ishi was both important for Ishi and for contemporary Native Americans,” Starn said.
Though clearly a gifted writer, Starn admits that he detests the task, suffering from long bouts of writer’s block. “In this case, I felt it was especially difficult, because Ishi’s story is such an important one,” he said. “I felt a special obligation.
“I certainly would have liked to have known Ishi," he said. "I would have loved to have sat down with him and talked about San Francisco, his life, my life. He was a special and interesting person."