Who was Ishi?
On the evening of August 29th, 1911, near Oroville, California, a 50-year-old Indigenous American man walked out of the forest. He approached a man who was harnessing some horses to ride into Oroville for the night. The man had no name and spoke little of his native language, that of the Yahi tribe, to try and communicate. Not knowing what to do, the sheriff was brought out to see the man. Again, no one knew what to do. Finally, the sheriff gave some handcuffs to another “white man” and asked him to put the man in the cuffs. The native man, with no way to communicate, smiled and allowed the cuffs to be placed on his hands.
Who was this man? Where were his people? What did he need? And what was his name?
This amazing story is deeply sad but has to be told and retold so we may never forget what greed and belief in a superior race took from this man, as well as others. I will do my best to stay to the facts. I will not give names of the other men in this story because there is one person's story that needs to be shared, and I want him to be remembered and honored for his life and what was taken from him. Even a name was robbed from his life.
He became known as Ishi. In the Yahi culture, you would only be given a name by an elder in the tribe through induction into the tribe. People who could speak his language were found and brought to interview him, and he expressed that his tribal elders had died before he could be given a name. The word Ishi is the word for man in the Yahi language. So he would go by Ishi, or Man, for the remaining five years of his life.
Ishi’s story starts with the discovery of gold in California in 1847. Before that time, this part of the world had many thriving indigenous American tribes. They had traditions, an economy, a robust historical tradition, and family units that were generations upon generations old filled and with knowledge and skills. For the most part, they also had peace. But gold brought miners. Miners robbed the land, polluted the rivers, overhunted game, and exhausted resources. They had beliefs they pushed upon others. They, too, had losses that hardened them. But they committed genocide and believed they were right to do so.
Soon the stress to hold resources that a tribe would need to keep a healthy population was not a remote possibility. So much was taken from the land, and the tribes started fighting among themselves and killing each other to survive. Gold miners and the early settlers soon competed for food and land. By 1865, Ishi, then a child, would see his dwindling tribe of 40 massacred and reduced to 5 souls. The state of California offered $0.50 for an Indian scalp and $5.00 for the head of a member of the tribe. Some accounts of Ishi’s life say that during the Massacre of Three Knolls, he and his mother survived by slipping into the river to escape.
Surviving by hiding in the wilderness was the only way this tiny group could have a chance for any sort of life. Ishi, being a small child, watched the last of his people die one at a time. Ishi grew into an adult mostly alone, hiding from any tribe or settler, knowing that discovery would only bring death or worse.
It is believed that a survey crew in 1908 may have found some evidence of a lone living “wild man.”
Ishi would have been so squeezed he felt his time of hiding was coming to an end. So finally, starving and alone in 1911, Ishi decided to walk to his end.
By this time, some skilled and open minds could see the value of documenting a non-white life with such a history. Ishi would be a prisoner for the last four years of his life. An account was written of his life, and he shared skills he learned from his tribe before their demise. He became a living museum display. But Ishi was on borrowed time. His isolation meant he had no exposure to the many diseases white men carried. He, too, would eventually succumb to tuberculosis.
His story should put some perspective on our lives. Gold and land and beliefs have costs. We don't see them because we don't try to see them. They are hidden behind fabricated curtains that make us blind to the humans we will never meet. We will not know them. They will hide from us, and sometimes be hidden from us. They fear us - justifiably - and all they see from us is what we take. But we must find them. We must think about them and try to give them the same rights that we desire for ourselves.