- Historic Sites
The Last Stone Age American
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
It took hours before Waterman found other intelligible words, before he ascertained that Ishi was indeed a Yahi and that the language of this southern tribe was closely akin to the partly known dialect of the north, until he began to see the links and learn how to modify the pronunciation, until sentences formed and suddenly the moment came when Ishi asked his first question—a question, Waterman realized at once, to which he could give only one answer if he were to win the wild man’s trust. The question was “ I ne ma Yahi? ” (“Are you of our tribe?”) And Waterman, looking into those black eyes, said, “Yes.”
From that moment on Ishi emerged from the Stone Age into the world of modern man. But a few technical problems had to be solved first. The sheriff did not know what to do. Ishi was clearly neither insane nor dangerous, so what reason was there for keeping him in prison? On the other hand, what would become of him if he were released into a world that he could regard only as hostile and frightening?
The sheriff shifted the responsibility to Waterman, who gladly assumed it. Telegrams passed back and forth between Oroville and Kroeber in San Francisco. But this case was unprecedented; the Indian Bureau in Washington had to be consulted. After forty-eight hours the matter was finally settled. The sheriff signed a document that was probably unique in the annals of the law: a prisoner was turned directly over to a museum.
And then Ishi’s second life began.
Here we must turn the clock back to understand the kind of world from which Ishi had emerged and why his case was such a piece of good fortune for science. For Ishi’s life had followed the curve of a tragedy of almost classical Greek proportions, the tragedy of a whole people’s downfall.
From archaeological finds it can be more or less estimated that before the white immigration into California perhaps 150,000 Indians lived in what is now that populous state. They consisted of twenty-one nations, which were divided into more than 250 subgroups, tribes, and families in which 113 different dialects were spoken. Some of these dialects differed no more than Boston English from that of New Orleans, but many were as far apart as French and English. The Yanas constituted a sizable group. There were two or three thousand of them scattered east of the Sacramento River as far as Mount Lassen. About a thousand years before, they had retreated to the highlands and evolved into a predatory people. There were actually four tribes of them, of which the southernmost, the Yahi, lived in the vicinity of Mill Creek and Deer Creek. Linguistically, they belonged to the Hokan family. One curiosity, very rare throughout the world, was that men and women spoke a different dialect. The boys, for example, who were raised by the women, did not learn the male language until around their tenth year. And brothers and sisters addressed one another in the second person plural, making the respectful distinction that Frenchmen convey by tu and vous .
They lived the life of hunters, fishermen, and gatherers of fruits and roots; their basic food was acorn flour. They had no pottery but wove baskets for all purposes.
Their tragedy began with the California gold rush in 1849.
The land had drifted along under Mexican ownership. In 1848 it fell to the United States, and as a result of the gold rush there ensued a period of total lawlessness. In 1849 alone eighty thousand prospectors poured by sea and land into the river valleys and mountains, tough men with a high percentage of scoundrels among them. During the ten years to 1860 the white population increased to 390,000. The deeds and misdeeds of those years have undergone a romantic transfiguration; they have become legendary. Later it was said that they showed the American character at its best and at its worst. The group that suffered the most during that time were the Indians.
The aboriginals were driven back step by step. When they defended themselves with their few and poor weapons, when in their hunger they attacked wagon trains or plundered ranches, frightful reprisal campaigns were waged against them. Early in the sixties panic swept the country east of Sacramento when Indians, probably Yahi, killed five white children. But in the years 1862-67 tne whites had killed between three and four thousand Indians. One detail alone suggests the senseless cruelty of the times: the whites introduced scalping , which was unknown to the Californian tribes. Waterman relates: On good authority I can report the case of an old prospector-pioneer-miner-trapper of this region, who had on his bed even in recent years a blanket lined with Indian scalps. These had been taken years before. He had never been a government scout, soldier, or officer of the law. The Indians he had killed purely on his own account. No reckoning was at any time demanded of him.