- Historic Sites
The Last Stone Age American
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
Under such circumstances Ishi grew to manhood. By 1884 the desperate survivors of the little band had become less cautious, and news of the last Yahis began to leak out. There was little to go by, no more than rumors. Here and there an Indian had been seen and had vanished like a shadow; here and there a cowboy’s depot of foodstuffs had been plundered, but only dim traces of bare feet remained. These observations reached the newspapers, eked out with all kinds of journalistic imaginings. Today we know that Ishi was still living with four members of his tribe. Their last abode was wowunupo mu tetna , “the grizzly bear’s hiding place.”
“The site of Wowunupo is a narrow ledge …” Mrs. Kroeber reported, “five hundred or more feet above the creek, the only place where even the simplest of shelters could imaginably be built anywhere on the steep canon wall. Trees grow tall along this ledge, shading it and screening it from below and from the other side. From the ledge to the rim of the cañon, another two hundred feet, is bare cliff, sheer and impassable, which provided the village with a sheltered rear wall and perfect protection from above.”
And yet it was not safe enough. The whites were coming closer. First two of them, then a single man, caught sight of an Indian—and was driven back by an arrow. In 1908 Wowunupo was discovered. What the party of whites found was an ancient, sick Indian woman, covered with mats, as if her relatives had tried to hide her at the approach of the whites. Food and blankets were also found. When the whites returned next day, the old woman had also vanished. Later it was learned that Ishi had lived there with his mother, his sister, and one old and one young man. By the time the camp was found, the younger man was already dead; the others dispersed in terror and died in the wilderness. Only Ishi survived. The last of his tribe, he hunted alone through the woods for another three years, until he could no longer find anything to eat. Then, half starved, for the first time in his life he crawled up to the dwellings of the whites and was found that morning by the slaughterhouse fence.
Ishi arrived at the museum on Labor Day, September 4, 1911, and next morning was taken to Kroeber. Ishi’s status was not entirely clear. Was he, for example, an American citizen with the right to vote? The question was in fact officially submitted to Washington but was then tacitly dropped. Who would pay for Ishi’s support? Kroeber found the solution by putting the savage on the payroll as assistant janitor, and to everyone’s astonishment it turned out that Ishi fully satisfied the requirements of the job. He cleaned and swept with care and devotion.
The influx of the curious exceeded all expectations. Not only reporters and photographers but circus directors and vaudeville managers flocked to the museum. They wanted to hire Ishi, and one of them had the effrontery to ask Kroeber to join the Indian in a two-man show. Record companies wanted Ishi to sing for them, and movie companies wanted to have him appear in documentary and entertainment films. He even received a marriage proposal.
The anthropologists were fascinated by two different aspects of the case. First, how would a Stone Age man behave in the civilized world of the twentieth century; and second, what would he have to tell about his own world?
The “civilizing” of Ishi took place swiftly, and with some surprising results. He instantly accepted the clothing that was offered him—except for the shoes, which he put on only for special occasions. He who had run naked all his life now absolutely refused to be photographed without clothes; it was only some time later, on an outing to the wilderness, that he allowed it once more. He was extremely neat and orderly. Every day he took a bath—but then he had also done that in the wild. In this respect he was probably cleaner than the average white inhabitant of the West. The anthropologists took him to restaurants and to the theater. He was shy but immediately learned the use of knife and fork and “did not attract attention,” Mrs. Kroeber reported.
In the theater he was fascinated by the audience but showed no interest in what was taking place on the stage, not even at a performance of acrobats. His guardians were surprised at this, but they had noticed the same reaction when they had taken him to the ocean. The ocean, too, made no impression on Ishi, whose eyes had remained riveted on the “audience,” that is, the swarms of white people on the beach. For most of his life Ishi had known no more than a dozen other human beings; only during the raids of the later years had he learned of the existence of the white men, but he had had no conception of their numbers, and it was this that now overwhelmed him. Incidentally, Ishi could count from two to twenty, and when his wages were paid in half dollars he was quite aware of the difference between twenty and forty. In order to cash checks he had to sign his name. He learned to do that.