The Last Stone Age American


Here also they saw him using his wonderful bow. He shot a bird in flight, rabbits at five yards, and deer at distances up to forty yards. They watched him gliding with perfect noiselessness through the thickets but could never manage to imitate his silent movements any more than they could master the acrobatic art with which he swung over the canyon cliffs on a rope he had made himself. They eagerly took notes as he gradually identified more than two hundred plants and explained their uses as food or medicine. And they were deeply moved by the stoic patience with which he would lie in ambush for hours, if need be, not moving a muscle, waiting for game to emerge from hiding, for he recognized its presence infallibly.

All through this time the scientists kept expecting that their friend Ishi would turn away from them emotionally, that he would want to stay in the wilderness where he had grown to manhood. But nothing of the kind happened. Instead, Ishi kept begging them to go home, and “home” was his room in the museum. When the Bureau of Indian Affairs once more raised the question of whether Ishi should not be sent to live among his own kind on a reservation, Kroeber had to transmit the proposal to him. Ishi replied: “I will live like the white man for the remainder of my days. I wish to stay here where I now am. I will grow old in this house, and it is here I will die.”

And that was how it was.

In 1915 Ishi fell sick, and his condition steadily worsened. Soon there could be no doubt that he had tuberculosis. He spent a long time in the hospital under the care of his friend Dr. Pope. Then he asked to be taken “home” to die, and once again he meant his museum. His wish was granted. And there, on March 15, 1916, the last wild Indian of North America died.

Ishi was given a handsome funeral that showed the sentimental attachment, in the best sense of the word, that his friends had formed toward him over the years—those scientists who had initially been interested in him only as a case. When the question arose of releasing his body for autopsy for scientific purposes, Kroeber, who happened to be in New York at the time, telegraphed, “Science can go to hell.” He added: “We have hundreds of Indian skeletons that nobody ever comes near to study. The prime interest in this case would be of a morbid romantic nature!” But since Kroeber was not on the spot, a compromise between science and sentiment was arranged. The autopsy was held; then Ishi’s body was cremated in the manner of his ancestors and his ashes placed in an Indian vase. Along with him were buried his bow, five arrows, a basket of acorn meal, some obsidian points, and other small items.

Kroeber, later asked for a brief characterization of Ishi, replied: “He was the most patient man I ever knew. I mean he had mastered the philosophy of patience, without trace either of self-pity or of bitterness to dull the purity of his cheerful enduringness.”

And Dr. Pope provided this obituary: “And so, stoic and unafraid, departed the last wild Indian of America. He closes a chapter in History . He looked upon us as sophisticated children—smart, but not wise. We knew many things, and much that is false. He knew nature, which is always true. His were the qualities of character that last forever. He was kind; he had courage and self-restraint, and though all had been taken from him, there was no bitterness in his heart. His soul was that of a child, his mind that of a philosopher.”

Ishi was soon forgotten, not by his friends, but by the world. When interest in Ishi revived belatedly in 1957 and the boxes containing the wax cylinders on which his voice, songs, and vocabulary had been recorded were fetched and opened, it turned out that though the bulky and fragile cylinders were intact, not a single one of the old gramophones on which they had to be played could be made to work. Finally an ingenious student managed to put together a single usable machine out of several old gramophones, and the cylinders could be replayed and rerecorded onto modern tape. But the movies taken of Ishi appear to have been irretrievably lost. For museum purposes the California Motion Picture Corporation had shot some five thousand feet of film on Ishi. But the film had been stored for four decades in a room near heating pipes, of all places. When the cans were opened, their contents proved to be shapeless lumps of melted celluloid.