Revisiting Ishi

Special to The Times

In the 92 years since the so-called last wild Indian was found cowering in an Oroville slaughterhouse, Alfred Kroeber’s descendants have resisted speaking for him. After all, by what right does a privileged California clan represent a persecuted Indian simply because their father was the anthropologist who studied him and their mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote a book that made him famous?

But that logic hasn’t stopped people from quizzing the pair’s sons, Karl and Clifton Kroeber. Their daughter, Ursula K. Le Guin, also deflects questions about Ishi that come up at readings of her bestselling science fiction books. Fellow police officers sometimes ask LAPD Capt. Scott Kroeber, Clifton’s son, about the Native American once called “the wild man of Mt. Lassen.”

It seems the family is inextricably tied to Ishi, the man said to have been the last North American Indian roaming the wilds. As the tale goes, his Yahi tribe was hunted and massacred in the late 1800s until only a handful remained. They hid out in the Mt. Lassen foothills, about 130 miles north of Sacramento, for 40 years. Finally, Ishi, apparently the last survivor, was driven out of the wilderness by hunger or despair, maybe both.

Slaughterhouse butchers found him, barefoot and emaciated, wearing a canvas shirt, with buckskin thongs hanging from his pierced ears. He was promptly jailed but was soon sprung from captivity by anthropologists Thomas Waterman and Alfred Kroeber, curator of the Museum of Anthropology at UC San Francisco. (The museum later moved to UC Berkeley and became the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.)

The Kroeber descendants, who, after all, had never known Ishi, have tried to stay out of the story over the decades. Until recently.



In pursuit of the truth

Four years ago, when Duke University researcher Orin Starn discovered that Alfred Kroeber had sent Ishi’s brain to the Smithsonian Institution against the man’s wishes, the Kroebers were again called on for comment. And as the issue escalated, working its way to the California Legislature, the Kroeber brothers were asked to edit a new anthology, a book that would get closer to the truth of Ishi and his relationship with Alfred Kroeber, who died in 1960.

This time, they agreed. “Ishi in Three Centuries” (University of Nebraska Press), released this summer, was the result.

“In a sense, this was a family obligation,” says Le Guin, who lives in Portland. “Ishi is not a mystique or a fascination with our family. But when he became a hot topic again a few years ago, my brothers picked up the football. I think they felt obliged to.”

Native American writer and UC Berkeley American Studies professor Gerald Vizenor predicts the obligation will persist: “You could say the two families came together by chance and they’ll always be together historically.”

Although enduring, the bond between the Kroebers and Ishi is clearly lopsided. Ishi was alone in an unfamiliar culture. He never told anyone his name (Kroeber dubbed him Ishi, meaning “man” in the Yana language, the tribe to which the Yahi band belonged) or learned to speak more than a few hundred words in English.

Kroeber was one of the most eminent American anthropologists of all time. He and his descendants are unusually well spoken and persuasive. Authors, professors, police officers -- the Kroebers have power and status in a society where Ishi had none.

“The problem with Ishi is it’s easy to fall into exploiting him,” says Karl Kroeber, Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in New York. “It’s a very tricky business. If you’re white, almost anything you say about him could be exploitation.”

That goes double if you’re a Kroeber. “Some reviewers may say: If there are two people who shouldn’t have done this job, it’s Karl and Clif Kroeber,” Clifton says.

Clifton and his son Scott got together recently to talk about this delicate partnership. They met at Clifton’s home near Occidental College in Eagle Rock, where he is a professor emeritus of history. The comfortable ranch house hidden in the hills has the lived-in feel of a place where four boys grew up in an atmosphere of vigorous academic discussion.

Alfred Kroeber’s grandsons also grew up with blown-up photos of Ishi on the walls. Scott remembers walking down the hallway to bed as a young man, being mesmerized by photos of Ishi carving spear points and swimming naked in Deer Creek. His older brother, Alan, grew up wishing he could have met Ishi.

So did schoolchildren all over California. The story of the “the last primordial man” is a staple of some school curricula.

Ishi was briefly famous after his 1911 discovery in the slaughterhouse, but after his death in 1916 his story was largely forgotten. When Theodora Kroeber, as a 60-year-old first-time writer, released “Ishi in Two Worlds” in 1961, it catapulted him to fame and his story became a California classic. There followed the inevitable TV movies, poems, plays, documentaries and endless analysis -- what Duke cultural anthropology professor Starn calls “the cult of Ishi.”


A disturbing awakening

The first half of the book painstakingly narrates the extermination of Northern California Indians by government scalpers, bounty hunters and amateur Indian killers. Theodora Kroeber was influenced by the early civil rights movement; her book, in turn, helped fuel Native American rights campaigns.

The story of systematic destruction of California tribes during the Gold Rush had rarely been told before. To this day, her book often serves as readers’ first awakening to this episode in California history.

After the commotion over “Ishi in Two Worlds” faded, his story again fell out of the limelight. Then, in 1999, he was back in the news when Starn discovered that Ishi’s brain had not been cremated with the rest of his body but had been shipped east for study. At the time, some scientists believed there was value in studying the brains of primates, geniuses and so-called exotics like Ishi.

The dismaying revelation reawakened criticisms of Alfred Kroeber that had surfaced as far back as 1911. Was he really Ishi’s friend, or his betrayer?

Given a room at the museum, Ishi had earned his keep as a janitor for $25 a week. He shared his songs, his stories, his language and his tool-making with Kroeber (whom Ishi called “Big Chiep”). He also served as an entertainer to visitors who loved to watch the Native American craft arrows and spears. He was free to leave but chose to stay at the museum until his death from tuberculosis five years later.

Nearly a century later, Kroeber was being criticized for the relationship. The California Assembly held hearings to discuss “the brain business,” as Clifton calls it; and the UC Berkeley anthropology department struggled to agree on the wording of a public apology. One draft of its statement called Kroeber’s actions “indefensible.” There was even talk of stripping the name from Kroeber Hall on the campus. (After the dust cleared, Kroeber Hall remained and Ishi was honored with the dedication of Ishi Court.)

The developments bumped the family off the sidelines and into action.

“It was ugly to see,” says Clifton’s son Alan, speaking of the attacks on his grandfather. “I could see the pain this was causing my dad and his siblings. I could tell how upset they were.”

As the family was still stinging from the censure, a former chairman of the Berkeley anthropology department, George Foster, suggested to the Kroeber brothers that they edit the first substantial reexamination of the Ishi drama to be published in 40 years.

“I did not want to do the thing at all,” Karl Kroeber says. He eventually relented when others, such as Vizenor and Gary Dunham, editor in chief of the University of Nebraska Press, also encouraged him to take on the task.

Clifton and Karl solicited wide-ranging points of view for the new volume. Essays include analysis of a story told by Ishi, a technical piece on Ishi’s arrowheads and stone tools, extensive commentary on the repatriation of Ishi’s remains, views of Ishi by Native American scholars and writers, and a memoir by Fred Zumwalt Jr., who lived near the museum as a child and recalls gathering blackberries and wild iris roots with Ishi in the San Francisco Presidio.


Ishi as an individual

The book lays the foundation for what the Kroebers hope will become an ongoing field of Ishi studies. One thing Karl would like to see, in particular, is the release of Ishi’s stories and songs recorded in his own voice, not filtered through the voices of anthropologists. The tapes are now in archives at UC Berkeley and elsewhere.

“I think the most important thing the book does is establish Ishi as a unique person,” Karl says. “He attracts attention because he did the best a human being can do -- to take terrible circumstances and simply refuse to be overwhelmed by them.”

Reflecting on the relationship between Ishi and his father, Karl says: “They were friends. Ishi was an informant, yes, but you didn’t get good material unless there was a strong personal relationship.”

There may have been chinks in the partnership, Karl adds, but you have to factor in the era in which Kroeber was working. Not only was there little awareness of Native American rights in 1911, but anthropology also was a new field. Kroeber and his colleagues were still sorting out the rules.

“If research were to prove he did things that -- even in their own time and context -- should not have been done,” Scott says of his grandfather, “then that’s how the historic record should stand. But I don’t think that’s the type of person he was.”

Clifton, a cheerful man with a quick laugh and a neat white beard, says he and Karl worked to present different points of view in the new book -- a blend of “pros” and “antis,” as he puts it. He calls his father Kroeber and speaks of him from a certain remove, as if he can separate himself from Alfred Kroeber, father, and see him purely as Alfred Kroeber, anthropologist.

“There’s controversy in the book about whether Kroeber should have done things differently, whether Ishi should have stayed in San Francisco at all, and whether Ishi was suffering or was enjoying his new life,” he says. “We tried to get all the voices in there as best we could.”

The brain furor continues to haunt the Kroeber family, who are hoping further research may explain why Alfred Kroeber defied Ishi’s desire to have his body cremated intact.

Lots of people, not just the Kroebers, are puzzled by the handling of Ishi’s brain, which was reunited with his cremated remains in 2000 and buried near Mt. Lassen. Some of those questions may be answered by forthcoming books, such as Starn’s “Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last Wild Indian,” due in February from W.W. Norton.

The relationship between Kroeber and Ishi was more complex than Theodora’s book suggests, Starn adds: “Ishi was genuinely a friend. But he was also a specimen.”

The alliance between Ishi and the Kroebers is imperfect, certainly. But like many flawed relationships, it probably has served both parties to some degree. Vizenor points out that Ishi probably would have been sent away to a reservation in Oregon if he hadn’t fallen in with the anthropologist.

“Kroeber really liked this man,” Vizenor says. “He wasn’t just keeping some guy in a museum as an object. He gave Ishi a life and a place.”