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ISHI: A Real-Life The Last Of The Mohicans

THIS ARTICLE FEATURED IN THE NOVEMBER, 2002 ISSUE OF Old California Gazette!

Romanian translation of this web page (by Web Geek Science


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All black & white photographs on this page are taken from the book Ishi In Two Worlds by Theodora Kroeber.

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They are all there, but one ...

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There he stood ... tearfully straddling two worlds, bridging two cultures. For him there were three realities ... yesterday, today, tomorrow. Looking back he saw life; his youth, family, home, ... his world. Pondering the present he could only feel confusion, emptiness, and grief. The future, as far as he could imagine one, offered loneliness and fear; an unknown world into which he must walk if he was to live. But he was to walk it alone. There was no one by his side, no one to guide him, no one to give comfort. They were all gone. He was the last of the ...

Here we can see two men. One is he who walked the moccasin trails of James Fenimore Cooper's imagination ... Chingachgook, the noble man of "The Leatherstocking Tales", the Last of the Mohicans. In Cooper's fictional account of the fate of the Mohican people, Chingachgook was the lonely figure left behind by his people. Slowly they all died; vanished ... until Chingachgook was left as the sole inheritor of his people's legacy.

The second man was he who walked in the shadows of northern California's rugged high country. Unlike Chingachgook, he was real. His was not a tale of fiction, but the reality of the darker side of humanity. He was a son of his people ... the Yahi. Like Chingachgook, he was the lonely figure left behind in a world strange and frighteningly different. His people had all died; vanished ... he too was the sole inheritor of his tribe's legacy. He, Ishi, was the last of the Yahi. And he was to bequeath his legacy to the world so all would know that the proud Yahi once flourished in this world.

Ishi At Capture

Ishi, in pitiful condition, shortly after his capture.

In the closing scene of LOTM, a grieving Chingachgook offers prayers and bids good bye to his son Uncas. He expresses his longing to join in the council fires of his people. It is an emotional, dramatic moment. The question left for us to ponder is 'what will become of this last Mohican?' No less moving, equally dramatic is Ishi's final farewell to his Yahi life. Standing at the border that separated his stone age world from the modern world, Ishi had reluctantly arrived at the crossroad of his life. His decision was of great import for it would determine the final chapter of the Yahi ... a people who had lived in these northern hills, with little change, for a thousand years.

"Think, if you will, of all the Indians who have emerged from fact, fancy, and fear to take their places in the pantheon of the American imagination: in history Squanto, who fed the Pilgrims; Pocahontas, who loved an Englishman; Chief Logan the eloquent; Sacajawea, the girl-mother who guided white men across the Continental Divide; Sequoia, who invented an Indian alphabet; Crazy Horse, who outfought Custer; and in fiction Hiawatha and The Last of the Mohicans. They are not many; and there is not one of them whose story haunts the imagination more than Ishi's.

- Lewis Gannett

A Trail of Tragedy

Who were Ishi's lost people? Who were the Yahi? They were the southernmost people of the Yana tribe whose homeland had been the Mount Lassen Foothills of northern California. The Yana ancestors had once inhabited the fertile upper Sacramento Valley, at a time when there was but one single Hokan language (one of six North American linguistic families). It is believed that 3 to 4 thousand years ago, Hokan, like all languages, evolved into a dozen new tongues spoken by the various Hokan people who continued to occupy these valleys, living the life of hunter-gatherers, for millennia. They harvested wild roots, berries, bark, and foliage. They fished the numerous streams. The surrounding hills and mountains were bountiful hunting grounds. Deer and other game were tracked as they made their seasonal migrations to the high grounds and harvested by bow and arrow. Food sources were abundant in the game laden hills, valley forests, streams, and meadows. Such was the undisturbed Yana way of life for 2 to 3 thousand years.

Having flourished in the rich valley for ages, the Yana were dispossessed as others have been since time immemorial. They were victims of the powerful, numerous Winton. Desiring the fertile valleys of the Sacramento, the invading Winton drove the Yana from their homes. The exiled people were driven into the hill country and forced to adapt to this new environment. Adapt they did and here they would stay for a thousand years. The exodus forced an instant cultural evolution, from valley to hill people. The new country, formerly Yana hunting grounds, was situated east of the Sacramento River, south of the Pit River. Present day Red Bluff, California, along I-5, stands just 6-10 miles west of the Yank's territory. It was not the fertile lowlands they were accustomed to. It was not as bountiful as the valley. Life was much harder to sustain in the high country, but the Yana were a strong people ... Isolated, independent, resilient, and self-interested, they would fight to survive. They were proud and they were deeply rooted. Tribal history was infused into their hearts and burned into their minds. They knew where they came from, what they were, and who they were. They were Yana.

The bordering environs were of no great consequence to the Yana. They gave no indication they wished to leave the foothills of Mount Lassen, nor did the neighboring peoples covet the harsh, nearly desolate lands they possessed. Though isolated, the Yana were not immobilized in their country. They moved freely about, maintaining friendly relations and trade with some tribes; engaged in hostile clashes and raids with others. Rugged, strong, and fierce fighters, the Yana terrified their enemies, most especially the Winton who had the dubious honor of being the primary target for Yana raiding. In a somewhat bitter irony, the Winton, who first drove the Hokan-Yana people from their Sacramento homeland long ago, were now the recipients of Yana terror. And it was primarily the Wintu who influenced white settlers' perception of the Yana with tales of being victimized by "wild Indians" who swooped down upon them, carrying off captives and raiding their villages. Though the conflict was a mutual affair, the picture painted by the Wintu was one of a fierce, war-like people who must be eradicated from the region. The image was to remain in the minds of many settlers who took up the task with less than honorable enthusiasm.

Whatever the relationship to other tribes, the Yana's one constant concern was the Yana. Having survived as a people for thousands of years, their culture, history, families, and future were paramount to all else. Whatever occurred in "other" worlds mattered little to them, as long as Yana country was preserved. They had no interest in discovering or exploring the mysteries beyond their borders. In Theodora Kroeber's words, they were "provincials" ... and the provincial proud Yana continued on, with little change to their way of life, into Ishi's life. This traditional Yana culture was the world he was born into during the latter half of the 19th century. At once the same, and yet different. Life within Yana country remained as it was for generations and generations, but the world around them was rapidly altering, pushing, restructuring. It was in a state of immense transition. Changes were in the wind for the Yana Yahi and the boy Ishi was destined to bear the full weight of those winds.

Ishi Fishing

Ishi, after being nursed back to health, as he might have appeared in his hey day.

In the late 1840's, the end of the Yahi was set in motion by events which took place far from Yahi lands. The 1848 land grants by Mexico ended the Spanish-Mexican era (which had little effect upon the Yana) and ushered in the Anglo-Saxon era. The exchange of land claims, augmented by the discovery of gold in the riverbeds along the foothills of California's high country, set the stage for the tragic demise of the Yana. The wheels of time were spinning wildly into their world.

There were, at this critical time in northern Californian history, approximately 2 to 3 thousand Yana in a 2,400 square mile homeland, comprised of four sub-tribes. Differing in language, these four each had their own separate territory ... the Northern Yana, the Central Yana, the Southern Yana, and the Yahi. At the time of Ishi's birth (c. 1862), daily life remained much as it had been for thousands of years. However, an external element had begun to pierce Yana life. Immigrant people were encircling, then entering the hill country; hunting, land staking, pasturing livestock. The world was growing smaller; the Yahi were no longer their own concern. Game and vegetation were becoming scarce while hunger was a frequent visitor. The mounting pressure from without was exacting a heavy toll within. Yana population numbers plummeted. Within a decade, as little as 30 Northern and Central Yana were believed to be alive. No Southern Yana were left at all, and the southernmost band of the Yana, Ishi's Yahi, were thought to be entirely gone. What happened to these Hokan people who had occupied and survived the rugged terrain of northern California's hill country for a millennium? ... Tragedy struck with lightning swiftness.

The discovery of gold brought to the California hills a frenzied, unbridled, ruthless group who flooded the "new" territory by the thousands. Unrestrained by authorities (as were the Spanish-Mexicans), these new arrivals to California came bearing an entirely different perspective on the native people. Simply put, they were a breed apart. They weren't interested in co-existing or establishing friendly relations with the inhabitants of the hills. These were, for the most part, callous, hardened men ... miners, trappers, hunters, adventurers, and criminals. Many of the immigrant families that followed, though not necessarily psychotic, were equally hardened ... transformed from who they once were prior to their western trek. (Not all who migrated westward were ruthless killers. Unfortunately, those who were left a greater mark.) Just as LOTM's Magua was embittered and traumatized by life's cruelties, so too were these semi-nomads. Hardship, heartache, tragedy, and despair disallowed their humanity to flourish or respond to pleas for help. (There were numerous accounts of travelers who, upon reaching the rough mountain passes, abandoned sick family members, including children, to their own fate.) By journey's end, many who came seeking a new life had changed; they were perverse, ruthless, twisted ... willing to stand by while others died, or all to eager to abandon even their loved ones if the inconvenience proved too great. They came, whether or not it was consciously understood, to dispossess those already there. To this new breed of immigrants, the Yana were to be either exploited or exterminated. In the course of a boy's lifetime, they achieved both.

As more ranchers sought pasture land, and more families cleared claims and hunted game, Yahi survival became that more tenuous. Hunger often drove Yahi to take cattle or sheep. Anger often drove ranchers to take Yahi. They were hunted down, killed, kidnapped, and enslaved. Scalping suddenly became a home business. Villages were attacked without provocation, leaving 30 or 40 dead at a time. Despite the enormity of the enemy's numbers, the Yana resisted. In a spirited last stand that rivaled the defenders of the Alamo, of all the Yana it was the Yahi who offered the greatest resistance. They raided the ranches and farms; they killed whites and ransacked cabins. Stories of murdered children (a few were true) spread wildly across the new settlements, inciting vigilante groups to seek their own justice. Murder for murder. Raid for raid. Brutal retaliation was the name of the game. Diseases ran rampant. The Yahi declined with horrid rapidity. It was among the bloodiest wars of the western frontiers and the outcome was never really in doubt. Nonetheless, despite the tragedy of this clash, there is something heroic and admirable in its events. It was at one time hauntingly sorrowful and yet inspiring. The will ... the spirit of resistance... the determination to protect, defend, and survive is a tribute to the Yahi people. This spirit was personified in Ishi ... the real-life counterpart to the Mohican Chingachgook.

Just as the Mohicans in the eastern frontiers were hopelessly caught in territorial conflicts, so too were the Yana. The greatest differences were duration and fate. The Mohicans had engaged in a defense of their lands for two centuries; the Yana for twenty two years. The Mohicans survived as a people; the Yana vanished. Like the fictional Chingachgook, Cooper's grieving last Mohican; Ishi was destined to be an historic grieving last Yahi.

Recalling once again Cooper's tale of tragedy and destruction, we find the story of Chingachgook and his son Uncas riveting, touching. They are running out of time, struggling to hang on, but the Mohicans begin to vanish. One by one they are gone, until only a father and his son remain. We feel the weight on Chingachgook's shoulders as he vainly attempts to steer life's canoe to placid waters. In the end, he can not fight against the current and finds himself coasting along the turbulent water alone. It is an American tragedy that Cooper speaks of ... one he knew full well to be much more than a fictional work. Yet even Cooper's great imagination could not have foreseen the likes of an Ishi stumbling out from a stone age world into the 20th century.

While still a child, Ishi's own father was killed in a village massacre. The boy and his mother escaped by jumping into a nearby river. On and on it went. The Yahi were being slaughtered, until only a remnant band of 40 remained. Unbelievably, the survivors of this tiny band hid successfully for nearly a half century, undetected by the outside world. It was firmly believed, even by locals who went up into the foothills of the Lassen, that the Yahi, or "Mill Creek Indians", were a people of the past. Gone. No record of their history, origins, culture, or language having survived. In time, however, the world would be forced to confront and rediscover the Yahi.

Living in the Shadows of Life

In November of 1908, a surveyor team hired by the Oro Light and Power Company, accompanied by guide Merle Apperson traveled to Deer Creek, the heart of Yahi country. Assuming the country to be uninhabited, the crew went about its business with not a thought to the former occupants. Two of the group were returning to camp one day when they had an unexpected run in. What they unwittingly and carelessly stumbled upon was an Indian man fishing in the creek. They hurried back to relate their tale of a "wild Indian", but most brushed it off as nonsense. Not Merle Apperson. The following morning he led the way along Deer Creek to where he suspected there may have been a camp. He was right. The surveyors walked into the tiny village. As far as they could tell, it was inhabited by three "wild" Indians ... an old man, an old sick woman, and a younger woman. The man they had seen the day before was not visible. These were Yahi ... Ishi's mother, "sister", and the elderly man. This small remnant of the 40 Yahi had been hiding for years, eluding capture or detection by living in their cunningly hidden settlement like trapped animals. Their existence was drab ... depressing. Starvation, fear, illness, grief ... such was their daily burden. The younger woman and the old man fled to hide as the intruders approached the village, but the old woman could not run. She had been covered with blankets in the hope that she would not be noticed.

The men entered the hideaway and surveyed it well. They poked around, eyeing whatever goods were present. They then shook the blankets and discovered the Indian. Her mourning was obvious by her shorn hair. Her deer thong wrapped legs were swollen and she could not walk. She was weak, sick, and in pain and she shook with fear as the strangers looked her over. An attempt was made to communicate but with no success. What a moment of terror this must have been for Ishi's mother. Incredibly, after seeing with their own eyes the pitiful state this woman was in, the intruders ransacked the village, taking with them every last thing that could be carried out. Everything, even food. With that, they coldly walked out of there, leaving the woman to die. According to Apperson, he alone was appalled at his companions' actions and protested the thievery. He claims he pleaded with the others that they should at least transport the woman to their camp for care. His protestations fell upon deaf ears. What these men had done with such chillingly casual ease was strip four terrified, starving people of their meager possessions, including items they needed to find food. They had handed down a death sentence, with no mercy or cause, to the last four surviving members of a people who had inhabited, thrived, and survived the northern California region for thousands of years. In a fateful moment, brought on by the actions of callous men, the Yahi people apparently had come to an end.

After the departure of the thieves, Ishi returned. No food, tools, utensils, or comforts were left. It was he and his mother ... alone. The other two never returned, nor was Ishi able to find any sign of them. They were gone. Dead. Ishi reasoned they had either drowned during their desperate escape, or had been eaten by one of the numerous predators in the back country. What a tragic, sad end to people who managed to survive so long against desperately fatal odds. Before long, even Ishi's last living Yahi relative, his mother, was dead. He was now truly, truly alone. It is chillingly haunting to even attempt to hear in one's mind the death song Ishi must have sang for his companions, for his mother. What a mournful sound must have risen from the cliffs along Deer Creek in 1908.

Imagine if you can, bearing the burden of grief that Ishi bore. From the time he was a child, he witnessed the systematic slaughter of his people. He lived his entire life in fear. Always hiding, always running. He watched helplessly as his friends and relatives were killed, lost, or died of hunger. He struggled to survive while his world grew smaller and smaller. His tiny circle of companions, his last connection to the Yahi and their long tradition, disappeared. They dwindled away before him and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Everything was gone. His world had vanished and he had not one soul to turn to, to talk to, to walk with. He was the only Yahi speaking person alive in the world. No one else, they were all gone, but he ... Ishi. He was the finale.

Crossing the Rubicon Trail

Miraculously, Ishi survived the death sentence of 1908. With no home, shelter, tools, food, or friend he somehow found a way to live. Grief was his constant companion, loneliness his curse, ... but despair never overtook this last Yahi. He went on despite life's tragic burdens. His survival is a beautiful tribute to the resiliency of the human spirit. Ishi, though broken hearted, starving, lonely, and scared ... wanted to live. Yahi history; its beginnings, events, culture, language, and its people was alive and infused into one last soul. As long as Ishi lived, the Yahi lived. Thousands of years had rolled by in its momentous course until they had climaxed into one last, single moment ... one person. Ishi WAS Yahi.

Three years had passed since the raid on his village and the death of his family. It had been that long since he had heard a single utterance from the lips of another Yahi. Nearly dead from starvation, and perhaps desperate for human companionship, Ishi made a decision. Knowing he would die if he stayed at Deer Creek, and fearing he would be killed if he left, Ishi took a chance. A chance on life. He would depart the Yahi world and enter the world of the whites. Maybe he would die, maybe he would live. He had to try.

On the morning of August 29, 1911, in a slaughter house corral, two miles from the town of Oroville, a nearly dead "wild man" is discovered. He is emaciated, exhausted, frightened, and starved. The sheriff takes the Indian into custody, but is baffled as to what to do next. Locked in a cell, unable to communicate with any number of Indians brought before him, the traumatized man awaited his yet unknown fate.

In a carnival atmosphere, Ishi, the "wild man" caught the imagination and attention of thousands of onlookers and curiosity seekers. News of his discovery reached two professors of anthropology at the University of California, Alfred L. Kroeber and T. T. Waterman. Both men had an interest in the human saga being played out in Oroville for several reasons. Beyond the obvious general anthropological interest, they had been searching for the lost "wild man" that had been sited three years earlier by the surveyor crew a few miles north of Oroville ... in the Deer Creek region. They wondered if this could be him.

Two days after Ishi's discovery, Waterman was on a train to Oroville to assume responsibility for the "wild man." Kroeber and Waterman became guardians of Ishi, the last Yahi. For nearly five years Ishi lived at the university's museum while teaching the professors whatever he was able to communicate about the Yahi people. There was no other speakers of his tongue so communication was difficult and tedious. Kroeber persevered and managed to learn and communicate in 'conversational' Yahi, while Ishi learned about life in 20th century America.

The bond that developed between Kroeber and Ishi was, by all accounts, a close one. They both came to depend upon one another, not only for the pursuits of study they were engaged in, but on a personal level. For Ishi, this relationship must have been especially precious, for he had been alone for so long. (It was Kroeber who named him "Ishi", which is Yahi for 'man'. Yahi tradition prevented Ishi from speaking his own name or the names of the dead.)

As Ishi told the Yahi story, Kroeber became anxious to see the country of which he spoke. The village sites, the spots they frequented for food, ... the place where Ishi and his mother parted for the last time. At first, Ishi resisted, afraid to revisit the places at which he had experienced both joy and sorrow. Eventually, he did agree. Ishi was going home. The results of the 1914 excursion to Yahi country are invaluable. Kroeber drew maps, marking crucial sites of Ishi's life, and recorded the place names as the Yahi knew them. There were also photographs taken of both locations and of Ishi demonstrating the Yahi methods of crafting arrow heads, arrows, bows, spears, etc. In a strange way, Kroeber was actually recording the past through living history in the present for the future. It was as if he had reached back in time, pulled forth a man of another age, and asked him; "Please show me what life was like long ago." Ishi was physically contemporary, though culturally and socially antiquated. That alone bears reflection.

The record of Yahi history ... its people, language, beliefs, etc. , that we now have is the result and gift of Ishi's survival and entrance into the modern world. Though he had been cruelly left behind as the sole survivor of his people, Ishi was able to offer his people's legacy and mark to be remembered forever. How close we came to losing knowledge of the Yahi altogether! Through him we have language, Yahi beliefs and myths, cultural information, and most poignantly, a first hand account of what happened to the Yahi in their final chapter. A detailed personal story of tragedy, resilience, determination, and pain. Had the world not known Ishi, the Yahi would have passed away, remembered as nothing more than the fierce, troublesome "Mill Creek Indians" who had a brief and violent appearance on the stage of American expansion.

Ishi's contributions to the search for the Yahi were incomplete. Though he had offered a massive, exhaustive quantity of knowledge, time which had been generous thus far, was running out. Four and a half years of research, demonstrations, instruction ... and still there were so many questions. But the only source of Yahi life could not stay forever. After battling several illnesses during the course of his years at the museum, Ishi eventually contracted tuberculosis. He was exhausted, unable to fight this one last battle. While his friend Professor Kroeber was away in New York, Ishi died on March 25, 1916 in his bed. The last Yahi had departed this world. There was no one left to sing his death song.

"When Ishi passed away, the Yahi passed away."

Ishi Death Mask

Ishi's Death Mask

{Note: The Yahi homelands in northern California's Lassen Foothill Mountains have been preserved as the Ishi Wilderness Preserve. It is rugged terrain but well worth the effort for those who wish to walk the trails of the last Yahi.}

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Ishi: The Last Yahi

A Documentary Video

Produced by Jed Riffe and Pamela Roberts, this American Experience documentary on the life of the last Yahi is a chronicle of Ishi's life from birth to death. Narrated by Linda Hunt and nominated for an Emmy Award, this production is an outstanding tribute to the spirit of resiliency that Ishi exhibited throughout his turbulent, tragic life ... and to the Yahi.

Utilizing narration, photographs, archival footage, and Ishi's own recorded voice, the producers have pieced together the story of a life and of a people. Offering historical background of the Yahi, the production follows Ishi's life from his childhood, adulthood, his last years alone in his country, and finally, the final years at the university's museum. It is haunting, captivating, inspiring, and tragic. An excellent presentation of human drama. We whole-heartedly recommend this as required material for anyone at all interested in Ishi's story.

Ishi Video

How To Order

To order this superb documentary, send check or money order, payable to Ishi Film Distribution, to:

Independent Producers Services

2600 Tenth Street, Suite 426

Berkeley, CA 94710

Attn: Rick Giachino

Enclose $24.95 per video ordered plus $3.00 S & H.

*******

The Producer and Production Manager of "Ishi: The Last Yahi", Jed Riffe and Rick Giachino have been in touch with us regarding this documentary, as well as future productions. In the works is a feature film on the life of Ishi. If the documentary is any indicator, we expect it will be an excellent, high quality production.

No date for production is yet set. We will keep you informed on any and all updates.

 

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