Remembering Ishi

By Adrienne Scott, Curator, Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology

The devastating consequences of European conquest and contact with the indigenous peoples of the Americas have yet to be fully told and recognized.  Many Native American voices and faces over the past centuries mirror this misunderstanding and culture clash. Names like Crazy Horse, Sacagawea, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Squanto, Pocahontas, Chief Pontiac, Tecumseh and Sequoia, all evoke romanticized, limited portrayals of American Indians.  So too does the name Ishi.

A hundred years ago, on August 29, 1911 Ishi, the last living member of a small band of Yahi Indians, chose to walk into the Euro-American society of the early 20th Century.  He arrived during dangerous times for Native Americans.  Since the land grab of post gold rush California, the rolling hills of the North State turned into private property and farm lands, greatly diminishing the resources for hunting and gathering, and forcing many tribal groups to assimilate, disperse, or go into hiding.  Most were hunted down when rewards and bounties were put on their heads. Slogans like The only good Indian is a dead Indian flourished across the United States.  There were no choices left for indigenous peoples, especially as the US Government embraced the ideology of manifest destiny

Against this backdrop, Ishi comes out of hiding near Oroville, California. Ishi’s appearance has been interpreted by some as a signal of the defeat and starvation of the Yahi people. Others believe it was possibly his way of committing suicide at the hands of white settlers. Still others tell the story of a brave man willing to protect the dignity and remnants of a culture by giving himself up to the modern world.  Telling Ishi’s story is also a lesson in the difficulty, in fact, the impossibility, of having one person’s life represent the story of an entire population.

Holding these ideas in mind, the students in the CSUC Museum Exhibition Design and Installation course, under the direction of Dr. Stacy Schaefer, have created an exhibition to reflect on aspects of Ishi’s story. The exhibit will run through July 26, 2012. The exhibition traces his many encounters, transformations and adaptations to the modern world.  From the beginning of his journey with a short stay in the Oroville jail to entering Victorian society in San Francisco, Ishi became a part of a new chapter in Native American history.  With Professor Alfred Kroeber in the anthropology department of the University of California, Berkeley, Ishi provided a first-hand and personal account  into a bygone way of life.  Ishi shared parts of his culture even in the face of personal tragedy and the devastating reality of the annihilation of his tribe. His stories and his work with the anthropologists has left a profound history of insight, information, and material culture that help better explain the cultural practices of the Yahi people and of  California Indians, in general.

The memory of Ishi and his long journey are preserved into the future as many Native Americans and others continue to honor his life. His legacy lives on in the collective memories of other California Indian tribal groups who are still here.

The exhibit contains a display titled the Ishi Digital Memory Project, allowing many voices to contribute their reflections on the impact Ishi has made on their lives and this area.  The museum has provided a web cam interactive to encourage our visitors to reflect on the significance and example of Ishi’s life and its continued meaning for a new generation. The museum staff and students recognize that one exhibition, like one man, cannot represent the entire telling of a complex and still unfolding story. We invite all of you to join the story….

The museum is centrally located on campus in the CSUC Meriam Library complex across from the library’s main entrance in MLIB 180 Open Tues- Sat 11-3;  Call for more info. 898-5397

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