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Reel Life: the last pure Indian

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"My mouth fairly watered, for a piece of an indian to broil! And I continued to look out sharper for one, than for any other game," wrote J. Goldsborough Bruff in his journal on April 8, 1850. Lured west by the California gold rush, Bruff had gotten sick and been forced to spend the winter in the northern California mountains. He was near a Yahi Indian settlement but had no contact with them. Nearly starving, he emerged from his camp in early spring and resumed his trek.

The next day Bruff and his dog encountered a Yahi and his dog on the trail. Bruff gestured to the Indian that he was hungry, but the Yahi indicated that he had no food. When Bruff gestured for him to separate their dogs, which were eagerly sniffing each other, he obliged. "While he was going off, I turned round, thought of eating him; he was then 30 or 40 paces; but I could not shoot the poor wretch in the back: besides, he had done me a favor. So I proceeded."

This was the earliest account of the Yahi written by a white. As settlers pressed into the region over the next couple of decades, raiding parties of whites, led by celebrated "Indian fighters," hunted down the Yahi. The number of Yahi plummeted, and they were deemed extinct--until August 29, 1911, when a solitary, starving Yahi walked out of the woods near Oroville.

Alfred Kroeber, an anthropologist at the University of California, nicknamed him "Ishi," the Yahi word for "man," and offered him a home at the university's museum in Berkeley, where he remained until his death on March 25, 1916.

Much of Ishi's saga is recounted in two books by Kroeber's wife, which are also the basis for Ishi: The Last Yahi, a 1992 documentary by Jed Riffe and Pam Roberts. This earnest feature, narrated by Linda Hunt, is playing this week at the Film Center as part of a series called "Native Americans on Film."

Ishi was a big story when he appeared in Berkeley. "Deciphering a human document, with the key to most of the hieroglyphics lost, is the baffling but absorbingly delightful task which Dr. A.L. Kroeber and T.T. Waterman of the University of California have set for themselves," wrote a San Francisco reporter at the time.

After observing Ishi for a month, Kroeber, using terms that reek of condescension today, described his charge as "the last 'uncontaminated' aboriginal Indian in the United States. . . . His attitude toward everything about him is just like that of a puppy. He is interested in everything, but he never questions orders. He comes running when you call him." And when he tries out a new expression in English, "he blushes and smiles like a girl."

Dr. Saxton T. Pope, a university physician who treated Ishi, kept clinical notes such as, "The odor of his body is faintly musty, and suggests the smell of tanned deer hide. . . . His breath is sweet and free from the fetor common to the average white man. . . . His foot is a beautiful example of what the human foot should be."

The three scientists embraced Ishi, who became a major tourist attraction at the museum, as both a specimen and a companion. He was a frequent dinner guest in their homes and went on archery outings with Pope. Ishi sometimes sang healing songs to patients on Pope's ward. Waterman, who recorded Ishi's vocabulary on wax cylinders, once noted, "Phonetically, he has some of the prettiest cracked consonants I ever heard in my life."

Ishi was given a job as a janitor at the museum. Pope found him "indifferent to the beauty of labor as an abstract concept," but noted, "he had the most exacting conscience concerning the ownership of property." Pope also stated that he was "free from perversions," though "he had a fondness for ice-cream soda, which, with the moving pictures, constituted his entire accomplishments in debauchery."

When Ishi lay on his deathbed with tuberculosis, Kroeber was away on sabbatical. But he wrote museum officials in Berkeley, urging them not to do an autopsy or to preserve any part of Ishi's body: "If there is any talk about the interests of science, say for me that science can go to hell. We propose to stand by our friends. . . . We have hundreds of Indian skeletons that nobody ever comes to study. The prime interest in this case would be of a morbid romantic nature."

His letter was late. The assistant curator wrote back that an autopsy had been performed and Ishi's brain had been preserved. "The matter, as you well know," he wrote, "was not entirely in my hands, as I am not the acting head of the department."

A death mask was also made, and Ishi's cremated ashes were placed in a Hopi jar with an epitaph that read, "Here lies Ishi, the last Yahi Indian."

Kroeber's first wife died of tuberculosis just a few years before Ishi. His father also died of TB, the same year as Ishi. After Ishi's death, Kroeber went to New York City and underwent psychoanalysis for a year. When he returned to California, he opened an office as a lay therapist for a few years--and even considered forsaking the discipline of anthropology altogether. He never wrote about Ishi again.

Kroeber's second wife, Theodora, interviewed him about Ishi, whom she never knew firsthand. She wrote a popular book about Ishi that was published in 1961, a year after Kroeber died.

Kroeber, author of Handbook of the Indians of California, testified on the Indians' side from 1952 to 1957 in the Indian land claims case Indians of California v. The United States of America. But, suggests Tim Buckley, an anthropologist who appears in Riffe and Roberts's documentary, he could never reconcile his romantic 19th-century ethos of moral and cultural evolution with the grisly 19th-century history of genocide in California that made Ishi the last Yahi.

Ishi: The Last Yahi will be screened at the Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, at 6 tonight, 4:15 tomorrow, 6 Tuesday night, and 8:15 next Friday, August 27. Admission is $5; call 443-3737.

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