Ishi, the Last Aborigine


Mystery Man…
Ishi never disclosed his real name; and so strong does his sense of propriety on this point remain, that he will not yet pronounce the word Ishi, though he answers readily to the appellation. The name is singularly appropriate, being the Yana word for “man.”


Ishi, the Last Aborigine
By:  A. L. Kroeber (written approx. 1911)

At Eleven o’clock in the evening on Labor Day, 1911, there stepped off the ferry boat into the glare of electric lights, into the shouting of hotel runners, and the clanging of trolley cars on Market Street, San Francisco, Ishi, the last wild Indian in the United States.

Ishi belongs to the lost Southern Yana tribe that formerly lived in Tehama County, in northern California. This tribe, after years of guerilla warfare, was practically exterminated by the white by massacre, in 1865. The five survivors took refuge in the utterly wild canon of Deer Creek in Tehama County, and the last recorded time that any one saw them was in 1870. There were two men, two women, and a child – probably Ishi, for he has told how, when he was a small boy, “so high,” the white men came at sunrise and killed his people in their camp.

In November, 1909, a party of waterright surveyors working laboriously down the canon, came on a hut, from which dashed two or three men or women, leaving one old, decrepit, and sick crone behind. Unable to converse with her, the surveyors left her undisturbed; but all attempts to open negotiations with the other Indians failed, so great was their fear.

Within a year, news of this adventure reached the University of California, where the Indians in question were at once identified, by their condition and location, as the long lost Southern Yana, the relatives of the almost extinct Northern Yana, whose dialect and customs had been investigated by the University ethnologists only a year or two before. After some confirming inquiries in the vicinity, a party was organized in the fall of 1910 to hunt for the Indians. A month in the canon, in which practically every foot of their territory was gone over, revealed no Indians, but ample evidence of their recent existence – huts, smoke houses, baskets, nets, pestles, flint chips, and so forth. It was concluded that they had seen the expedition first and had kept consistently out of its way.

Then, at the end of August 1911, came despatches announcing the capture, near Oroville, some forty miles to the south of Deer Creek, and in a well-settled district, of a lone wild Indian. He had been trying to break into a slaughterhouse, and had been placed in jail, where neither Indians nor whites could converse with him. A member of the staff of the anthropological department of the University of California arrived, armed with a Northern Yaya vocabulary and the first communication with the aborigine began, much to the amazement of the local Indians. The next day Sam Batwi, a North Yana interpreter, arrived in response to a telegraphic call, and while finding the dialect different from his own and difficult to manage, was able to make more headway. No formal charge had been placed against the wild man, and in a few days the Sheriff of Butte County obligingly released him to the University authorities – an arrangement sanctioned by the United States Indian Office.


In justice to Ishi, his own version of his “capture” should be given. His people were all dead, he said. A woman and a child had been drowned in crossing a stream. The old woman found by the surveyors was dead. For some time he had been entirely alone – poor, often hungry, with nothing to live for. This, by the way, was no doubt the reason for his drifting, perhaps aimlessly, so far southward of his old home. One day he made up his mind to “come in.” He expected to be killed, he said, but that no longer mattered. So he walked westward all day, without meeting anyone, and at dusk came to a house where meat was hung up. Tired, hungry, and thirsty, he sat down. Soon a boy came out with a lantern, saw him, recoiled, and called a man, who ran up. In response to Ishis signs, they gave him a pair of overalls – for he was naked except for a rude homemade garment, half shirt, half cape – ordered him into their wagon, and drove him to town, where he was put into a large and fine house – the jail – and very kindly treated and well fed by a big chief – the deputy sheriff.
Ettiquette of the Proper Name.

Ishis name is not genuine. When the reporters swarmed out to the University Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco the morning after he arrived, their second inquiry was for his age, their first for his name. Sam Batwi asked him, but to all inquiries he shook his head and said that he had been alone so long that he had no one to name him. This was pure fiction, but polite fiction, for the strongest Indian ettiquette, in Ishis part of the world, demands that a person shall never tell his own name, at least not in reply to a direct request. To this day Ishi has never disclosed his real name; and so strong does his sense of propriety on this point remain, that he will not yet pronounce the word Ishi, though he answers readily to the appellation. The name is singularly appropriate, being the Yana word for “man.”



If you find yourself in Southeast Minnesota, stop in to our Museum in Chatfield, Minnesota, to learn more about Ishi and his connection to you, the modern-day bowhunter, and ask the Museum Director, Glenn Hisey, to tell you more about his journeys to find Ishi’s Spirit. The Spirit of Ishi is alive and well and found in all of us, but we should all challenge ourselves to learn more about the past and where we came from.

For more Articles / news please go to: Pope & Young Club

For more please go to: Pope & Young Club

2 Responses to "Ishi, the Last Aborigine"

  1. Franciszek Sczczecinski   2014/05/04 at 1:22 pm

    My very dear friend- now long over that last creek – Harry Alexander Cobden- was God father of Governor Jerry Brown, a long-time member of a family who first came to California in 1828- long before it became a state- land grant holders of the Toulomne River drainage including the north part of Yosemite National Park… and he was a dear friend of the Last Wild Indian– called Ishi as he could by his custom be called no other name. Harry was a young boy when Dr, Kroeber, in his effort to find the language or distinctions of this California Indian, had brought Ishi up to the Big Humbug Reservation that was on Harry’s father’s ranch outside Garote- now known by the more digestable name of Big Oak Flat and Groveland. The wild indian found the ‘indians’ there to be “low lived” by their association in a degraded condition on the edges of white society. However, he quickly became close friends with the young Harry…treating him much as the dearest of friends or that of a fond ‘uncle and nephew’. Ishi described many of the indian artifacts found on the ranch in the collection of the family as being those of the “ancient ones”.. those Indians from “long, long ago” not from ‘times when white men were ever here’.. Ishi made gifts for his young friend… many arrow points… small bird points to knife blades, and the bows and other accoutrements of his culture…I was shown these lovely things in a much honored manner over the years. I could see the spark in Harry’s eyes when he showed these to me… he became a young boy in his old eyes…he could see his dear friend in these memories. —- Harry often would recall those first days and those of his aquaintence with this wild indian — always in a very loving manner. Once he told me that when his family would travel from Big Oak Flat to the bay area, he would get to go and see his old Indian friend, and upon site Ishi would jump up joyfully and call out “Harry, Harry, we go candy, candy”…. You see, loved “candy, candy” (Ice Cream) almost as much as he loved this young friend. They would hop a trolley and spend the afternoons eating ice cream together, the young boy learning many “wild” stories of Indian life from his old friend— but,never a proper name was mentioned… no name of a dead person was ever mentioned… and ALL of his family and nation were dead– to the point that he would not mention his own… tradition was Never to introduce yourself. — For years I had the good fortune to be told these stories from my friend Harry… I would drive him about California in his dotage an watch this old man melt back into the years of his youth as he related them to me. I was lucky enough to be a part of this historical Californian’s life. He would always greet me in the language of the Miwok people that lived on his father’s ranch. “Ya, Cha Che,Ya Cha Che Unsee Meenee -oxus” ‘Good to see you, great to see you my good friend”. I was a lucky man… I got to be the friend –of the friend of Ishi. They are both gone,..they are now both together in the Great House having a :”Big Sing”. They both are now in a place where the rest of their friends and family’s can introduce them– with their proper names. Both very happy now.

    • Rich Walton   2014/05/05 at 10:59 am

      Wow! Thank you for this my friend. What an insightful remembrance of such a special time. Take care Frank and stay young.