UC Berkeley looks back on dark history, abuse of Yahi man 106 years later

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A little more than 100 years ago this week, a Native American man from the Yahi tribe — believed at the time to be extinct walked into Oroville from the foothills of Mount Lassen.

He was believed to be the last Yahi man in existence because of the Three Knolls Massacre in 1866, in which the entire Yahi tribe was thought to have been slaughtered. UC Berkeley anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Waterman named him “Ishi,” the Yahi word for “man.”

A quiet man, Ishi never revealed to anyone his real name.   

Starving, disoriented and separated from his tribe, Ishi was initially arrested by police, thinking he had wandered away from a mental hospital until they learned that he was a Yahi man.

The year was 1911. Newspapers soon dubbed him “the last wild Indian,” and Kroeber and Waterman began to do research on him. They housed him in the Museum of Anthropology, located on what is now the site of UCSF.

Ishi was put on display at the museum, where outsiders could watch him make arrows and describe aspects of Yahi culture. There is no historical evidence that shows if Ishi had a choice in the matter.

On display after death

Kroeber went on sabbatical leave in 1916, leaving Ishi in the hands of Saxton Pope, a doctor on campus. After Ishi died of tuberculosis in 1916, Pope immediately performed an autopsy, taking Ishi’s brain and using it for eugenics-centered research based on a “hierarchy of intelligence,” according to campus professor of medical anthropology Nancy Scheper-Hughes. His brain was sent to the Smithsonian Institution. After a long legal battle, his tribe was able to have a proper burial.

According to Scheper-Hughes, Kroeber became severely depressed after Ishi’s death and no longer wanted to do studies on indigenous people in California.

“We can learn that there is a real human factor in all social science, and we get so wrapped up in gathering data, objects and people and it may be greed,” Scheper-Hughes said.

In 1999, Scheper-Hughes wrote a letter with the campus anthropology department apologizing for Ishi’s treatment, reading it aloud to Native American activists at a conference in Sacramento discussing the treatment of Native peoples in California.

The activists said that was the first time anyone in a public space had ever apologized to them personally and took responsibility for their actions, according to Scheper-Hughes.

Getting everyone in the department to agree to the letter, however, was not so easy, Scheper-Hughes said, with some faculty who were reluctant to apologize because they felt that there was nothing more that they could do.

Campus anthropology professor Laurie Wilkie said in an email that the department and discipline of anthropology on campus is a field with a painful past, with a history of colonialism and imperialism. While she felt that the museum gained a lot of knowledge from Ishi, she acknowledged that Ishi became the face of “an ongoing genocide.”

“It’s the way we treat a human being as a zoo animal,” campus lecturer in Native American studies Enrique Lima said. “The university is not only morally responsible for Native peoples in the past, but also Native peoples on campus (today).

Lima went on to call Ishi’s treatment “inhumane,” adding that putting nonwhite people on display was not uncommon at the time. Even today, the campus has the remains of indigenous peoples, Lima said.

Learning from mistakes

Sharon Marcos, a campus sophomore and resident of the Native American Theme Program, said that instead of putting Ishi on display, the researchers should have helped him share his story and experience.

“In general, people have to be more mindful that Native Americans do exist here at Cal and in society,” Marcos said. “We have faced genocide and violence, and people have to be mindful of their actions. If you’re trying to be an ally, don’t silence indigenous people and voices.”

As UC Berkeley anthropologists continue to reconcile the campus’s past treatment of Native peoples, Scheper-Hughes suggested that they could create a fund to build a place in California where small indigenous groups can keep their sacred objects for themselves.

“We need Janet Napolitano and the university to say something about this, because Ishi isn’t the only one,” Scheper-Hughes said.

Jessíca Jiménez covers schools and communities. Contact her at [email protected] and and follow her on Twitter at @jesscajimenez_dc.