Native American figure remembered at campus conference

Chancellor Birgeneau speaks at the Century of Ishi conference at the Clark Kerr Campus./Staff
Tony Zhou

A man known as the “last, wild Indian” who died in 1916 was remembered Wednesday for his contributions as the cultural ambassador and representative of the Native American population in California.

The late Native American figure and educator Ishi was honored by UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, faculty members and researchers at a conference at Krutch Theater at the Clark Kerr Campus. Ishi — the last known member of the northern California Yahi tribe — was the subject of the all-day conference that addressed topics such as Ishi’s legacy and the representation of American Indians in museums today.

A digitally remastered recording of the “wood duck,” a Yahi tribe folk story that Ishi recorded 100 years ago, was presented at the conference, along with a newly created video about the life and accomplishments of the illusive figure.

“Ishi offered an early example of the power of indigenous knowledge to advance the understanding of shared community concern,” Birgeneau said at the conference. “His legacy embodies the values of the cultural diversity of the university that are central to the university’s mission today.”

The conference began with a traditional blessing by Earl Neconie, the employment and training coordinator for the United Indian Nations, an international tribal membership organization that promotes and funds the teaching and study of Native American culture.

Joseph Myers, the chair of the Joseph A. Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues, a sponsor of the event, addressed the trials of Native Americans in California’s history as well as campus support for indigenous peoples.

“Let’s celebrate Ishi as a human being,” Myers said at the conference. “He came to a people who wanted to destroy him … but things have changed, and we need to work together to make things better.”

Karen Biestman, a professor of federal Indian law at the UC Berkeley School of Law who delivered the keynote address at the conference, said it is part of the cultural domain of California to remember Ishi and protect what he represented for years to come.

“It’s all thanks to California Indians for keeping Ishi’s memory alive for 100 years,” Biestman said. “There’s this institutional dilemma of science versus sanctity — in 2000, the question was ‘who owns the body?’ My question today is ‘who owns the culture?'”

Biestman and her colleagues believe that Ishi has left a legacy for their careers in research and anthropology, inspiring them to continue exploring Native American culture after gaining the fiscal support of the university and state museums in the last few years.

“UC Berkeley has (come a long way) in its support for Native Americans,” Myers said. “The Chancellor is serious and dedicated in working with tribes of California and elsewhere.”