How one man’s life offers us a window to the past.
It seems these days people are searching for knowledge of the past. With the booming popularity of bushcraft, survival skills, hunting, and self reliance, people seem genuinely concerned about losing ancient skills. Our ancestral knowledge is the foundation upon which all human history rests.
Simple skills like friction fires, preserving the harvest, and flintknapping have allowed us to achieve the highly advanced society we live in. It is not that these skills will directly propel us further down our course of progress. Rather, they enrich our lives in small daily doses and we gain a better sense of human history when we utilize those skills.
With this increased awareness of our past, people have naturally displayed curiosity about the lives of ancient people as well. People often dream about a pre-Columbus America or simple life during the Stone Age. Typically these dreams over-romanticize time periods and our understanding of those historic people is simple at best. We often lump all ancient people into huge heaps and make generalizations about their lives, how they lived, spoke, worshiped, and interacted with the world. Our stereotypes help us make sense of something we don’t truly understand.
I am a believer the best way to understand the lives of ancient people is by practicing their daily skills. When you butcher a deer, you are repeating an evet that has occurred countless times throughout our history. It is a very human experience. In other words, if you gathered all people from history together in a room, many generations of people would understand what that process because they did it. That is why practicing primitive skills gives us the best insight into the past.
Another excellent way to understand the past is by studying people who actually lived in its cycles. People like the uncontacted tribes of the Amazon still wake up to the daily rituals of their ancestors. By looking to people like these we may get a better feel of what life was like in bygone days.
One such character of interest is Ishi. Ishi has become a popular figure in today’s American society due to the renewed interested of primitive skills. He has been dubbed “the last wild Indian in North America,” as he was the last documented Native person living the historic life of his people. His story offers us a window to the past, a time before the trappings of our civilized lives, and a look at the life of a truly natural man.
Ishi’s documented story has an inauspicious start. Late in August of 1911, butchers at a slaughterhouse near Oroville, California were raised from their slumber by the incessant barking of their dogs. After stepping into the cool morning air to investigate, the men noticed the figure of a man huddled in the dirt of their corrals. As the approached the dirty bundle of the man they noticed how truly pitiful he was. Covered in old wagon canvas with his hair burned off close to the scalp, his emaciated body condition showed too clearly the pains of starvation.
Authorities arrested the half-dead man with no resistance. His dark eyes showed no threat of violence. If the eyes of a man offer a glimpse to his soul, this man’s eyes would always emit patience, wisdom, and humility. After a brief stay in the local sheriff’s office, he would be whisked away by train to the University of California in San Francisco. Within a few short weeks Ishi was converted from Ishi the last wild Indian, to Ishi the modern man. The museum there would serve as his home until he died.
Once at the museum, Ishi became fast friends with several notable employees who were fascinated with his life. Perhaps jealousy has always sparked the fascination of domesticated men over wild men, or maybe genuine curiosity. Whatever the case, Ishi’s first days at the museum were marked by controlled fear from the steady arrival of visitors. These men it seemed were thrilled to grab hold of his hand and passionately jerk his arm up and down with broad smiles on their faces. Before long Ishi would come to realize these men meant no harm, and he welcomed their friendship.
After a short while Ishi’s life story came to be told through an interpreter, and at this point our window to the past was opened.
As a child Ishi was born into a land that had witnessed incessant hostility toward his people the Yahi. White settlers and Native people had been at war since the Gold Rush of the late 1840s. During the early years fights were common and many lost their lives on both sides of the conflict. Before long the Yahi and other tribes were outmatched by the new settlers and were losing the fight. Fighting a war they couldn’t win, they Yahi’s size dwindled and before long the entire culture was on the verge of extinction.
Due to the constant threat of conflict, Ishi’s childhood began in what has been called The Long Concealment. This was a time when his people survived by hiding as best they could. As a young boy he watched men harpoon fish, set snares, hunt with a bow and arrow, and build smokeless fires. They made no effort to chop trees and were concerned about every noise they made.
In an effort to avoid detection they stayed away from the most abundant areas of game, and stuck to the most marginal lands. His people were obsessed with concealment and their effort to glean food and resources from the land were hindered by their constant state of vigilance.
Over time the Yahi’s reluctance to come out of the hills, their small support system, and their constant struggle for supplies led to a depleted population. By 1908 Ishi was all alone, the last of all the generations of Yahi to come before him.
For three years he would go without human contact. Not a word to another, not a smile or laugh, no one to share his burdens with. A man truly alone.
This extreme solitude proved too much for Ishi in the end. It wasn’t that he didn’t know how to continue living, it was that over time the demands of living off the land overcame his best efforts. He was forced to hunt, fish, preserve, flintknapp, tan, forage, make shelter, and care for his every need all by himself. This task is daunting enough on good land, but in the marginal corners Ishi was relegated to it proved too much. Like a swelling tide slowly overwhelming a beach, Ishi was finally overcome. Thus, with death his only other option, Ishi made his way to the slaughter house on that fateful August day.
After adjusting to city life and the added shock of more visitors in one day than he had probably seen his entire life, Ishi’s true color began to show through. His kind and easygoing demeanor made him popular with all who visited. Visitors to the museum might have been lucky enough to watch him give demonstrations of skills such as flintknapping. Dr. Saxon Pope, an esteemed archer in history and professor at the university, became fast friends with Ishi, and the two practiced archery together in Pope’s spare time. Popey, as Ishi came to call Dr. Pope, was the confidant Ishi needed, and he could speak to Pope plainly about the bow and arrow and his traditional arts.
In 1914, three years after his arrival at the slaughterhouse, Dr. Pope arranged for himself and several other men to take Ishi back to his ancestral lands for an adventure. The trip was advertised as a sort of living archeological study, but in reality the men would have a once in a lifetime adventure. They were even fortunate enough to be granted a special hunting license from the state of California for the taking of deer. It was on this trip the bulk of Ishi’s contribution to our understanding of his history was garnered.
He was delighted at the opportunity to show his companions his skills, rather than try and explain them in broken English and through an interpreter. During the escapade the group lived with all the exuberance freedom brings. They swam in the creeks, harpooned salmon, hunted deer, and visited camps Ishi frequented during the lonesome period of his life. All engaged would look back on this period as one of the most carefree and memorable experiences in their lives.
After the trip Ishi was happy to return “home” to the museum. You can imagine what kinds of feelings his original homelands elicited within him. For all the warm nostalgic feelings, there must have been numerous memories of hard times, starvation, and death. After his return, Ishi continued to live in the museum, part live specimen, part welcomed guest of the campus.
With a few short months after returning, Ishi developed a deep cough. He visited the hospital on several occasions but their tests did not reveal anything out of the ordinary. He would battle this illness for months, until in the summer of 1915 he appeared to have overcome the disease and was showing good health. However his good fortune was to be short lived and soon, by September 1915, Ishi was back in the hospital.
His stay there lasted briefly and he insisted on returning to the museum. Close friends also asserted this would be best, as he would be cared for as Ishi the person, rather than as a nameless patient in a busy hospital.
Eventually the disease proved too much and Ishi died of on March 25, 1916 with Saxon Pope at his side. He was cremated and placed in a coffin with a bow, five arrows, a basket of acorn meal, ten pieces of dentalium, a box of shell bead money, a purse of tobacco, three rings, and some obsidian for his journey in the afterlife.
What can we learn about the past from Ishi’s life? For starters we can learn broadly that living this sort of existence requires the help of others. We all too often picture solitary men traversing the hills totally self sufficient. Ishi’s story proves that no man is an island, and eventually we all need the help of others if we are to prosper.
Secondly we can learn about the endurance of the human spirit. Ishi’s life was tough. So tough he literally watched his people vanish in front of his eyes, he never saw new children the replace them, and then spent three years in complete isolation. Through it all Ishi never lost his will to survive. It is an incredible testament to the human will. It also displays the usefulness of bushcraft and other primitive skills. Had it not overwhelmed him, Ishi could have lived in his hills without leaving more than some footprints and a few piles of ashes.
Finally, Ishi’s life teaches us about the products of such a life. Ishi was honest, patient, a lover of people, and not subject to violent outbursts. Once at the museum, he would never take what was not his and would expect his belongings to be left alone was well. He did steal frequently while living in the hills, but these crimes were driven by survival rather than by envy or greed.
He would give freely, never expected to amass much in way of belongings, and was extremely organized. You can imagine how selective a person had to be with their gear when they alone could carry everything they needed to survive from camp to camp. Lastly, Ishi never placed much faith in the frivolous. If it didn’t have a use, Ishi couldn’t really appreciate it.
Ishi teaches so much about the natural state of man. His original way of life was difficult but it evoked some of humans most honorable traits. Although not sinless by any means, Ishi embodied so many of the characteristics we seek to instill in our youngsters. Honesty, integrity, a friendly disposition, and general good feelings towards others. Perhaps it was just his personality, recorded somewhere in his genome. Perhaps it was something else, his Yahi culture passed down to him.
However, it just might be that the simple lifestyle he led is what steered him away from the vices that bind so many. The hard work, patience, and fortitude it took to live off the land might have been the force to mold him into the person he was.
Maybe the biggest lesson we can gain from Ishi moving forward is the realization that his way of life drew out the best in him. It’s possible that as we seek understanding of the past we find truths that help us in the present. Take what lessons you will from Ishi, the last natural man.
Resource: Kroeber, T. (1961). Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.