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Remembering Ishi: How to Make a Poison Oak Hand Drill Friction Fire

Shawn Woods remembers Ishi on the anniversary of his passing by making a friction fire with poison oak as Ishi himself might have done.

One hundred years ago the world saw the passing of Ishi, “the last” of the Yahi Indians.

Ishi’s life was one of tragedy and triumph. Triumph in how he carried himself in the face of an unfamiliar world, with dignity and graciousness. Tragedy in what that world ultimately did to him, albeit unintentionally perhaps.

Ishi was eventually hired and housed at the University of California San Francisco. Because Ishi was unfamiliar with modern illnesses and the diseases of civilization, he was often sick. Saxton Pope, the famed archer and also a Professor of Medicine at the UCSF, treated and befriended Ishi. The two hunted together and Pope wrote numerous papers about Ishi and his life.

Ultimately Ishi’s immune system was no match for the diseases with which he was confronted, and on March 25, 1916, he succumbed to tuberculosis.

Here, Shawn Woods throws caution to the wind and attempts to start a fire with poison oak, as Ishi himself might have done. Ishi had a naturally immunity to poison oak, but Woods does not. So, Woods took a piece of poison oak and shafted it onto a longer piece of wood, in order to create an ember from the poison oak via the hand drill method. He then blew that ember into a fire.

It is a fitting tribute to Ishi, a man who has influenced much of Woods’ hunting style and equipment. He has reproduced Ishi’s arrows and bow and has hunted effectively with them.

Woods encourages people to learn about Ishi by pointing out three source materials for further study of the man:

  • ‘Hunting With the Bow and Arrow’ by Saxton Pope, a 1923 volume.
  • ‘The Rarest Works of Saxton Pope’ by Saxton Pope
  •  ‘Ishi in Two Worlds’ by Theodora Kroeber

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Remembering Ishi: How to Make a Poison Oak Hand Drill Friction Fire