OVER ONE MILLION COPIES SOLD The life story of Ishi, the Yahi Indian, lone survivor of a doomed tribe, is unique in the annals of North American anthropology. For more than forty years, Theodora Kroeber's biography has been sharing this tragic and absorbing drama with readers all over the world. Ishi stumbled into the twentieth century on the morning of August 29, 1911, when, desperate with hunger and with terror of the white murderers of his family, he was found in the corral of a slaughter house near Oroville, California. Finally identified as an Indian by an anthropologist, Ishi was brought to San Francisco by Professor T. T. Waterman and lived there the rest of his life under the care and protection of Alfred Kroeber and the staff of the University of California's Museum of Anthropology.
The author was married to one of the men who worked intensively with Ishi when he descended from the mountains, alone and starving, in 1911. The author
The author then returns to describe Ishi and his life from 1911-1916: his constitution, his experience of San Francisco, his work as a janitor, much about his language, his interactions and friendships, his craftsmanship, what he communicated regarding Yahi customs, culture, and stories, the trip back to his home territory in 1914; his ultimate demise from tuberculosis.
This is definitely a work from 1960. Many of the cultural assumptions and prognostications will be perceived as cringeworthy today. And yet the author is very forthright about the genocide the Americans perpetrated on the Indigenous people of California. She is rather sympathetic toward Ishi and portrayed him without too much of a patronizing tone. It might well be that she attempted to exonerate her husband and his associates for their treatment of Ishi; it is also possible that she portrayed his attitude after 1911 decently well, as someone who had committed to living among white people in white culture who may not have minded visiting the old homestead but was quite happy to return - because he would rather live among his white friends in a strange world than by himself in a more familiar one.
The book generates a lot of conflicting emotions. It's amazing that all of this could take place as late as 1911; we can appreciate the amount of work expended to try to preserve aspects of Yahi language and culture while lamenting the behaviors that made it so dire and necessary. It's a reminder of how much has changed in California in the past century. It's a legacy we'll never be able to fully shake.
Recognize the work is from 1960 and all that entails; but the story told ought to be read.