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Ishi

Monday October 12, 2020

On this Indigenous People’s Day I visited a historical marker to one of the most well known indigenous person in California.

I remember the stories my grandma told me of the man in a suit that she would see in the local corner grocery store in the the inner Sunset neighborhood in San Francisco. He was different but covered in the threads of the times. Although she had seen him as a child, the story she told me in her later years showed what an impression that experience had made on her.

This was the man named “Ishi”, the last surviving member of the Yahi People. And I was going to the point of his intersection with the modern western world.

How did he come to live in San Francisco? It began on an August evening at about 7:30 in eastern Oroville.

On August 29, 1911, Ishi collided with he western world when he was captured near Charles Ward’s Slaughterhouse (note the irony) in Oroville, California. He was captured and put into the Oroville jail (supposedly for his own protection) when the first photograph of him was taken of.

Ishi’s people, the Yahi, had been diminished by attacks by other native tribes and by white settlers who came to California to seek their fortunes in the Gold Rush. His small family group died out and he wandered down from the foothills, tired and dehydrated, to look for food when he was captured.

Ishi at the Oroville jail.

In September, Ishi made his way to San Francisco where he stayed at the University of California Museum of Anthropology at Parnassus and was studied by an anthropologist named Alfred Kroeber. Kroeber learned from Ishi about his culture and language (no living person spoke his language). His voice was recorded as he talked, sang, and told stories.

One favorite story is about the time that Ishi was riding in a car through Golden Gate Park and he made the driver stop the car as he spotted California quail by the side of the road, a bird Ishi would have been very familiar with. Today, there is only one quail remaining in Golden Gate Park, a lone male, which local birders have named “Ishi”.

Ishi’s contact with the modern world proved to be his downfall. He was often sick with western diseases. He died on March 25, 1916 of tuberculosis.

The area where Ishi was found is now a quiet residential neighborhood on a quiet street. The slaughterhouse in gone and the area has been built up with residential, single family houses. The calls of the northern flicker, California quail, and the acorn woodpecker may be the only things recognizable from 1911. At least to Ishi.

Now there is a historical marker, the genesis behind it’s creation was a high school teacher and his son, who wondered why there was not a historical marker about the last of the Yahi: Ishi. And because of their efforts, there now is California Registered Historical Landmark No. 809.

Looking at this marker now, I reflect on our complicated interactions with the native people of California. It is often a tragic story but also with bits of light and wonder. Like the time a little girl saw the man from Parnassus in the local store. A story she would tell, many, many years later to her grandson.