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Sun Aug 31 08:24:04 MDT 2003
(Posted in entirety because it is available only to LA Times subscribers)
Los Angeles Times
August 29, 2003 Friday Home Edition
Questions about discovery of the 'last wild Indian' haunt anthropologist's
BYLINE: Ann Japenga, Special to The Times
In the 92 years since the so-called last wild Indian was found cowering in
an Oroville slaughterhouse, Alfred Kroeber's descendants have resisted
speaking for him. After all, by what right does a privileged California
clan represent a persecuted Indian simply because their father was the
anthropologist who studied him and their mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote a
book that made him famous?
But that logic hasn't stopped people from quizzing the pair's sons, Karl
and Clifton Kroeber. Their daughter, Ursula K. Le Guin, also deflects
questions about Ishi that come up at readings of her bestselling science
fiction books. Fellow police officers sometimes ask LAPD Capt. Scott
Kroeber, Clifton's son, about the Native American once called "the wild man
of Mt. Lassen."
It seems the family is inextricably tied to Ishi, the man said to have been
the last North American Indian roaming the wilds. As the tale goes, his
Yahi tribe was hunted and massacred in the late 1800s until only a handful
remained. They hid out in the Mt. Lassen foothills, about 130 miles north
of Sacramento, for 40 years. Finally, Ishi, apparently the last survivor,
was driven out of the wilderness by hunger or despair, maybe both.
Slaughterhouse butchers found him, barefoot and emaciated, wearing a canvas
shirt, with buckskin thongs hanging from his pierced ears. He was promptly
jailed but was soon sprung from captivity by anthropologists Thomas
Waterman and Alfred Kroeber, curator of the Museum of Anthropology at UC
San Francisco. (The museum later moved to UC Berkeley and became the Phoebe
A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.)
The Kroeber descendants, who, after all, had never known Ishi, have tried
to stay out of the story over the decades. Until recently.
In pursuit of the truth
Four years ago, when Duke University researcher Orin Starn discovered that
Alfred Kroeber had sent Ishi's brain to the Smithsonian Institution against
the man's wishes, the Kroebers were again called on for comment. And as the
issue escalated, working its way to the California Legislature, the Kroeber
brothers were asked to edit a new anthology, a book that would get closer
to the truth of Ishi and his relationship with Alfred Kroeber, who died in
This time, they agreed. "Ishi in Three Centuries" (University of Nebraska
Press), released this summer, was the result.
"In a sense, this was a family obligation," says Le Guin, who lives in
Portland. "Ishi is not a mystique or a fascination with our family. But
when he became a hot topic again a few years ago, my brothers picked up the
football. I think they felt obliged to."
Native American writer and UC Berkeley American Studies professor Gerald
Vizenor predicts the obligation will persist: "You could say the two
families came together by chance and they'll always be together historically."
Although enduring, the bond between the Kroebers and Ishi is clearly
lopsided. Ishi was alone in an unfamiliar culture. He never told anyone his
name (Kroeber dubbed him Ishi, meaning "man" in the Yana language, the
tribe to which the Yahi band belonged) or learned to speak more than a few
hundred words in English.
Kroeber was one of the most eminent American anthropologists of all time.
He and his descendants are unusually well spoken and persuasive. Authors,
professors, police officers -- the Kroebers have power and status in a
society where Ishi had none.
"The problem with Ishi is it's easy to fall into exploiting him," says Karl
Kroeber, Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in New
York. "It's a very tricky business. If you're white, almost anything you
say about him could be exploitation."
That goes double if you're a Kroeber. "Some reviewers may say: If there are
two people who shouldn't have done this job, it's Karl and Clif Kroeber,"
Clifton and his son Scott got together recently to talk about this delicate
partnership. They met at Clifton's home near Occidental College in Eagle
Rock, where he is a professor emeritus of history. The comfortable ranch
house hidden in the hills has the lived-in feel of a place where four boys
grew up in an atmosphere of vigorous academic discussion.
Alfred Kroeber's grandsons also grew up with blown-up photos of Ishi on the
walls. Scott remembers walking down the hallway to bed as a young man,
being mesmerized by photos of Ishi carving spear points and swimming naked
in Deer Creek. His older brother, Alan, grew up wishing he could have met Ishi.
So did schoolchildren all over California. The story of the "the last
primordial man" is a staple of some school curricula.
Ishi was briefly famous after his 1911 discovery in the slaughterhouse, but
after his death in 1916 his story was largely forgotten. When Theodora
Kroeber, as a 60-year-old first-time writer, released "Ishi in Two Worlds"
in 1961, it catapulted him to fame and his story became a California
classic. There followed the inevitable TV movies, poems, plays,
documentaries and endless analysis -- what Duke cultural anthropology
professor Starn calls "the cult of Ishi."
A disturbing awakening
The first half of the book painstakingly narrates the extermination of
Northern California Indians by government scalpers, bounty hunters and
amateur Indian killers. Theodora Kroeber was influenced by the early civil
rights movement; her book, in turn, helped fuel Native American rights
The story of systematic destruction of California tribes during the Gold
Rush had rarely been told before. To this day, her book often serves as
readers' first awakening to this episode in California history.
After the commotion over "Ishi in Two Worlds" faded, his story again fell
out of the limelight. Then, in 1999, he was back in the news when Starn
discovered that Ishi's brain had not been cremated with the rest of his
body but had been shipped east for study. At the time, some scientists
believed there was value in studying the brains of primates, geniuses and
so-called exotics like Ishi.
The dismaying revelation reawakened criticisms of Alfred Kroeber that had
surfaced as far back as 1911. Was he really Ishi's friend, or his betrayer?
Given a room at the museum, Ishi had earned his keep as a janitor for $25 a
week. He shared his songs, his stories, his language and his tool-making
with Kroeber (whom Ishi called "Big Chiep"). He also served as an
entertainer to visitors who loved to watch the Native American craft arrows
and spears. He was free to leave but chose to stay at the museum until his
death from tuberculosis five years later.
Nearly a century later, Kroeber was being criticized for the relationship.
The California Assembly held hearings to discuss "the brain business," as
Clifton calls it; and the UC Berkeley anthropology department struggled to
agree on the wording of a public apology. One draft of its statement called
Kroeber's actions "indefensible." There was even talk of stripping the name
from Kroeber Hall on the campus. (After the dust cleared, Kroeber Hall
remained and Ishi was honored with the dedication of Ishi Court.)
The developments bumped the family off the sidelines and into action.
"It was ugly to see," says Clifton's son Alan, speaking of the attacks on
his grandfather. "I could see the pain this was causing my dad and his
siblings. I could tell how upset they were."
As the family was still stinging from the censure, a former chairman of the
Berkeley anthropology department, George Foster, suggested to the Kroeber
brothers that they edit the first substantial reexamination of the Ishi
drama to be published in 40 years.
"I did not want to do the thing at all," Karl Kroeber says. He eventually
relented when others, such as Vizenor and Gary Dunham, editor in chief of
the University of Nebraska Press, also encouraged him to take on the task.
Clifton and Karl solicited wide-ranging points of view for the new volume.
Essays include analysis of a story told by Ishi, a technical piece on
Ishi's arrowheads and stone tools, extensive commentary on the repatriation
of Ishi's remains, views of Ishi by Native American scholars and writers,
and a memoir by Fred Zumwalt Jr., who lived near the museum as a child and
recalls gathering blackberries and wild iris roots with Ishi in the San
Ishi as an individual
The book lays the foundation for what the Kroebers hope will become an
ongoing field of Ishi studies. One thing Karl would like to see, in
particular, is the release of Ishi's stories and songs recorded in his own
voice, not filtered through the voices of anthropologists. The tapes are
now in archives at UC Berkeley and elsewhere.
"I think the most important thing the book does is establish Ishi as a
unique person," Karl says. "He attracts attention because he did the best a
human being can do -- to take terrible circumstances and simply refuse to
be overwhelmed by them."
Reflecting on the relationship between Ishi and his father, Karl says:
"They were friends. Ishi was an informant, yes, but you didn't get good
material unless there was a strong personal relationship."
There may have been chinks in the partnership, Karl adds, but you have to
factor in the era in which Kroeber was working. Not only was there little
awareness of Native American rights in 1911, but anthropology also was a
new field. Kroeber and his colleagues were still sorting out the rules.
"If research were to prove he did things that -- even in their own time and
context -- should not have been done," Scott says of his grandfather, "then
that's how the historic record should stand. But I don't think that's the
type of person he was."
Clifton, a cheerful man with a quick laugh and a neat white beard, says he
and Karl worked to present different points of view in the new book -- a
blend of "pros" and "antis," as he puts it. He calls his father Kroeber and
speaks of him from a certain remove, as if he can separate himself from
Alfred Kroeber, father, and see him purely as Alfred Kroeber, anthropologist.
"There's controversy in the book about whether Kroeber should have done
things differently, whether Ishi should have stayed in San Francisco at
all, and whether Ishi was suffering or was enjoying his new life," he says.
"We tried to get all the voices in there as best we could."
The brain furor continues to haunt the Kroeber family, who are hoping
further research may explain why Alfred Kroeber defied Ishi's desire to
have his body cremated intact.
Lots of people, not just the Kroebers, are puzzled by the handling of
Ishi's brain, which was reunited with his cremated remains in 2000 and
buried near Mt. Lassen. Some of those questions may be answered by
forthcoming books, such as Starn's "Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's
Last Wild Indian," due in February from W.W. Norton.
The relationship between Kroeber and Ishi was more complex than Theodora's
book suggests, Starn adds: "Ishi was genuinely a friend. But he was also a
The alliance between Ishi and the Kroebers is imperfect, certainly. But
like many flawed relationships, it probably has served both parties to some
degree. Vizenor points out that Ishi probably would have been sent away to
a reservation in Oregon if he hadn't fallen in with the anthropologist.
"Kroeber really liked this man," Vizenor says. "He wasn't just keeping some
guy in a museum as an object. He gave Ishi a life and a place."
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