Ishi, who was described as the last surviving member of the Native Amercain Yahi tribe, is discovered in California on August 29, 1911.

Ishi, the last known member of the Native American Yahi people (California, USA 1910s)

Ishi, the last known member of the Native American Yahi people (California, USA 1910s)
By the first decade of the 20th century, Euro-Americans had so overwhelmed the North American continent that scarcely any Native Americans remained who had not been assimilated into Anglo society to some degree. Ishi appears to have been something of an exception. Found lost and starving near an Oroville, California, slaughterhouse, he was largely unfamiliar with white American ways and spoke no English.

Authorities took the Native American man into custody for his own protection. News of the so-called “Stone Age Indian” attracted the attention of a young Berkeley anthropologist named Thomas Waterman. Gathering what partial vocabularies existed of northern California Native dialects, the speakers of which had mostly vanished, Waterman went to Oroville to meet Ishi. After unsuccessfully hazarding words from several dialects, Waterman tried a few words from the language of the Yana Indians. Some were intelligible to Ishi, and the two men were able to engage in a crude dialogue. The following month, Waterman took Ishi to live at the Berkeley University museum, where their ability to communicate gradually improved.

Yahi translator Sam Batwai, Alfred L. Kroeber, and Ishi, photographed at Parnassus in1911. Image courtesy of UC Berkeley, Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology.


Waterman eventually learned that Ishi was a member of the Yahi people, an isolated branch of the northern California Yana tribe. He was approximately 50 years old and was apparently the last of his people. Ishi said he had wandered the mountains of northern California for some time with a small remnant of the Yahi people. Gradually, accident or disease had killed his companions. A white man murdered his final male companion, and Ishi wandered alone until he reached Oroville.

For five years, Ishi lived at the Berkeley Museum. He and Waterman became close friends, and he spent his days describing his tribal customs and demonstrating his wilderness skills in archery, woodcraft, and other traditional techniques. He learned to understand and survive in the white world, and enjoyed wandering the Bay area communities and riding on the trolley cars. Eventually, though, Ishi contracted tuberculosis. He died on March 25, 1916, at an estimated age of 56.

In August of 1911 a starving native-American man walked out of the Butte County wilderness into Oroville and became an instant journalistic sensation. He was identified by UC anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and T. T. Waterman as the last of a remnant band of Yahi people native to the Deer Creek region. The UC anthropologists immediately went north to Oroville and brought him back to live on the Parnassus campus, giving him the name “Ishi” which meant “man” in the Yahi language. During the next four years, the anthropologists and physicians at UC would learn much from Ishi, as he demonstrated his toolmaking and hunting skills, and spoke his tribal stories and songs. Newspapers frequently referred to Ishi as the “last wild Indian,” and the press was full of anecdotes referring to Ishi’s reaction to twentieth-century technological wonders like streetcars, theaters, and airplanes. In his writings, Waterman respectfully noted Ishi’s “gentlemanliness, which lies outside of all training and is an expression of inward spirit,” and the records of the time reveal much mutual respect on the part of Ishi and his scientist-observers. Each weekend, hundreds of visitors flocked to Parnassus to watch Ishi demonstrate arrow-making and other aspects of his tribal culture.

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