Honoring the Life of Ishi – The Last Survivor of the Yahi Tribe

By Terry Hamburg, Director of the Cypress Lawn Heritage Foundation

Cypress Lawn has acquired Olivet Memorial Park in Colma. Situated at the base of the San Bruno Mountains, with huge cypress and palm trees throughout, Mount Olivet — as it was originally named — opened in 1896, four years after Cypress Lawn. Known as the “Cemetery of All Faiths, it is located at 1601 Hillside Blvd., adjacent to our Hillside campus. Like all the Cypress Lawn campuses, Olivet has fascinating stories. Here is one of them.

Ishi when discovered

In 1911, a middle-aged Native American was discovered scavenging for food in the Northern California hills near Oroville. This man would prove to be the last member of the Yahi tribe, an indigenous group of Native American people who resided in the Deer Creek region of California. The man refused to divulge his name, in accordance with the old Yahi tradition of not revealing personal identities to outsiders or enemies. Eventually, he was given the name Ishi, the word for “man” in the Yahi tribe’s Yana language.

The Yahi were hunters and gatherers. The nation of some 400 remained isolated from the outside word and fought fiercely to defend their territory, which unfortunately was close to the California gold fields. The Yahi quickly lost the battle. By the late 1860s, the 16 remaining members of the tribe hid in mountains and were thought to be extinct until that fateful day in 1911 when the one of them unexpectedly appeared in the “civilized” world.

Authorities took the lost man into custody for his own protection. News of the so-called “Last Survivor of Stone Age California” was a sensational story that attracted worldwide attention, including that of Thomas Waterman, a young anthropologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Gathering what partial vocabularies existed of Northern California Native American dialects, the speakers of which had mostly vanished, Waterman traveled to Oroville. After unsuccessfully hazarding words from several dialects, Waterman tried a few from the language of the Yana. Some were intelligible, and the two men were able to engage in a crude dialogue. The following month, Waterman took his ward to live near the Berkeley University museum. The authorities had wanted to send him to a reservation in Oklahoma, but anthropologist Alfred Kroeber insisted he remain at the university.

Ishi’s ability to communicate gradually improved. At approximately 50 years old, he was apparently the last of his people. Ishi said he had roamed the mountains of NorthernCalifornia for years with a small remnant of the Yahi people. Gradually, the rest of the group was decimated by accidents or diseases. A white man murdered his final male companion, and Ishi wandered alone until he reached Oroville.

Anthropologist Thomas Waterman & Ishi

Ishi mastered some 600 English words, enabling him to teach anthropologists about the lost Yahi culture and Yana language. He was employed at the university as a research assistant and lecturer where he would describe his tribal customs, demonstrating his wilderness skills in archery, woodcraft, and other traditional techniques. Ishi had great rapport, especially with children, and enjoyed wandering Bay Area communities, visiting the old Yahi lands, and riding on San Francisco trolley cars.

He and Waterman became close friends. In 1916, Ishi contracted tuberculosis, a disease unknown among Native Americans, and he died around the age of 56. He was cremated at Olivet Memorial Park. The columbarium there held his remains in a “modest dark vase set on a dark green marble base.” It is said he created his own burial urn.

This is not the end of story — in a sense, it’s only the beginning. At his death, to the chagrin of his Native American friends, Ishi’s brain was removed during his autopsy. This was ordered by Kroeber, and his brain was sent to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. This is where it remained until it was rediscovered in 1999 and returned.

At this point, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer and the California Native American Heritage Commission filed suit in San Mateo Superior Court to allow Ishi’s full remains to be removed from Olivet, where they had been for almost a century, to be given to the Pit River Tribe and Redding Rancheria, the tribal group most closely related to Ishi. Today, his remains rest in a secret location in Deer Creek, guarded from curious seekers.