Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: Ishi In Two Worlds

Published first in 1961 popular work recounts what came to be known about "Ishi" the last "wild" Indian in North America.

Walking out of the Northern California forests at the age of 49  in 1911 and arrested for trying to steal some meat, Ishi had spent the previous three years alone after the last of his tribe (Yahi) had either been killed or driven into extinction.

The book covers the long downward spiral of his tribe and northern California Indian tribes in general facing threats such as smallpox, land encroachment and just pure extermination by some of the Western settlers.  That Ishi and the Yahi hung on as long as they did was amazing and his brief incorporation into "modern" society in San Francisco is just as stunning.

The work doesn't have a lot of first hand material to work with.  Ishi could speak only minimal English before his death and no other Indians spoke his language (parts of, yes, but wholly? No).  Instead what material Theodora Kroeber had to work with were the recordings, writings and recollections of her husband Alfred Kroeber and other scientists and workers around the UCSF museum that he made his home during his brief stay in modern America.

The book is well worth the read covering a very interesting period in American history when the last vestiges of what we think of as the "old world" before the white man arrived, disappeared or mutated into reservation constrained perversions. In truth, to me the more interesting parts were those covering the decline of Ishi's tribe and culture vs. Ishi's efforts to eke out a life in modern society which, while necessary, are a sad denouement to what was a brave and remarkable life.

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