Ishi’s Long Road Home

A California Indian's preserved brain accentuates his tragic, mysterious life

Inside a sealed tank in a Suitland, Md., warehouse rests a brain that, for the past 83 years, has refused to die. The lump of preserved tissue doesn’t pulsate or glow like the gory centerpiece of some late-night monster movie. Rather, it reaches out and grabs people because it’s infused with the symbolic power of a real-life horror story—the near-destruction of several Native American tribes by white California settlers in the late 1800s.

Ishi of the Yahi tribe, circa 1914. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

This disembodied organ assumes even more vitality for having come from a man who survived unspeakable tragedy with an uncommon courage and grace that inspired a best-selling biography.

This is Ishi’s brain. Officials at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where the brain was sent in 1917 by one of anthropology’s most eminent practitioners, hope to return it soon to the two surviving Indian tribes most closely related to Ishi. Once legal and logistical hurdles are cleared, the tribes will conduct a traditional burial uniting Ishi’s brain with his cremated body, now held in a California cemetery.

The reappearance of this long-forgotten brain, which surprised even some Smithsonian scientists, has ignited fierce debate over the ethics of the researchers who befriended and studied Ishi. It has also focused scientific and public attention on the ongoing repatriation process, by which anthropologists return skeletal and cultural remains to Native American groups.

Moreover, the saga raises questions about how much can ever really be known about Ishi, a man who has attained near-mythic status among anthropologists, Native Americans, and others, especially in California.

“Ishi has become an icon of our guilt and regret about past mistreatment of Native Americans,” says Nancy Rockafellar, a medical historian at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). “He’s been admired for his resilience and heroism, and now he’s a symbol of the repatriation struggle. There are many Ishis.”

Only one

In August 1911, only one Ishi existed, and that just barely. Starving and almost naked, he straggled into the northern California town of Oroville. In a wicked irony, he took shelter in the local slaughterhouse. Most of the approximately 400 members of the Yahi tribe to which he belonged had been massacred by white vigilantes and bounty hunters.

The 1849 California gold rush had set off bloody attacks on Indian tribes in mining areas, many occurring in the years just after Ishi’s birth around 1860. From 1870 to 1911, Ishi and 5 to 20 Yahi hid in wooded areas not far from Oroville. As apparently the last surviving member of that hardy band, a desperate Ishi crossed into the white world. The sheriff turned him over to University of California anthropologist Thomas T. Waterman, who on Sept. 4, 1911, took Ishi to live at his institution’s anthropology museum, then located in San Francisco.

Waterman and his colleagues, including anthropology department head Alfred Kroeber, took an immediate liking to their outgoing, intelligent boarder. So did the general public. In his first 6 months at the museum, 24,000 visitors watched Ishi demonstrate arrow making and fire building. Kroeber referred to him as the last Stone Age Indian in North America.

Ishi also spent much time demonstrating archery techniques to Saxton Pope, the UCSF surgeon who became his personal physician. Famed linguist Edward Sapir worked with Ishi to document the Yahi language.

Ishi, whose life story was first described in the popular book Ishi in Two Worlds by Theodora Kroeber (1961, University of California Press), died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. Theodora Kroeber, the wife of Alfred Kroeber, notes in her book that Ishi’s brain was removed during an autopsy, although she makes no mention of what happened to it.

The issue drew little notice until 1997, when four Maidu Indian tribes in northern California’s Butte County formed a committee to campaign for the return of Ishi’s remains for reburial in the Yahi homelands. They knew that his ashes were stored in a cemetery just south of San Francisco. Upon learning that his brain had ended up elsewhere, they launched an effort to find it.

Rockafellar and other UCSF officials joined the search after seeing a June 6, 1997 Los Angeles Times article suggesting that UCSF still held the brain.

The UCSF investigators eventually ran across clues that their quarry had ended up at the Smithsonian. After getting a tip from an emeritus anthropologist familiar with Ishi’s story, Rockafellar telephoned JoAllyn Archambault, director of the Smithsonian’s American Indian Program. Rockafellar quotes Archambault as saying that Ishi’s missing brain “is old folklore, and it doesn’t exist.”

Later in 1998, anthropologist Orin Starn of Duke University in Durham, N.C., combed through Alfred Kroeber’s letters held at UC Berkeley. In a letter dated Oct. 27, 1916, Kroeber offered to ship Ishi’s brain to Ales Hrdlicka, then the Smithsonian’s physical anthropology curator, to include in his studies of links between brain size, body weight, and race. Hrdlicka had quickly sent back a letter of acceptance.

Armed with these documents, Starn met with anthropologist Thomas Killion, director of the Smithsonian’s Repatriation Office, on Jan. 27, 1999. At that meeting, Killion confirmed that Ishi’s brain was stored in a Smithsonian facility.

With the search over, the repatriation process began. Killion and his colleagues worked with the Butte County committee to identify, as required by law, the closest living relatives to whom the Smithsonian could return Ishi’s brain. On May 7, 1999, Smithsonian officials announced that they would return the preserved tissue to the Redding Rancheria and Pit River tribes in Butte County. These groups contain descendants of a larger Yana culture to which Ishi’s Yahi belonged, as well as the Maidu.

The two tribes still await final legal approval from the state of California to retrieve Ishi’s cremated remains from the cemetery. Tribal deliberations continue on where to hold the burial and how to conduct it. After resolving those matters, representatives of the tribes will retrieve the brain from the Smithsonian.

“Things are going slowly, but that’s how we want to handle it,” says Mickey Gemmill, spokesman for the two tribes. “The way we see it, [Ishi’s burial] will happen when it’s supposed to happen.”

Quick action

Although Native American groups were heartened by the Smithsonian’s quick action on their repatriation request, they’re upset that it took so long to locate Ishi’s brain, Gemmill notes. For her part, Rockafellar wonders why Archambault at first denied the brain’s existence and why Smithsonian officials who knew the location of the brain did not seek out the Butte County committee once its well-publicized search began.

Killion and anthropologist Stuart Speaker, who works in the Smithsonian’s Repatriation Office, say that repatriation workers knew the whereabouts of Ishi’s brain all along, even if anthropologists in other Smithsonian departments didn’t. After decades during which Ishi’s brain attracted virtually no attention and underwent a couple of location changes, its official documentation had become muddled.

In fact, when the Smithsonian distributed an inventory of remains for possible repatriation to California Indian tribes in 1998, Ishi’s brain wasn’t on the list. “That was an unfortunate oversight that we corrected after meeting with Starn,” Speaker says. He adds that he doesn’t know why Archambault denied the brain’s existence to Rockafellar.

Archambault doesn’t recall talking to the UCSF historian. However, she says that because she had no knowledge of its presence at the Smithsonian, she told several callers who inquired on separate occasions around that time that Ishi’s brain had never been sent there. “This is a big place and people [from different departments] don’t talk to each other much,” Archambault says. “I found out that Ishi’s brain was here when the story came out in the press [in early 1999].”

Disservice done

That’s when the Berkeley anthropology faculty found out, too. The news led some to feel that their discipline and their founding department head had done a disservice to Ishi.

In the April 1999 Anthropology Newsletter, published by the American Anthropological Association, Berkeley anthropologist Jonathan Marks expressed puzzlement at what motivated Kroeber to “objectify a friend” and allow Hrdlicka “to add a pickled Indian brain to his macabre collections.”

Marks notes, however, that Ishi died while Kroeber was in Europe. Upon learning of the loss, Kroeber immediately sent a letter to an associate declaring that no autopsy should occur. The letter arrived too late.

Marks also scolds the Smithsonian for hesitating “longer than the blink of an eye” to repatriate Ishi’s brain.

His views echo those of a statement issued by the Berkeley anthropology department on March 29, 1999, and published in the May 1999 Anthropology Newsletter. The statement described relations between Ishi and the researchers as “complex and contradictory.” It concludes that Kroeber “inexplicably arranged” to send Ishi’s brain to the Smithsonian.

Some Berkeley anthropologists, such as George M. Foster, staunchly objected to the department’s statement. Foster, who has conducted field research since 1937 and was a student and colleague of Kroeber’s, defends the actions of the late anthropologist in the October 1999 Anthropology Newsletter.

Ishi had comfortable, permanent living quarters at the San Francisco museum, where he enjoyed a longer and healthier life than he would have if he had been sent to an Indian reservation, Foster contends. The Yahi survivor was a source of information for researchers, but he probably didn’t feel exploited by them, Foster adds. He suspects that Ishi, like Native Americans Foster has worked with, was pleased to record his language and culture.

Foster also describes Kroeber as having had “genuine affection” for Ishi. Kroeber’s reasons for sending Ishi’s brain across the country are unclear, Foster holds. Kroeber apparently spent months pondering what to do with the unexpected “bottled brain of a close friend in his office,” Foster says.

Hrdlicka, who had a large collection of primate brains, may have presented an acceptable solution to Kroeber’s predicament with a bonus of what appeared to be a scientific payoff.

Nonetheless, Hrdlicka never published any measurements of Ishi’s brain or included it in any studies.

In a letter accompanying Foster’s written comments, Kroeber’s son Karl, a humanities professor at Columbia University, says that the Berkeley departmental statement ignores the mutual respect and friendship that developed between Ishi and those with whom he worked at the museum.

Rockafellar and Starn coauthored a comment on this matter in the August-October 1999 Current Anthropology. Kroeber and his fellow researchers truly cared for Ishi, “but he was an object to them as well as a friend,” they state. They argue that Ishi’s dual status encouraged Kroeber to send the preserved brain off for scientific analysis rather than add it to the rest of the deceased Yahi’s ashes.

Final outcome

Whatever Kroeber’s motivation for forwarding Ishi’s brain to Hrdlicka, Smithsonian officials say that the final outcome of the case demonstrates that the repatriation process is working. It took only about 2 months to respond to the formal request to repatriate Ishi’s brain and offer the remains to the appropriate tribes, Killion says.

Since 1991, he adds, the Smithsonian’s Repatriation Office has returned more than 4,000 sets of remains to more than 40 Native American groups. An additional 30 repatriation requests are pending.

The Repatriation Office’s intensive investigation of Ishi’s roots put to rest the notion that he was “the last Yahi,” Speaker says. It also found evidence that Ishi and his Yahi comrades did not lead an isolated, Stone Age existence. For instance, Ishi liked to make arrowheads from glass obtained from bottles gathered at white towns and camps.

Yet for all that has been written and said about him, Ishi remains a puzzling figure. Even the arrowheads he fashioned to such acclaim while in San Francisco leave questions unanswered.

Ishi’s arrowheads most closely resemble those of the Wintu tribe, a neighbor of the Yahi, according to Berkeley archaeologist M. Steven Shackley. In his youth, Ishi may have learned to make arrowheads from a Wintu relative or might even have lived among the Wintu, Shackley suggests.

Killion doubts those scenarios. Ishi and other Yahi, however, probably interacted with other Native American groups to a greater extent than has been appreciated, he says.

“A lot of what we think is known about Ishi’s life is rather fragmentary,” Speaker asserts.

Ishi made it clear to Waterman, Kroeber, and others from the beginning that he didn’t want to talk about his family or his feelings about what had happened to them. In fact, he didn’t even divulge his real name, probably due to a Native American belief that it’s disrespectful and potentially dangerous to reveal one’s name to strangers, Speaker says. Consequently, he was dubbed Ishi, the Yana word for man.

“Ishi’s story is one of the most slippery that I’ve ever encountered,” Rockafellar remarks. “We have his complete medical records at UCSF, but he’s still a mystery. Science couldn’t penetrate Ishi.”


Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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