The New York Review of Books

Volume 51, Number 15 October 7, 2004


Morality Tale

By Clifford Geertz

Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last "Wild" Indian 
by Orin Starn
Norton, 352 pp., $25.95

Ishi in Three Centuries
edited by Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber
University of Nebraska Press, 416 pp., $49.95


A California morality tale, the story of Ishi is in itself, like parables in general, a simple one. It is the tellers, each with different involvement and different intent, who complicate it.

In late August 1911, a middle-aged man, with buckskin threaded through his ears and a small stick piercing his nose, was found cowering in the upriver scrub woods of the northern Sierras by some itinerant slaughterhouse workers. Unable to communicate with him (they tried both Spanish and English), they turned him over to the local sheriff, who, not knowing what else to do with him, deposited him in the town jail. Brown-skinned, with straight black hair, he was apparently some sort of Indian. But sure there were no independent tribes left in the area - they had all been wiped out, removed to micro-reservations, or reduced to indigence by the dispossessions of the Gold Rush - it was uncertain what sort.

The man best equipped to find out what sort was only 150 miles away: Alfred Louis Kroeber, first curator of the Native American collections in the newly formed Department of Anthropology at the state university in Berkeley. Kroeber, then thirty-five, had come from New York to Berkeley at the beginning of the century. (Or, more exactly, to San Francisco, where the museum of anthropology founded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst - senator's widow, press lord's mother - to house her collection of Indian artifacts was being built.) He had been a student and sometime assistant at Columbia of Franz Boas, the country's leading anthropologist and founding spirit of holistic ethnography, and, like his mentor, he was a strong-minded, detail-passionate scholar, determined to learn anything and everything that could still be learned about traditional, "precontact" Indian life before its last representatives disappeared. Recording myths, classifying languages, comparing kinship terminologies, and excavating settlements-a project he called, probably to his ultimate regret, "salvage anthropology" -he made himself, in the space of a decade, into a sort of Boas West: the go-to authority on California's hundreds of small, particulate, dismembered tribes.

When Kroeber heard, via press reports, of the mysterious prisoner, he immediately shot off a peremptory telegram to the county sheriff-professors were personages in those days - who had jailed him (HOLD INDIAN TILL ARRIVAL...WILL TAKE CHARGE AND BE RESPONSIBLE FOR HIM...MATTER IMPORTANT ACCOUNT ABORIGINAL HISTORY), and thereby projected himself into the middle of what would turn out to be a repetitive, wandering, theatrical, and accusatorial public controversy, lasting, still bitter, still ambiguous, still expanding, until today, nearly a century on.

After a colleague determined, through linguistic inquiry, that the prisoner was a Yahi, thus a remnant survivor-perhaps the last one altogether - of a group that had been essentially exterminated in the impressments, landgrabs, and Indian hunts of the 1850s and 1860s (the state's native population, originally perhaps 300,000, declined by 94 percent in a generation), Kroeber had him brought to the museum in San Francisco, where he remained for four and a half years before dying of tuberculosis. At the museum, located adjacent to the university hospital, he became at once a popular attraction - chipping arrowheads, making fire by spinning sticks, imitating bird calls - and also a celebrity of the yellow press: "The Last Aborigine," "A Genuine Survivor of Stone Age Barbarism," "The Wild Man of California," "An Indian Enigma," "The Only Man in America Who Knows No Christmas."

Named "Ishi," the Yahi word for "man," by Kroeber (he refused to disclose his proper name, or anything else of his personal history, including what had become of the rest of his family), he lived in the museum, practiced recreational archery with the hospital's chief surgeon (who claimed to outshoot him because "like all savages," he failed "to understand the optics and ballistics of archery"), learned to play jacks with neighborhood children, and was a constant source of public interest, amusement, and confabulation as he rode his first trolley, tied his first cravat, smoked his first cigar, watched his first vaudeville. His death, which came after a long decline while Kroeber, whose young wife had just died, also slowly, also of tuberculosis, was away on sabbatical leave, raised the problem of the proper, that is, culturally appropriate, disposal of his remains.

Kroeber wrote to his colleagues from New York that those on the scene, most particularly Saxton Pope, that chief-of-surgery archery companion who had become, at the end, the Indian's personal physician, should see to it "that the decently attended to and [Ishi be buried] like a gentleman instead of reverting to the state." In particular, given Yahi beliefs about the soul's bodily journey to repose after death, it was essential that no autopsy should be performed:

I do not...see that [it] would lead to anything of consequence, but would resolve itself into a general dissection.... Please shut down on it.... If there is any talk about the interests of science, say for me that science can go to hell. We propose to stand by our friends.... [No] scientific value is...involved.... The prime interest...would be of a morbid romantic nature.

Pope, apparently unaccustomed to accepting direction from laymen, no matter how eminent, and perhaps considering by then that the Indian belonged as much to him and medical science as he did to Kroeber and ethnology (a final photograph, which Kroeber later suppressed, shows the surgeon looming over the dying Indian, witlessly brandishing a bow), performed an autopsy anyway. He removed the brain-the generally dissected rest was cremated-packed it in formaldehyde, and left it for Kroeber to find waiting for him on his study mantle. Apparently unnerved by all this, Kroeber wrote to Ales Hrdlicka, chief of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian:

I find that at Ishi's death last spring his brain was removed and preserved. There is no one here who can put it to scientific use. If you wish it, I shall be glad to deposit it in the National Museum Collection.

Hrdlicka, who had vats full of preserved brains, a number of them Indian, as well as crates full of their skulls and skeletons, in pursuit, apparently, of some vaguely racist agenda, replied that he'd be pleased to have the object, and it was duly shipped, thus ensuring Ishi a stranger and more eventful afterlife than anything envisaged in his tribal tradition.


That afterlife began only in 1961, when Theodora Kroeber, Alfred's second wife, published Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America.[1] Working from newspaper clippings, local histories, ethnographical surveys, university archives, and most especially from her husband's troubled recollections of the times and of the Indian (he rejected all suggestions that he write an account himself), she produced a compact, vivid, sometimes moving, sometimes cloying, just-so survivor story: a shy, bewildered, proud, and self-possessed "red man," his sylvan existence first disrupted and then destroyed by "the Ibero-American invasion of California," is taken into their company by a small band of knowledgeable and sympathetic university scholars, among whom he lives for a few short, confused but happy friendship years as an oddity, a ward, an exhibit, and a linguistic informant, before, stoic and accepting-"You stay, I go"-he meets "death in a museum."

Appearing on the eve of the outburst of Native American activism associated with the Sixties-Wounded Knee, Alcatraz, the Trail of Broken Treaties-the book was an enormous success, selling nearly a million copies, and generating a string of popular culture offshoots: children's books, documentaries, pageants, made-for-television movies (Jon Voigt played Kroeber; Graham Greene, of Dances with Wolves, played Ishi), even a "meditation" in The Catholic Worker on "the spiritual impoverishment of modern American life" by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.[2]

It was, however, this same upsurge of Indian self-assertion, together with the worried and uncertain white response to it, that, as it broadened and solidified in the decades following, made Ishi's story into a more equivocal, elusive, less uplifting romance. In 1990, the US Congress, under pressure from Indian lobbyists, and in the face of opposition from a wide variety of collectors, curators, archaeologists, and university administrators, enacted NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. All governmentally supported museums were required to inventory their Indian holdings, remains and artifacts alike, and, upon request, return any of them to their tribal "owners"-those from whose midst they had been originally extracted. Ishi's brain, which Theodora Kroeber had barely mentioned even in passing and whose location was by this time, now that all the principals had died, no longer known, suddenly became an object of intense interest. Did it still exist? If so, to whom did it now belong? What did its removal, so many years ago, under such uncertain circumstances, tell us about the conscience of anthropology, and of anthropologists, then and now?

The first place to be struck by this rush of introspection-especially after the brain was discovered to be in fact still floating in the largely forgotten "wet collection" at the Smithsonian- was, inevitably, Berkeley. In the spring of 1999, the Department of Anthropology there met, "in response to numerous inquiries from members of the profession," to "revisit and reflect on a troubling chapter of our history." After what seems to have been a great deal of tense and acrimonious factional dispute, imperfectly resolved, the department issued a public apology, via the American Anthropological Association's newsletter, saying that Ishi's "family and cultural group ...were murdered as part of the genocide that characterized the influx of western settlers to California," that his relations with Kroeber and the other anthropologists on the scene were "complex and contradictory," and that Kroeber had "failed in his efforts to honor [the Indian's] wishes not to be autopsied" and had "inexplicably arranged for Ishi's brain to be shipped to...the Smithsonian." We acknowledge, they concluded, "our department's role in what happened to Ishi...[and] are considering various ways to pay honor and respect to [his] memory."

That was, however, hardly an end on the matter. Over the next couple of years the university sponsored no fewer than three public forums dedicated to the affair: "Ishi's Brain," "Ishi, Past, Present and Future," and "Who Owns the Body?," the last a large international, multidisciplinary conference organized by the vice-chancellor for research. A part of the faculty, led by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a self-described "militant anthropologist...squarely on the side of humanity, world saving, and world repair," read an even stronger statement at the repatriation hearings of the State Legislature in Sacramento. ("We are sorry for our department's the final betrayal of Ishi, a man who had already lost all that was dear to him at the hands of Western colonizers.")

George Foster, an eminent, longtime chairman of the department, now retired, who had been a student, friend, and colleague of Kroeber's, issued a strong rebuttal to the department statement. ("I believe that the behavior of the anthropologists [in the Ishi affair] was highly ethical and that apologies are out of order.") Alfred and Theodora's son, Karl, Mellon professor of humanities at Columbia, invited to address the "Who Owns the Body?" conclave, angrily attacked "public pronouncements by professional scholars schematizing Ishi's history in the service of current ideological agendas," "creative falsifiers" producing "postmodern...cartoons," and "scapegoaters" applying "current prejudices [to] circumstances, actions, and motives different in time, place, or culture from ourselves." "A dead body," he said, invoking Achilles' desecration of Hector on the walls of Troy, "is un-ownable." And the brain finally recovered (the Smithsonian, apparently fearing adverse publicity amid a fund drive, at first denied having it, saying it had been long ago incinerated), a painful, comic, and laboriously microtechnical bureaucratic controversy ensued over its appropriate destination. Where, among whom, as what variety of Indian, was Ishi finally to be interred?

Of the two books under review, the first, by Orin Starn, a young anthropologist born and brought up in Berkeley-his father was a professor of history there-who now teaches at Duke and works on Peru, tells the story of the search for the brain and the ultimate disposition of it as a somewhat breathless, me-and-Ishi detective story. The second, edited, with an astonishingly even hand given the nature of their involvement, by Karl Kroeber and his older half-brother, an emeritus professor of Hispanic American history at Occidental College in Los Angeles, assembles a couple of dozen essays, studies, documents, and personal statements from every direction-pro, con, white, Indian, scholarly, popular, ideological, official-on the evolution of the affair. Together, they should have the final word on the matter. But, given the passions involved, and the interests, they almost certainly will not.


There are now nearly as many Indians in California, nearly a quarter-million, as there were in the 1700s, before the upheavals of the nineteenth century came close to annihilating them and their way of life altogether. (The demographic collapse seems to have bottomed out around the beginning of the last century and the population to have risen more or less continuously thereafter.) There are 107 federally recognized tribes there now, and ninety-five official, that is, sovereign, reservations scattered across the state, most of them pocket-sized "rancherias," a mile or two across. The explosion of casino gambling on these lands, insulated as they are from local authority and popular interference, has projected the tribes into the very center of California's scrambled politics.

Proprietors, suddenly, of a $3 billion industry-fifty-three of the state's tribes have licenses to operate 62,000 slot machines, which, as a result of a ballot initiative won against Nevada gambling interests in 1998, are legal only on reservations-they find themselves negotiating in several directions at once. First they are consulting with one another concerning compensatory payments from the have tribes to the have-not ones; they also have dealings with anxious property owners in upscale places like Palm Springs and La Jolla, who are worried about the neighborhood; with the non-Indian card-room and race-track industry, which wants slots for itself; and, most fatefully, with the new broom in Sacramento, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger had campaigned for office promising to obtain a much larger tax payout from the tribes involved in the gambling business, and signed an agreement with five of the more amenable of them allowing them to expand their gambling operations in return for a windfall payment-the talk, probably loose, was of a billion dollars-to close the state's budget gap. A number of other, stronger tribes refused to sign on, however, and, along with their lobbying organization, the California Indian Nations Gaming Association, have proposed yet another initiative allowing unlimited expansion of gambling on Indian land in return for a modest 8 or 9 percent of their revenue. With the card-room and race-track interests sponsoring a counterinitiative on the same ballot requiring the tribes to pay out 25 percent of their profits on pain of losing their slot-machine monopoly altogether, it is clear that we are not in Ishi-country anymore. Nor in Kroeber-land either.[3]

The long, unbalanced, difficult, and ambiguous special relationship, at once intimate and arm's-length, between the Native American population and the American anthropological profession-a relationship Ishi and Kroeber so compactly summed up- is, now that the former is no longer so resourceless and the latter no longer so assured, under a good deal of pressure. From at least the 1880s, when the Bureau of American Ethnology was founded in the Smithsonian (and especially after Boas and the Boasians set racial explanations of human behavior aside in favor of cultural ones), anthropologists have been the main interpreters of Indian life to the general society and the most assiduous recorders of its shattered history.

The hundreds of reports, monographs, bulletins, surveys, and handbooks, the public lectures, the museum collections, the life-histories, the photographs, the grammars, the maps, the expeditions, provided what tribal tradition in itself could not: a series of detail-rich descriptions of aboriginal life.[4] For all the errors, omissions, distortions, even on occasion simple prejudices and fabrications, that inevitably find their way into summary accounts of other people's lives, and whatever the failings of particular investigators, on occasion spectacular, this is a major accomplishment. But now that what Kroeber himself sourly described as "gathering the remembered remnants of dying aboriginal societies from survivors in blue-jeans living in ruined and 'bastardized' cultures" seems a disused occupation, and the American Indian has turned out to be neither ruined nor vanishing-and all cultures are bastardized-the question is: How are we to proceed? What is the relation between describer and described, their connection recalibrated, now to be?

More exactly to the present point: Do fables instruct? Is the telling after telling of the "Ishi story"-in two three centuries...rediscovered...the last wild Indian...the last Yahi-of as much use in answering these questions as the various tellers, with their various moralities, and various morals, seem to think? Does imagining and reimagining so elusive an encounter, so imperfectly known, point us now toward the next necessary thing?

It seems unlikely. The rehearsal of charge and rebuttal, accusation and denial with respect to events about which everyone involved, or even interested, has long ago taken up a position loses momentum after the fifth go-round. Introspection has it uses, but after a while it begins to look like hypochondria.

For all its usefulness in filling out the story of what was, and wasn't, in fact learned from Ishi about aboriginal Indian life (there are excellent pieces on the wax cylinder recordings he made of traditional songs and stories, as well as commentaries on the dialect he spoke and the extraordinary stone tools he hammered out at Mrs. Hearst's museum), the Kroeber brothers' volume breathes a distinct air of vieux jeu, of an all too worked-over historical fragment being fitted, according to taste and presupposition, to one or another all too familiar ideological agenda: "writing against genocide, exposing "the 'occidental invention' of Indianness," complaining of white suppression of the "native voice," and blustering on about "reservation-internment camps...enclosed by the fences of science." But it is with Starn's book, and most especially with his disconcerted and somewhat aggrieved account of the last days of Ishi's brain and of his own frustrations in trying to direct its fate, that the sense grows most insistent that the past really is, sometimes, past, and that after a while it runs out of lessons to teach us.

As the latest of late-comers to the Ishi saga (he first learned about it as a child in the Berkeley Sixties, when "a young generation of hippies and radicals was enshrining Native Americans as icons of countercultural spirituality"), Starn made his way into the affair via yet another somewhat obsessive peripheral figure: a half-Indian trucker from Oroville, the town where Ishi had been jailed, named Art Angle. Angle, whose mother was a Maidu, the tribe immediately to the south of the Yahi, took up the cause of the repatriation of Ishi's brain after the remains of his own ancestors were unceremoniously dug up and carted off to Sacramento to make way for a dam and reservoir.

He wrote to the then governor, Pete Wilson, who passed him on to the university, who in turn informed him that a thorough investigation, led by the director of the museum, had determined that the brain had been cremated with the body and the case was closed. Angle (to whom the Kroebers' book is dedicated as "largely responsible for initiating the actions that led to the repatriation of Ishi") was unconvinced. And when Starn, alerted by a local archaeologist that there was "a Maidu activist" in Oroville stubbornly pursuing the case after all these years, arrived, the two joined forces in a

strange adventure involving a promise broken, lost letters unearthed, a cross-country trail of secrets shared and concealed, and a missing body part discovered. Neither Art Angle nor I had ever dreamed of the places to which the search for Ishi's brain would take us, or what would happen when the truth emerged.

What happened was that someone else, and someplace else, got the relic, ceremonialized its burial, and took possession of the legend, or what was left of it. After Starn determined, through some letters between Kroeber and the Smithsonian that he found hidden away in an uncataloged storage bin in the depths of the university's Bancroft Library and a shadow-boxing confrontation between himself and the nonplussed head of the Smithsonian's repatriation office, that the brain was indeed still floating around, unadvertised and unattended to, in one of Hrdlicka's vats, Angle, Starn, and a delegation of seven Oroville Maidu descended upon Washington to demand the transfer to their possession of what Angle delicately called "the body part." Though they did get to see the brain, displayed, like the crown jewels, upon a backroom conference table, they were rebuffed. Under NAGPRA, the brain could only be returned to Ishi's closest living relatives, and who that was had not yet been determined. Disappointed, and angered that white bureaucrats were still in charge of deciding such intra-Indian matters more or less on their own say-so, they returned to California to continue agitating for the brain to be turned over to them as the next closest thing to the presumably nonexistent direct descendants.

By now the matter was again a national press event, and the Smithsonian, desperate to disentangle itself from what had become a no-win situation, began casting around for other possible candidates to be Ishi's proper heirs. They very soon found one, in a previously uninvolved reservation group called the Pitt-River Indians, some eighty miles north of Oroville near Redding, California, which claimed that, as a refugee ingathering group, they had among them a number of people descended from Ishi's tribe. The Smithsonian hastily agreed and issued a somewhat strained and miscellaneous report (it is reprinted in the Kroebers' book) to that effect. The brain was duly transferred to them in August of 2000, and, in a secret ceremony more or less devised for the occasion, they buried it in a traditional basket. All whites were prohibited from attending (though an exception was made for the repatriation head), including Starn and the group of Bay Area anthropologists who had attached themselves to his cause. Art Angle, chagrined and bitter, convinced that the Smithsonian had made a mistake, did not attend either.

So the whole thing ends without a bottom line. Starn loses the last-chapter climax to his mystery story, the relation between anthropologists and Indians remains indefinite and charged with irony, and what started as a revelatory tale finishes as an equivocal one. What, in the Kroebers' volume, Louis Owens, the Choctaw-Cherokee professor of Native American studies at UC-Davis, dryly refers to as "ethnostalgic America" will perhaps have to find itself some less man-handled material through which to pursue its ends and ambitions.


[1] University of California Press, second expanded edition, 1976. Theodora married Kroeber in the late 1920s, well after the events in question. Kroeber himself died, at eighty-four, the summer before her book appeared.

[2] Originally, 1968-collected in his Ishi Means Man (Unicorn Press, 1976). In the same year, Theodora herself (together with Robert F. Heizer, Alfred's pupil and successor) published an inventory of materials on the case "to encourage new research into all aspects of Ishi's experience." See Ishi, the Last Yahi: A Documentary History (University of California Press, 1968). For more recent material, see Richard Burrill, Ishi Rediscovered (Anthro Company, 2001).

[3] The beat goes on: In mid-August, Schwarzenegger, despite having explicitly opposed urban gambling, was preparing to negotiate an agreement with one of the five tribes to allow a major casino in the San Francisco area near Berkeley, which, with five thousand slot machines, would be one of the world's largest gambling halls, in exchange for a quarter of the profits, estimated at $125 million a year. For all this, see, various dates.

[4] This project is perhaps now most comprehensively summed up in William C. Sturtevant (general editor), Handbook of the North American Indians, 17 vols. (of 20 planned; Smithsonian Institution, 1978–). Kroeber's own magnum opus in this tradition, Handbook of the Indians of California, first published by the Smithsonian in 1925, is now extended and superseded by Robert F. Heizer's Vol. 8, California, in the Sturtevant series; see also Heizer's Destruction of the California Indians, 1847–1865 (University of Nebraska Press, 1993).


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