Duke University Alumni Magazine


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An anthropologist's research on North America's "last wild Indian" set off a surprising chain of events, raising profound questions about relationships among whites and Native Americans, science, and indigenous tradition.

hen Orin Starn, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Duke, began research for a book on Ishi, the so-called "last wild Indian in North America," he had no reason to suspect that his efforts would generate widespread national news coverage months before he even started writing the book. But that's exactly what happened.

Long believed to have been the last survivor of the Yahi-a small Native American tribe that once inhabited the rugged foothill territory around Mount Lassen in northern California-Ishi was starving and exhausted when he wandered into the white world late in August 1911. Shortly after his appearance at a slaughterhouse in Oroville, a town on the edge of the Sacramento Valley, he was taken into custody by local law-enforcement officers and, a few days later, turned over to anthropologists at the University of California in San Francisco. He became an object of scientific scrutiny and popular curiosity, on public display in the university's anthropology museum, where thousands of visitors came to see his demonstrations of arrowhead-making, fire-starting, and other skills essential to his native culture. His career as a living anthropological exhibit ended with his death from tuberculosis in 1916.

In subsequent years, Ishi has been the subject of scores of books, academic articles, journalistic feature stories, documentary films, and even a Hollywood movie. The most popular and comprehensive account of his life to appear so far is the book Ishi in Two Worlds, published in 1961 by the University of California Press. Its author, Theodora Kroeber, was the second wife of noted anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who headed the university's anthropology department during Ishi's years in the museum there. She also wrote Ishi: The Last of His Tribe, a children's version of Ishi's story, published in 1964.

Among the facts about Ishi's life and death that weren't fully detailed in either of Kroeber's books-or in any other published information about him until very recently-were the circumstances surrounding the disposal of his body after he died. As Kroeber and other Ishi chroniclers have noted, an autopsy was performed on Ishi's body, and his brain was preserved for further study, in keeping with scientific practices common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The rest of his remains were cremated and placed in a burial niche at Mount Olive Cemetery in Colma, on the southern outskirts of San Francisco. But accounts of these posthumous events neglected to mention what became of Ishi's brain.

No one seemed to notice this oversight until the spring of 1997, when an organization of Maidu Indians in California's Butte County set out to claim Ishi's remains and rebury them in the Mount Lassen hills, where he lived before wandering into Oroville. In keeping with a common Native American tradition that a body must be whole for the spirit to reach the land of the dead, the Butte County Native American Cultural Commission (BCNACC), as the group was called, wanted all of Ishi's remains included in the reinterment. Their efforts called attention to the fact that the brain seemed to be missing.

That's when Duke anthropologist Orin Starn entered the picture. Starn became aware of the initiative by the BCNACC only after he had begun researching Ishi in 1998, and the mystery over the whereabouts of the long-dead Indian's brain immediately piqued his curiosity. He launched his own investigation and, early this year, tracked the brain to a Smithsonian Institution warehouse in Maryland. It was this piece of scholarly detective work that led to what Starn describes as a "media feeding frenzy" and set the stage for the brain's shipment to California. There it would be reunited with the rest of Ishi's remains for a very belated burial according to Native American funerary customs. For Starn, this chain of events highlights a variety of issues having to do with race, science, and cultural identity.

Starn grew up in Berkeley, where his father was and still is a professor of history at the University of California, and it was there that he first became aware of Ishi. During his childhood in the 1960s, he read Ishi: The Last of His Tribe and saw exhibits of related artifacts in the university's Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology (which was relocated from San Francisco to Berkeley in 1931). The climate of radical political activism of those times influenced his later decision to forge a career in the social sciences.

"I went into anthropology partly because it seemed like a field that was dealing with issues of injustice and power and inequality," says Starn. "One tradition in anthropology that goes back to Franz Boas, who's known as the founder of twentieth-century anthropology, is that of speaking truth to power. When I was growing up, there was a trend among anthropologists to denounce racism and to argue for cultural relativism. There were a number of anthropologists who were activists against the Vietnam War and in support of feminism and human rights."

Starn decided to study anthropology only after leaving UC-Berkeley at the end of his junior year to spend a year working at a reservation high school for Navaho dropouts in New Mexico. As he writes in the introduction to Nightwatch: The Politics of Protest in the Andes (Duke University Press, 1999), "When I returned to college, anthropology appeared to be an avenue for further involvement in social change-the discipline most concerned with the predicament of Indians, peasants, the urban poor, and the rest of global society's dispossessed majorities." He finished his undergraduate work in the field at the University of Chicago in 1982, then returned to the Bay Area and entered Stanford University, where he earned his master's and Ph.D. degrees and spent a year teaching before he joined Duke's cultural anthropology faculty in 1992.

Starn's research and writings since the early 1980s have focused largely on Latin America and, more specifically, the Peruvian Andes-an area that he first visited in 1982 with journalist Robin Kirk, whom he later married. He decided to shift his attention to the projected book on Ishi because of his long-standing interest in the subject and because he sees strong historical and sociopolitical parallels between Ishi's story and the plight of the indigenous Peruvians.

"In both cases," he says, "you have indigenous people who have been catastrophically affected by white conquest. Both California and Peru were colonized by the Spanish and, in both places, it resulted in devastating consequences for the indigenous population, where you had entire peoples who were wiped out. With Ishi, as with Peruvian village culture, you have indigenous people who, against the odds, managed to survive and were trying to define their identities in a way that comes to terms with new technology while maintaining their own cultural identities. The indigenous people in Peru speak Quechua, but they buy noodles in the store; they worship mountain spirits, but they're also Christians.

"It's the same with Ishi. He knew a hundred Yahi songs by heart; he knew how to chip arrowheads; and he knew more stories than even the anthropologists want to hear. At the same time, he used elements of modern technology and modified them as part of his survival strategy -using the stocks of guns, for example, to chip arrowheads. He liked sleeping in a bed and wearing shoes and pants. He was very open to establishing friendships with whites, but at the same time, he maintained a lot of traditional Yahi taboos, and he never told anybody what his Yahi name was." (Most accounts indicate that Alfred Kroeber originated the practice of calling him ishi, the Yahi word for "man.")

In explaining why he sees a need for a new book on Ishi, Starn expresses appreciation for what Theodora Kroeber accomplished with Ishi in Two Worlds. "Her account of Ishi's life was really path-breaking," he says. "It was the first book to raise the issue of the violence that had been done against Indians in California. It forced Californians to face up to what happened to the Yahi and other Native Americans. She was writing in the wake of two world wars and the Holocaust, so she was looking at Ishi's story in light of these episodes of mass violence in our history. But her book was published in 1961. Since that time there has been new research on Ishi, and new material and controversies have come to light. There has been no attempt to look at all of these new issues that have come up in this story. We also know now that there are a number of things that Theodora Kroeber got wrong or that are at least open to debate."

Starn cites several examples, including Kroeber's contention that the Yahi cremated the dead, which has been more recently disproven by archaeological evidence suggesting they buried their dead. And he notes that details cited in Kroeber's account of Ishi's arrival in Oroville have been contradicted by an eyewitness who came forward after her book appeared and gave a different report about such particulars as the time of day when Ishi was found and the way he was dressed. More importantly, Starn points to a considerable body of evidence that discredits Kroeber's depiction of Ishi and Yahi culture as pristine and uncontaminated by white civilization-a view that she adopted from her husband. Early nineteenth-century accounts of intermarriage and other forms of close contact between the Yahi and Mexican ranchers in California, he says, are bolstered by close linguistic affinities between certain words Ishi used and common Spanish words with the same meanings.

And clear indications that the few Yahi who remained alive in the first decade of our century weren't entirely out of touch with the white world can be seen in the inventory of items found by a surveying crew that, in 1908, stumbled on a secluded Yahi encampment known as Bear's Hiding Place. Among these items, Starn says, were sawblades, jackknives, glass bottles, sacks of barley and flour, and even a few tins of Log Cabin syrup. These stores were stolen from whites who lived nearby by the Yahi to supplement their own handmade tools and the food obtained through traditional methods of hunting and gathering.

"Part of the romance of Ishi is that he was the last survivor of his tribe," says Starn. "That fits with the notion, popular in the early twentieth century, that Native Americans were a vanishing race, which was part of the idea of Manifest Destiny. It's true that many Native Americans were destroyed. There were an estimated 310,000 Native Americans in California before the Spanish arrived there in 1767, and, by the beginning of the twentieth century, that number had been reduced to only 30,000. But what you see very much in the early twentieth century is an attitude of what anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has called 'imperialist nostalgia.' Rosaldo has pointed out that people who conquer other people begin to feel a kind of nostalgia for them. That's why we have the idea that Native Americans are more noble, pure, and dignified than white people, and more closely in touch with nature. That's very different from the attitude that was current in the mid-nineteenth century, when white people thought of the Indians as the enemy, as red devils who needed to be exterminated.

"But after the Plains Wars were over, Native Americans no longer posed a threat to white society. Ever since then, this 'imperialist nostalgia' has been the dominant attitude, right up to the present, with the movie Dances With Wolves. What's lost in all this is that many Native Americans do survive. There are dozens of recognized tribes in California. There are parts of fifty Native American languages that are still spoken there; and there are big ceremonies like the Bear Dance in Susanville. In parts of the state, there has been economic recovery around casinos, which have provided a new source of income for a lot of Native Americans and ushered in a kind of cultural renaissance. So this idea of Native Americans as a disappearing people is just wrong."

Furthermore, Starn points out, new evidence has emerged to suggest that Ishi wasn't the last of the Yahi, as has long been assumed. He cites one Native Californian's testimony before the state assembly, to the effect that a number of Yahi fled their traditional homeland during the 1850s and '60s-a time when many Yahi were massacred by white vigilantes-and intermarried with members of the Pit River Tribe in far northeastern California. He also notes a Sacramento man's claim to being the grandson of a Yahi woman who was adopted by whites after her parents were killed in one of those vigilante raids. And he mentions the possibility that some Yahi were rounded up in the mid-nineteenth century and taken to live on the Round Valley Reservation, north of Marin County, a relatively large reservation where members of many tribal groups from northern California were forcibly resettled.

Such departures from the long-accepted version of Ishi's story were uppermost in Starn's mind as he immersed himself in research for his book on the so-called last Yahi. He says he was unaware of the mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Ishi's brain until he met with BCNACC chairman Arthur Angle in the summer of 1998, after his research turned up information on the group's efforts to rebury Ishi's remains. Angle told him that the BCNACC had been unsuccessful in their attempts to locate the brain. Starn promised to let Angle know if he came across any helpful clues.

At the time, Starn didn't know that an article about Ishi's missing brain had appeared about a year earlier in the Los Angeles Times, prompting officials at the University of California at San Francisco to investigate the matter. But he obtained a copy of the article not long after his first meeting with Angle, and he soon learned that the university's search had reached a dead-end at the Smithsonian Institution. This information came from Nancy Rockafellar, a UCSF research historian who had helped conduct the investigation.

"I met with her in December of '98," Starn says. "She told me she'd heard a story that the brain was sent to the Smithsonian, but when she had called the Smithsonian and tried to find out what happened to it, she had been told by the director of the American Indian Program that the story was 'old folklore' and that the brain no longer existed."

Skeptical of this official denial, Starn embarked on his own search for more complete information. In January of this year, he found what he was looking for in the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley: the original correspondence between Alfred Kroeber and officials at what was then known as the Smithsonian Institution's United States National Museum- letters exchanged in the wake of Ishi's death and autopsy, from late October 1916 until February of the following year, along with an official document, dated March 7, 1917, confirming that the museum accepted Kroeber's donation of the brain to its study collection.

"I still remember what it felt like to sit there in the library reading those letters," Starn says. "I was just astonished that here was this box of papers that clearly showed Alfred Kroeber returning from New York after Ishi's death and after the autopsy, and getting in touch with the Smithsonian to offer them the brain. After that, I contacted David Hunt, a museum specialist with the Smithsonian's department of anthropology, and he said, 'No, I don't think the brain was destroyed. I think we have it.' Then he did a search and confirmed that they did. So I told the BCNACC what I'd found out, and they contacted the Smithsonian. Then the whole story hit the media."

As reported in February on National Public Radio, in The New York Times, and in dozens of major daily newspapers, Ishi's brain, preserved in formaldehyde in a glass tank, was being stored in Sutland, Maryland, at a warehouse that belonged to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. In tracing its location and reporting his findings to the BCNACC, Starn set off a chain of events that reverberated from coast to coast, involving several governmental entities, universities, and Native American groups. Armed with this new information, the BCNACC held a press conference in Oroville on February 23 and issued a statement stressing the traditional Native American view that "a complete body is necessary for proper burial and release of the spirit," and expressing confidence that "in this discovery of the missing body part, we can now proceed with the repatriation of our red brother."

The group's repatriation effort, Starn points out, "is very much in line with Native American groups across the country wanting the remains of their ancestors returned from museums and other institutions for reburial," a trend he credits in part to the growing emphasis on identity politics since the 1960s. On the legal front, this Indian pressure culminated with the National Museum of the American Indian Act, passed by Congress in 1989, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which Congress passed the following year. Both acts reflect the principle that Native Americans have a right to their ancestral remains, sacred objects, funerary offerings, and cultural patrimonial objects housed in museums across the country. As a result, many research institutions have compiled and delivered inventory lists of Native American artifacts to the 756 federally recognized tribes. This effort, in compliance with the 1990 law, allows these tribal groups to request the repatriation of culturally significant items from the list.

In late April, the largest repatriation in the nation's history was completed when Pecos and Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico held a ceremonial reburial of the skeletal remains of nearly 2,000 of their ancestors and hundreds of sacred objects returned to them from museums at Harvard University and Phillips Academy of Andover, Massachusetts. Since the advent of the new law, the Smithsonian alone has returned more than 4,000 human skeletons and nearly 1,000 cultural objects to Native American organizations. Soon after they confirmed their possession of Ishi's brain, officials there indicated they were open to cooperating in its return to an appropriate group of indigenous people in California.

Because of his pivotal role in locating the brain, Starn was invited to accompany Arthur Angle and seven other BCNACC members to Washington in late March for a firsthand look at the brain. Smithsonian staff members had retrieved it from the warehouse where it had been stored for so long and brought it into a conference room at the National Museum of Natural History, where Starn and the group of Maidu Indians from Butte County had gathered. In accordance with a Native American tradition that it's dangerous for the living to come into contact with the dead, a Maidu healer who was part of the group performed a cleansing ceremony that involved the burning of wormwood incense, the shaking of a deer-hoof rattle, and the recitation of a special prayer as they gathered around the table where Ishi's brain floated in its glass tank. The following day, back in Califonia, the state assembly passed a resolution urging Governor Gray Davis "to direct all affected state agencies to cooperate in the effort to return the remains of Ishi so that a proper Indian burial ceremony may take place and closure may be brought to this indignity."

The next major development in the story came six weeks later, on May 7, when Smithsonian officials announced their plans for repatriating the brain. Instead of turning it over to the Maidu Indians in Butte County, they said they would deliver it to Shasta County descendants of the Yana, the Native American tribe of which the Yahi were a sub-group. In a statement on the matter, National Museum of Natural History director Robert Fri acknowledged that "all California Native Americans feel a powerful connection with Ishi and a responsibility to see that his remains are united and given a proper burial." But he went on to explain that "we were guided by the moral and legal obligation to find out whether any of Ishi's descendants were still alive." The decision seemed to surprise everyone involved, but it followed from museum officials' determination that Yana members of two federally recognized tribes-the Redding Rancheria and the Pit River Tribe-were Ishi's closest living relatives. About a week after the announcement, leaders of those two groups met with members of the BCNACC to make plans for reburying Ishi's remains.

According to Starn, "It's more than just a brain; it's a symbol of what happened to Native Americans in California and throughout this country-of the lack of respect for Native American rights and the lack of respect on the part of science for the wishes of Native Americans." Anticipating the imminent repatriation and reburial, he says, "I hope this can be an occasion for reflection on the relationship between Native Americans and whites, and on the history of violence against Native American people. Every time I talk to anybody in California about this, it quickly becomes apparent that it's a very emotional issue, because the fact is that in California there was genocide committed against Native American people. Genocide is an overused word these days. But if one defines it as an intentional effort by a government to wipe out a whole group of people, then what happened in California definitely qualifies, because at one point some county governments were paying a dollar a scalp for Indian scalps. After California became a part of the United States in 1848, there was an explicit policy of ethnic extermination for Native Americans.

"It's true that a hundred and thirty years have passed since that era came to an end with the defeat of the Modoc Indians in the last armed confrontation between Indians and the government in California, but it's never been formally acknowledged that this happened. There's been no apology issued, and there have been no reparations. The reservations that exist in California today are very small, and in a lot of the nearby communities Native Americans are not admired and respected but viewed as socially inferior. So, when people in California talk about repatriation, it's a very emotional issue, because it's an effort to make right what happened there."

Having nearly completed his research on Ishi, Starn plans to write his book during the 1999-2000 academic year while on leave from his teaching duties at Duke; it will eventually be published by Duke University Press. Aside from his desire to correct historical and anthropological errors in previously published material on Ishi, he says what he hopes to accomplish in writing about Ishi is "to promote an understanding of histories of violence and issues of power and to get beyond the kinds of romantic stereotypes of Native Americans that are so common today. I would like to contribute to a better understanding of Native Americans and the relationship between whites and Native Americans. And I would also like for this book to get at the Native American experience and the effort that Native Americans have made toward cultural survival."

Patterson is a freelance writer who lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.


In this excerpt from Nightwatch: The Politics of Protest in the Andes (Duke University Press, 1999), Orin Starn moves beyond his specific subject matter to reflect on wider trends in the discipline of anthropology:

These last decades have been a time of "anthro(a)pology," in the neologism of one pundit. As part of the self-pillorying, we have spilled gallons of ink dissecting the missteps and abuses in the endeavor of writing about people in out-of-the-way places, sometimes sounding much like a committee of Maoists intent on purging rivals to chart the politically correct line. Recognition of the dangers of exoticism and silencing has hastened anthropology's transformation from the study of "primitives" to what it is today, namely, the examination of life "here" in the United States as well as "there" in the Third World --zoos, nightclubs, restaurants, biotechnology labs, museums, and just about every other imaginable form of human organization. The turn to "bring it back home" is a welcome broadening of focus.

Nevertheless, the persistence of Western ignorance and miscomprehension means that a role still exists for an anthropology of places like Burundi, New Guinea, Indonesia, or...Peru. A recent piece in The New York Times, for example, serves up a sorry mishmash of exaggeration and stereotype about Africa as "an incomprehensible dystopia of random murder, tribal depravity, and political corruption." This sort of coverage makes me thankful for studies... which show the ambiguity, complexity, and humanity of African life, as well as the ways in which the destinies of non-Western and Western societies have been bound together by the facts of conquest, colonialism, migration, trade, and the mutual exchange of technology, values, and ideas. Surely anthropology can contribute to combating the frightening parochialism that dismisses those who live outside the United States and Europe as unworthy of attention, understanding, or sometimes even acknowledgment.

Yet anthropology must be read to do any good. In recent years, reliance on and at times reveling in arcane and often unnecessary jargon have risked turning our discipline into a secret society, a clubhouse closed to everyone but the graduate student and professional. To advocate accessibility is not to deny the value of specialized terminology and debate in anthropology any more than in literary studies, biology, physics, or other fields. It does mean recognizing that anthropologists can do more to reach broad audiences, as did our totems such as Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead (even if what they wrote about the Samoans, Japanese, and others has not always held up in retrospect).

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