A sad testament of the human ability to adapt (5 stars)
“I am one; you are others; this is in the inevitable nature of things.”
Originally from 1961, this book from anthropologist Theodora Kroeber – mother of science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin – tells the story of California’s last “wild” native: Ishi. He was captured starving and desperate in a ranch not far from San Francisco in the August of 1911. All of his people, the Yahi – that inhabited the region for 3 thousand years – were exterminated in less than 50 by gold rushes, violence and disease.
Ishi wandered alone for months before being captures. He stayed under the care of anthropologists of the University of California, where he spent his last years as an informal assistant and a curiosity for visitors. With no immunity for the illnesses common in civilization, he would die four years after being discovered.
The first half of the book describes with detail the destruction of Ishi’s tribe and it’s culture based on his account and data the anthropologists pieces together from other sources. Ishi was a survivor from the Three Knolls massacre in 1865, from which only 33 members of his tribe escaped. The remaining members of the tribe hid for 44 years in the mountains avoiding any contact with the white man and died one by one, until only Ishi remained with his sister and his mother.
The second part of the book shows Ishi learning about the modern world. Imagine, if you can, the cultural shock of a forty-year old man that lived with a knowledge equivalent of the stone age coming into the 20th century. Ishi is a testament of the human ability to adapt, and faced this new world with ingenuity, wisdom, beauty and humor.
“And so, stoic and unafraid, departed the last wild Indian of America. He closes a chapter in history. He looked upon us as sophisticated children—smart, but not wise. We knew many things, and much that is false. He knew nature, which is always true. His were the qualities of character that last forever. He was kind; he had courage and self-restraint, and though all had been taken from him, there was no bitterness in his heart. His soul was that of a child, his mind that of a philosopher.”
Ishi wasn’t his real name, it means only “men” in the yana language. For them, it was improper for a person the say their own name, they needed to be introduced by another member of the tribe. But Ishi had no one else to introduce him. His real name was never known.