Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (Berkeley & London: University of California Press, 2002, $50.00, 255 pages, ISBN 0-520-00674-7)Roger E. Chapman, Lincoln Trail College


This story begins between 2000 and 1000 B.C. when ancestral Yana Indians settled in the Cascade Mountains of northern California, about 130 miles northeast of the future site of San Francisco. In 1849 A.D. gold fever brought intruders, white settlers following the Old Lassen Trail, to the area around Mount Lassen. About a decade later a man was born in the Yahi tribe, a subgroup of the Yana. Outsiders would never learn the man’s name, as he refused to tell them, so he was addressed as “Ishi,” the Yahi word for “man.”  Unfortunately, Man ended up being the last of his people.

Today he is no longer a man because the memory of him has been appropriated and transformed into a myth by way of a bestseller biography that continues, after four decades, to reap royalties for the saldu (the Yana word for “whites”), specifically the Estate of Theodora Kroeber-Quinn, the entity retaining the copyright. This 2002 edition of Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America, features a new foreword by Karl Kroeber, a son of the deceased author, but otherwise the book remains the same as the original 1961 work, including the lack of an index. Over a million copies of the book have been sold.

When Man was born, sometime between 1860 and 1862, his people numbered about 400 strong. But ten years prior to his coming into the world the Yahi had been under intermittent attack, threatened by genocide. This continued after he was born. Some of Man’s earliest memories were those of his people being massacred. The white intruders of the land attacked the Yahi, known as the Mill Creek Indians, to punish them whenever cattle were poached or trespassers attacked. The invaders killed deer and introduced cattle; the Yahi, having less of a deer supply, killed cattle that roamed on their land. The ranchers’ retribution was stiff, gradually bleeding the Yahi to the point where extinction was a fait accompli:  Workman Massacre (1865), 40 Yahi killed; Silva Massacre (1865), 30 Yahi killed; Three Knolls Massacre (1866), 40 Yahi killed, including Man’s father; Camp Seco Massacre (1867), 45 Yahi killed; Kingsley Cave Massacre (1871), 30 Yahi killed. Later, one of the vigilantes published a book recounting his exploits in fighting this “war”:  Robert A. Anderson, Fighting the Mill Creeks (1909).

After the Kingsley Cave Massacre the few remaining Yahi went into hiding. Home was a remote ledge, naturally camouflaged in impenetrable oak and scrub, below a lava rock. The survivors lived a covert existence, burning small cooking fires and carefully walking on the ground so as to avoid making paths. Most people of the region thought the Yahi had died off, but on 9 November 1908 a surveying party abruptly discovered the clandestine camp. It was now the beginning of the end, accelerated by the intruders callously scooping up “every moveable possession” [111], including fur robes, bows, and other tools necessary for survival. By this time the Yahi had dwindled to about four people. Two years later, Man emerged from the hills, alone.

Near the end of August 1911, Man was starving, seemingly at the end of his journey. He singed his hair as a sign of mourning, perhaps due to attending to a recent funeral, and walked out of the mountains. He was later found in the town of Oroville. Man, who in his life watched his people get slaughtered, by ironic happenstance took refuge inside a slaughterhouse. The local sheriff who was called on the scene arrested the cowering Man and, for the refugee’s personal protection, locked him up in cell for the insane. This was the start of Man’s entry into “civilization.” 

The newspapers reported Man’s sudden appearance with all the sensationalism reporters of the day could muster. A Yana Indian identified him as a Yahi, but the two men were unable to communicate due to the vast differences between their two languages. Reading about the capture of the “wild” Indian, Thomas T. Waterman and Alfred Kroeber, anthropologists at the University of California, San Francisco, instantly took an interest in the matter. The sheriff was contacted, Kroeber’s telegram explaining: “Matter important account aboriginal history” [6]. The anthropologists desperately wanted to study Man, who was “uncontaminated” by the modern world and could provide information about a primitive culture that was extinct.

Man was soon provided a home inside the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology (now the Phoebe Hearst Museum), which was operated by Kroeber’s department. During the first six months of his residency the Yahi drew 23,961 visitors to the museum, which was situated on the University of California campus. People especially enjoyed watching his demonstrations of making arrowheads. This was during an era when the public enthusiastically attended the Buffalo Bill Show. The museum administrators gave Man a job as an assistant janitor so that he could have some economic independence and he reportedly took pride in his work and also quickly understood the value of a silver dollar. Man was a frequent visitor of the university hospital, which was located next door to the museum. There he befriended the surgeon Saxton Pope, whose hobby was archery.

The accounts suggest that Man was content with his new life, although he was horrified that the facility he slept in housed the bones of indigenous people. The anthropologists learned all they could from him. After some hesitancy Man one summer accompanied a group of researchers to his former land and demonstrated how he lived out in the wilds. The famed linguist Edward Sapir eventually came to San Francisco and spent many hours with Man documenting the Yahi language. Man made 400 recordings on wax cylinders. The sessions with Sapir were tiring and took their toll on Man, who by this time had contracted tuberculosis. Man succumbed to that white person’s disease on 25 March 1916.

Kroeber was in New York City when Man died, but he indicated that the proper respect for the deceased necessitated cremation with the ashes buried in an appropriate location. An autopsy would be unjustifiable. As Man was dying, Kroeber wrote to his colleague in charge:  “If there is any talk about the interests of science, say for me that science can go to hell” [234]. But an autopsy was nonetheless conducted and Man’s brain was removed. Inexcusably left out of the narrative is the fact that Kroeber, seven months after Man’s death, donated Man’s brain to the Smithsonian Institution. (1) There it remained until 2000, after which it and Man’s original cremated remains were buried near Mount Lassen. (2) A recent book by Orin Starn offers a detailed account of this sad history. (3)

According to the 1992 video presentation written by Anne Makepeace, based in part on the original research by Jed Riffe, Alfred Kroeber had an apparent nervous breakdown following the death of Man. The professor took a leave of absence and submitted to psychoanalysis. In time, he returned to academia and completed a distinguished career. However, he seldom wrote or spoke about Man. (4) Perhaps there was lingering guilt over his gross betrayal that put science first, Man second. Curiously, Theodora Kroeber writes, “I shall always be grateful that Kroeber read the final manuscript; he knew that a permanent account of his friend Ishi was at last on record” [xxvii]. Was she grateful that her husband had lived long enough to read the completed manuscript or was she grateful that he was willing to look over her work despite the unexorcised demons from how he had treated his “friend”? 

The new foreword by Karl Kroeber offers no commentary on the new research findings about Man, perhaps because he and his brother were in the process of addressing some of these loose ends elsewhere. (5) It is less than satisfactory that Mrs. Kroeber “recognized her telling to be one version, one perspective, because historical circumstance and personal interest inevitably determine how any past event is perceived and assessed” [xix], and thus this is why she later published a volume of primary source material on the subject of her biography. (6) No, by omission the son misleads a new generation of readers. Not everyone who reads the original biography will think to read commentaries that seem to have been prepared for specialists, especially if there is no hint that controversies abound. The new foreword does not discuss the issue of Man’s brain. Nor does it discuss the strong possibility, based on Steven J. Shackley’s analysis of Man’s crafted projectile points, that the “last Yahi” may actually have been a Wintu or a mixture of Yahi and Wintu. (7) Nor does it refer to a later discovered eyewitness account of Man’s sudden appearance at the Oroville slaughterhouse that significantly differs from the version offered by Theodora Kroeber. (8) 

The son emphasizes that his father was influenced by Franz Boas, an anthropologist who reacted “against the systematic extermination of Native peoples by Europeans expanding their power across the New World” [ix]. Thus, anthropologists like Kroeber, students of the Boasian school, affirmed the diverse lifestyles of the indigenous people and “were also becoming more concerned with the deplorable conditions of Native peoples resulting from persistent injustice practiced against them by whites” [x]. But the great Boas is known to have exploited native people for the sake of his academic pursuits. In 1897 the explorer Robert Peary traveled to Greenland and brought back six Inuit for Boas to study in New York City. These living specimens were housed in the basement of the American Museum of Natural History. When four of them died, their bodies were dissected and stored in the museum. In one case, Boas performed a fake funeral in order to hide from the son of the deceased the ugly fact that the father’s bones were being placed on exhibit in the museum. (9) Theodora Kroeber mentions these Inuit and refers to the excellent care received by those who contracted tuberculosis [231-232], but there is no mention of the phony funeral.

The structure of Ishi in Two Worlds is worth some thought. A cursory glance at the table of contents shows the author’s careful attention to symmetry and balance:

Part One: Ishi the Yahi

Prologue: Outside the Slaughter House

Chapter 1: Copper-colored People on a Golden Land

Chapter 2: A Living People

Chapter 3: A Dying People

Chapter 4: Episodes in Extermination

Chapter 5: The Long Concealment

Chapter 6: The Yahi Disappear


Part Two: Mr. Yahi

Prologue: Outside the Jail

Chapter 7: Ishi’s New World

Chapter 8: Life in a Museum

Chapter 9: The Craftsman

Chapter 10: The Brightest Year

Epilogue: Death in a Museum

Unwittingly, or perhaps it was of an ironic intentionality, the author’s symmetry links the extermination with the anthropological study. Chapter 1 is the isolated piece of the story because the copper-colored people on the golden land were of the mythic past. Chapters 2 and 3 are to be bundled because the living people, due to Manifest Destiny, were on the verge of dying. Chapters 7 and 8 serve as a counterpart because life in the new world of residing in a museum is about the past, which means death. Chapters 4 and 9 have an inverse relationship because extermination is what gave Indian bushcraft its urgent academic value. Chapters 5 and 10 are a sad connection because the “brightest” year of Man’s new life (in the mind of the author) was the time when he was able to return for a visit to his homeland, the place where he previously lived an underground existence. Chapter 6 and the epilogue are linked because the disappearance of the Yahi is complete with Man’s death in a museum. The headings for part one (“Ishi the Yahi”) and part two (“Mr. Yahi”) imply a progressive transformation when “Ishi” leaves the wilderness and afterwards becomes a “Mr.”   

Man never did inform the white people of his given name. Anthropologists explain that this was in harmony with Indian custom. According to the biographer, “A California Indian almost never speaks his own name, using it but rarely with those who already know it, and he would never tell it in reply to a direct question” [127-128] (the key word in that sentence is “almost”). “He never revealed his own, private Yahi name,” she continues. “It was as though it had been consumed in the funeral pyre of the last of his loved ones.” It was Alfred Kroeber who decided to call him “Ishi,” which the Yahiunreluctantly” answered to. “But once it was bestowed it took on enough of his true name’s mystic identification with himself, his soul, whatever inner essence of a man it is which a name shares that he was never again heard to pronounce it” [128]. But how does the biographer really know? She, who never knew the Yahi, is merely speculating. It is more probable that the Yahi did not recognize “Ishi” as his name, but rather regarded it as a label, a categorization, or something on par with a Social Security number or prison ID. He was addressed the equivalent of “Hey, man,” which certainly lent itself to reinforcing the reality that he was a stranger in a strange land. By using the transliterated name “Ishi,” the conquerors could feel better about themselves. They would have felt uneasy referring to him as Yahi Specimen Number One.

In the Foreword Kroeber praises his mother for writing a book “free from ideological didacticism” [xi]. For example, she did not use the awful word “genocide” (however, in the table of contents appears the word “extermination”). Is that word free of “ideological didacticism”?) He singles out for disapproval an old review written by Thomas Merton that connected the plight of the Yahi with what was then taking place in Southeast Asia. “Merton’s response was surely a valid one, yet it carries us away from Ishi, making polemical use of him, whereas the enduring power of Ishi in Two Worlds arises from a less ideological aim: to absorb us into contemplating the unique experience of an individual civilized in a highly particular way.” The problem with Merton’s response, the Foreword continues, is that it ignored the biographer’s “descriptions of Ishi’s skills at manual crafts” [xvii]. Here, the “specimen aspect” of anthropology is once again emphasized, which seemingly begs questions that are more important than bushcraft.

One of the troubling aspects of Ishi in Two Worlds is the “enduring power” of a writing carefully crafted to manipulate the reader, “to absorb us into contemplating the unique experience of an individual” we, in fact, can never know. It is hard to read this book and not be taken captive. But we do not really know Man; we only know about Man through the eyes of his beholders. His inner experience was a lost continent on the other side of uncharted waters. This biography is about Alfred Kroeber, and the wife who married him years after the Yahi’s death. On Man, like a PowerPoint screen suspended from the ceiling of history, are cast their projections. If studying “manual crafts” help us “know” a person, then this book tells us more about the author than it does the Yahi. Throughout this book there are references to Man’s dignity. In other words, he was a “good” Indian who did not show bitterness or act revengeful. By gently demonstrating to the museum visitors the doomed art of making arrowheads, he did not bring dishonor on himself by acting polemical or ideological. But the fact is, he would have been no less Man had he angrily flung fiery arrows and burned down the museum and half of San Francisco with it.

He was the giving Indian. Or was he the Indian others took from? The settlers took gold. The ranchers took land. The vigilantes took life. The museum took publicity. The anthropologists took notes. The linguist Sapir took recordings. The surgeon Pope took what he learned and wrote a number of works on bows and arrows. The biologists took the brain. The biographer took Man and made an “Ishi.” After all these years, the Estate of Theodora Kroeber-Quinn continues to take, and if the raw truth is what the son deplores as ideological didacticism, then let us at least call it by its proper name:  Manifest Destiny.



1. Bruce Bower, “Ishi’s Long Road Home,” Science News, 8 January 2000, 24.

2. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, “Ishi’s brain, Ishi’s ashes,” Anthropology Today 17 (February 2001): 12-18; Andrew Curry, “The Last of the Yahi,” U.S. News & World Report, 21 August 2000, 56.

3. Orin Starn, Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004).

4. Ishi, the Last Yahi, video, based on the The American Experience broadcast, WBGH Boston (Jed Riffe and Rattlesnake Productions, Inc., 1992).

5. Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber, eds., Ishi in Three Centuries (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

6. Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History, eds. Robert F. Heizer and Theodora Kroeber (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979).

7. Steven J. Shackley, “The Stone Technology of Ishi and the Yana,” in Ishi in Three Centuries, 159-200; Steven J. Shackley, “The Stone Technology of Ishi and the Yana of North Central California: Inferences for Hunter-Gatherer Cultural Identity in Historic California,” American Anthropologist 102 (2001): 693-712.

8. Nancy Rockafellar and Orin Starn, “Ishi’s Brain,” Current Anthropology 40 (August-October 1999): 414.  

9. Kenn Harper, “The Bones in the Museum,” letter to the editor, New Yorker, 29 March 2004, 8.


All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.