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California and the West

Help Sought in Return of Ishi's Remains

April 06, 1999|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Native Americans asked state legislators Monday to help them cut through bureaucratic red tape and speed the return of the remains of Ishi, the Yahi Indian studied by generations of California schoolchildren, to his Northern California homeland.

Representatives of dozens of California tribes testified that Ishi's remains must be reunited and buried in his tribal homeland, near Mt. Lassen, to free his spirit and help heal psychic wounds that California Native Americans still bear from their treatment at the hands of the state's white settlers. They said they support the efforts of several tribes in Butte County to retrieve the remains from the Smithsonian Institution and bury them.

"We support him being returned to his people, to be buried in the shadow of the mountain that was sacred to his people," said Mickey Gimmell, who traces his ancestry to the Yana, the larger tribe that the Yahi were a part of. "In order for healing to take place, this is absolutely necessary."

The last known member of his tribe, Ishi stumbled into Oroville in 1911, after his people had been slaughtered by bounty hunters and wiped out by disease. He died of tuberculosis in 1916, at UC San Francisco, where he had become a living anthropology exhibit.

His brain was removed in an autopsy and sent to the Smithsonian Institution in 1917, where it was recently located by two university professors. Ishi's body was cremated and his ashes are kept in a Colma cemetery.

Thomas Killion, director of repatriation efforts for the Smithsonian, said that he has met with nearly 40 people in California who may have claims to the remains. He assured Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) that the national museum intends "to proceed with this repatriation with all haste."

Under federal law, Native American remains can be handed over only to nationally recognized tribes that can trace direct descent from, or cultural affiliation to, the remains.

Steinberg chided Killion for the Smithsonian having kept Ishi's preserved brain for 83 years without apparently notifying anyone of its existence. He urged Smithsonian officials to either hand the brain over to the Butte County Native American Cultural Committee or to the University of California for safekeeping until an adequate claimant can be found.

"Find a way, and find a way quickly," he told Killion, and asked that the Smithsonian report to the committee within 30 days on its progress.

Arthur Angle, chairman of the Butte County committee, publicly presented Killion with a request Monday that the brain be handed over to his group. The request came from "the entire California Native American community," he said.

Ishi's fate, Angle said, "was symbolic of the treatment received by all Native Americans in California between 1848 and 1900. As long as the Indian was useful to the white community, he was used. When he was no longer useful, he was discarded."

The Smithsonian maintains that because the Butte County tribes were not culturally affiliated with the Yahi, they cannot legally claim Ishi's remains. Killion said Monday that the institution has no objection to the Butte County tribes being involved with the repatriation if tribes culturally affiliated with the Yahi agree.

Ishi was "arguably the greatest Californian of all," state Librarian Kevin Starr told the committee. Born about 1862 in the rugged forest now called the Ishi Wilderness in Lassen National Park, Ishi survived the slaughter of his people and managed to quickly adapt to the 20th century, Starr noted.

"He was a profoundly complex human being," Starr said, noting that the anthropologists who befriended Ishi were "amazed at Ishi's ability to see both the good and the bad in the civilization of the white man."

Ishi became famous after his surrender in Oroville as the "last wild Indian in North America." He spent the last years of his life at the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco, befriended by UC Berkeley anthropologist Arthur Kroeber and others. Books, documentaries and plays have been written about his life, and California fourth-graders have studied him for decades.

The Butte County Maidu tribes launched a search several years ago for Ishi's brain, but were told by the University of California that it probably had been cremated with his body. Two researchers, one from Duke University and the other from UC San Francisco, discovered in January that the brain was at the Smithsonian.

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