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Revisiting Ishi

Questions about discovery of the 'last wild Indian' haunt anthropologist's descendants.

August 29, 2003|Ann Japenga | Special to The Times

In the 92 years since the so-called last wild Indian was found cowering in an Oroville slaughterhouse, Alfred Kroeber's descendants have resisted speaking for him. After all, by what right does a privileged California clan represent a persecuted Indian simply because their father was the anthropologist who studied him and their mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote a book that made him famous?

But that logic hasn't stopped people from quizzing the pair's sons, Karl and Clifton Kroeber. Their daughter, Ursula K. Le Guin, also deflects questions about Ishi that come up at readings of her bestselling science fiction books. Fellow police officers sometimes ask LAPD Capt. Scott Kroeber, Clifton's son, about the Native American once called "the wild man of Mt. Lassen."

It seems the family is inextricably tied to Ishi, the man said to have been the last North American Indian roaming the wilds. As the tale goes, his Yahi tribe was hunted and massacred in the late 1800s until only a handful remained. They hid out in the Mt. Lassen foothills, about 130 miles north of Sacramento, for 40 years. Finally, Ishi, apparently the last survivor, was driven out of the wilderness by hunger or despair, maybe both.

Slaughterhouse butchers found him, barefoot and emaciated, wearing a canvas shirt, with buckskin thongs hanging from his pierced ears. He was promptly jailed but was soon sprung from captivity by anthropologists Thomas Waterman and Alfred Kroeber, curator of the Museum of Anthropology at UC San Francisco. (The museum later moved to UC Berkeley and became the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.)

The Kroeber descendants, who, after all, had never known Ishi, have tried to stay out of the story over the decades. Until recently.

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In pursuit of the truth

Four years ago, when Duke University researcher Orin Starn discovered that Alfred Kroeber had sent Ishi's brain to the Smithsonian Institution against the man's wishes, the Kroebers were again called on for comment. And as the issue escalated, working its way to the California Legislature, the Kroeber brothers were asked to edit a new anthology, a book that would get closer to the truth of Ishi and his relationship with Alfred Kroeber, who died in 1960.

This time, they agreed. "Ishi in Three Centuries" (University of Nebraska Press), released this summer, was the result.

"In a sense, this was a family obligation," says Le Guin, who lives in Portland. "Ishi is not a mystique or a fascination with our family. But when he became a hot topic again a few years ago, my brothers picked up the football. I think they felt obliged to."

Native American writer and UC Berkeley American Studies professor Gerald Vizenor predicts the obligation will persist: "You could say the two families came together by chance and they'll always be together historically."

Although enduring, the bond between the Kroebers and Ishi is clearly lopsided. Ishi was alone in an unfamiliar culture. He never told anyone his name (Kroeber dubbed him Ishi, meaning "man" in the Yana language, the tribe to which the Yahi band belonged) or learned to speak more than a few hundred words in English.

Kroeber was one of the most eminent American anthropologists of all time. He and his descendants are unusually well spoken and persuasive. Authors, professors, police officers -- the Kroebers have power and status in a society where Ishi had none.

"The problem with Ishi is it's easy to fall into exploiting him," says Karl Kroeber, Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in New York. "It's a very tricky business. If you're white, almost anything you say about him could be exploitation."

That goes double if you're a Kroeber. "Some reviewers may say: If there are two people who shouldn't have done this job, it's Karl and Clif Kroeber," Clifton says.

Clifton and his son Scott got together recently to talk about this delicate partnership. They met at Clifton's home near Occidental College in Eagle Rock, where he is a professor emeritus of history. The comfortable ranch house hidden in the hills has the lived-in feel of a place where four boys grew up in an atmosphere of vigorous academic discussion.

Alfred Kroeber's grandsons also grew up with blown-up photos of Ishi on the walls. Scott remembers walking down the hallway to bed as a young man, being mesmerized by photos of Ishi carving spear points and swimming naked in Deer Creek. His older brother, Alan, grew up wishing he could have met Ishi.

So did schoolchildren all over California. The story of the "the last primordial man" is a staple of some school curricula.

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