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Ishi (Yahi, b.?–1915), arrows
Wood, stone, feathers, sinew
80 x 5 cm
Collected by Saxton Pope from Ishi
Gift of Dr. Charles Grayson
23/2535, 23/2536

“Live like the white people from now on. I want to stay where I am. I will grow old here, and die in this house.”
—Ishi, 1911, turning down an offer to leave the Museum of Anthropology and return alone to Northern California

Ishi was a Yahi Indian, believed to be that last survivor of his people. Adhering to Yahi tradition, Ishi never uttered his own name, and so we do not know it. Ishi—“man” in his native language—was the name given to him by the anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber. Beginning with his emergence from the “wilds” of California in 1911 and his entrance into the public imagination, until his death from tuberculosis five years later, Ishi lived at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, San Francisco. During the last short years of his life, he served as a flesh-and-blood memorial to America’s past and confirmation, in the popular imagination, of the “vanishing Indian.”

Ishi’s arrows represent the hyper-real—objects of ethnographic interest reproduced within the walls of the museum. One of the stories we might read from them is that they are authentic objects made by the last of the Yahi Indians, something salvaged from Yahi material culture. A counternarrative might be that having Ishi make items he knew would be used only for exhibition introduced performance art to the ethnographic museum. Alternatively, it may be that Ishi expressed the power of his identity by producing something no one else could—or that with no way to resist being a sideshow, he made his position clear through the creation of implements of war and survival.

Ultimately, these objects can be understood as telling a story of control and compromise or strategic accommodation—or a combination of both. In opening a door for other Native peoples to work inside the museum, Ishi was not the last of his kind, but the first.

—John N. Low (Pokagon Pottawatomi)
PhD candidate in American culture, University of Michigan

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