Art of knapping was nearly lost
[and Ishi, the Last Yahi]
by Tommy Stevenson
Condensed by Native Village
At a recent event, Betsy Irwin, education outreach coordinator at Moundville Archaeological Park asked one flintnapper, “Ever heard of Ishi?” When he blankly stared at her, she pulled out a DVD called “Ishi, The Last Yahi.”
The documentary, part of PBS's American Experience, tells the remarkable tale of the last survivor of the Yahi tribe in northern California. American led massacres in the 1860s-70s wiped out the entire Yahi tribe -- except for Ishi. Ishi actually survived undetected in the wilderness for 40 years until 1911. One day, he simply walked out of the woods and into the white man’s world.
Ishi lived most of his five remaining years at the Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco as sort of a living exhibit. He was hailed by the tabloids as “the last wild Indian” and “the last Stone Age Man in North America.” But Ishi was much more than that. He soon became friends with a young Berkeley anthropologist named Alfred Kroeber. Kroeber bonded with the slight, but noble Yahi man, and Ishi shared his knowledge of the Yahi people who had lived in the area for thousands of years.
Unlike some “Indians” who were reluctant to share their skills with those who stole their lands, Ishi was friendly and willing to cooperate with Kroeber and others who came to study him and his ways. The A&E documentary offers some remarkable photographs and early wax recordings of his life and mentions that Ishi taught his new hosts how to “knap” brittle rocks into arrowheads and spear points.
We also learn how Ishi adapted amazingly well to his new world. He accompanied Kroeber to operas (where he seemed more interested in the crowd than the performance), learned to ride the trolley, and navigated the streets of San Francisco.
Ishi was also unflappable. Once, when seeing a primitive airplane flying overhead, he asked if a white man was in it. When he was told "yes," Ishi simply laughed and shook his head.
Ishi died prematurely because of his lack of immunity to diseases. He made it known that when he died, he wanted to remain in San Francisco rather than return to the land of his tribe.
“You stay here,” he said when that time did come. “I am going ahead.”