Ishi, Last of His Tribe

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Ishi, Last of His Tribe

by Theodora Kroeber


A novel set in San Francisco and the Mount Lassen area of northern California from roughly 1880 to 1916; published in 1964.


As one of the last remaining members of the Yahi tribe of American Indians, Ishi witnesses the extinction of his people and must learn to adapt to the world of white settlers.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Part of a California tribe known as the Yana Indians, Ishi belonged to a subgroup (totaling about 250 before 1848) called the Yahi. From 1860 to 1911, the tribe survived in the southern Cascade Mountains. Achieving distinction as the last-known Yahi, Ishi agreed to move to the University of California Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco, where he lived from 1911 to 1916. He was befriended by the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber during this time. Alfred’s wife, Theodora Kroeber, who was twenty years younger than her husband, proceeded to document Ishi’s compelling life in biography and in fiction.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Yahi lifestyle

The Yahi drew part of their food supply from the deer, rabbits, and quail they hunted. They also fished for food, using harpoons and spears. Acorns, which were picked in the fall, served as their primary food source. Acorns were prepared for use in making soup, bread, or mush, and the Yahi made a number of dishes that combined the nut with meat or berries. In years when the crop was poor, though, the people tottered on the brink of starvation. The Yahi people cooked with artfully crafted twined baskets, which were also used for other purposes.

In 1848 pioneers began using the Lassen Trail, which crossed Yahi territory, bringing whites into contact with the tribe. From this point on, modern historical developments had a grave impact on the Yahi way of life and eventually led to the complete extinction of the group, which had changed little since the Stone Age.

The California gold rush

As the East Coast of the United States became increasingly overcrowded, many Americans set their sights on the Western frontier. Although it did not yet offer many of the comforts associated with the East, settlers were lured to the West by the promise of spacious, inexpensive land. Interest in the West further accelerated with the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento, California, in 1848. The California gold rush attracted those who felt they might be able to quickly and easily acquire riches.

There had been similar rushes for gold in the United States as early as 1830, but none reached the enormous proportions of the California gold rush. The influx of gold seekers reached a peak in 1849. In the first two years of the gold rush alone, California’s population increased from 14,000 to 100,000 people. By 1860 California had more than 380,000 residents. The so-called “forty-niners”—a name drawn from the year 1849—came from all over the United States, as well as Europe, South America, Asia, and Australia.

Initially, the process of mining consisted of panning for gold in streams or dried-up riverbeds. As the number of miners increased, however, this supply of gold was exhausted and machines had to be employed to extract the precious metal from the California soil. These machines helped make California one of the most technologically advanced states in the Union. In short, the rush for gold brought wealth and technology to the Western frontier and helped transform San Francisco from a trading post into a major U.S. city. The gold rush also had an effect on Mill Creek Canyon in the southern Cascade foothills, the home territory of the Yahi. While this region was not a center of gold mining or towns, the growing white population used the foothills as grazing lands and sites for hunting cabins. This resulted in greater contact between white settlers and the Yahi.

The railroad

Railroads first appeared in the United States in the late 1820s. The railroads had become a popular means of travel by the 1830s, replacing such earlier methods of transportation as the stagecoach and the steamboat. With the advent of railroads, it became more efficient to travel from the East to the West; people no longer had to depend on the primarily north-south waterways for safe transportation. It was not until 1869, however, that the first transcontinental railroad line was completed, enabling easterners to travel by train to the western coast of the continent. The coming of the railroad, coupled with the gold rush, made California accessible and desirable, and people flocked there by the thousands.

Racist attitudes of the settlers

The construction of the railroad lines had been a daunting task. Railroad companies found it to be in their best interest to hire the cheapest labor possible. As a result, a majority of the railroad laborers were of Chinese origin. Large numbers of Chinese had come to California seeking gold, yet they had been unable to find employment because of the racial attitudes of the white settlers. Those unable to find gold resorted to working on the railroad for low wages in order to survive. Once the railroads were completed, however, the predominately white population displayed little interest in sharing their land with the Chinese immigrants. In fact, they sought to keep such immigrants from coming to California in the future. The Chinese Exclusion Acts, which were passed in 1882, 1892, and 1902, were aimed at preventing any further Chinese immigration. The first two acts suspended immigration from China altogether for ten years each; the 1902 act, which tried to suspend it “permanently,” would remain in effect for thirty-one years.

Because tribes of American Indians were already living in California, the white settlers were unable to pass any laws restricting their entry into the state. Instead, laws were passed declaring that all Indians could be indentured. From 1850 to 1863, California Indians were commonly kidnapped and sold or placed into forced servitude (indenture). Estimates place the total number of Native American indentures in California at ten thousand. In some cases, the period of indenture could, by law, last for more than twenty years. More disturbing still, however, was the frequency with which American Indians and other nonwhites were murdered without probable cause and without any form of punishment for their killers. One reason for this was that the laws of the state did not treat American Indians fairly. A state law (Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, passed in 1850 and amended in 1860) provided that “in no case shall a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian” (Washburn, p. 415).

White settlers and the Yahi

Conflict between the American Indians and the settlers began soon after the gold seekers made their way into California. From 1850 until 1865, the United States government kept a particularly close watch on the Yahi, who were considered a belligerent tribe; they had proven unwilling to accept white domination and refused to move onto reservations. The first documented case of hostility between the two groups occurred in 1857, when the Yahi raided storehouses belonging to the settlers. The end of winter had always been a difficult time for the Yahi, but now, with fewer resources available to them because of the growing white population in the area, they faced a greater likelihood of starvation. Because of this, they looted the food supplies of the whites. Soon after the raid, a party of the settlers led by a well-known “Indian hunter” named Hiram Good set out after the tribe to avenge the raids. They eventually found a band of forty or so Indians and killed them all on sight. The band that they had happened upon were members of another Yana group,

however; they were not the Yahi who had raided their storehouses.

In 1862 a small group of Yahi kidnapped and later killed two of the settlers’ children, an event that prompted rage among the settlers. The Yahi who were guilty of the murders reportedly had a distinct hairstyle: their hair had been cut short and covered in tar, a sign that they were in mourning. Historians speculate that their violent act was most likely in retaliation for the earlier murders of Yana children by the settlers, for there is extensive documentation of massacres in which thirty or more Yana were killed. Nevertheless, the 1862 incident prompted a search party to set out for the guilty Yahis, in hopes of exterminating every last Indian in the area. The Yahis, along with other Yana, suffered much loss of life after contact with whites in the mid-1800s. While some eighteen hundred Yana perished after contact, the deaths of fewer than fifty whites can be traced to the Yana.

In 1865, after the murder of three more homesteaders, Hiram Good and his followers set out for the last time to perform a mass execution of the Yahi people. Forty to fifty Yahi, including women and children, were killed. Only a handful of the Yahi people, whom Good’s party last saw fleeing into the forest, survived this attack. The remaining Yahi now realized that their only chance at survival was complete concealment.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Ishi, Last of his Tribe is the story of Ishi, a young boy, and the few remaining members of the Yahi people—his “cousin-sister” Tushi, his mother, his uncle, his grandparents, and a slightly older boy from another village named Timawi.

It is revealed at the beginning of the story that despite having spent his life in hiding, Ishi has had numerous encounters with the outside world of the white men, or saldu. When he and his family are hunting in the forest, they must continually be on their guard because the saldu could attack at any time. Since all of the rest of the Yahi people have been killed by the saldu, Ishi and his extended family take great care to keep themselves hidden from whites.

Ishi spends a great deal of time at a secret praying place, where he can see the saldu’s railway train winding its way through the valley. Ishi believes that the train is a monster that the white men have tamed. While praying, Ishi dreams of traveling into the valley and swimming through the gorge of the canyon into Outer Ocean. There Ishi is greeted by a sacred salmon who brings him back to the Yahi world. Although Ishi is unable to determine the meaning of his dream, he is informed by his Elder Uncle that his vision is a Power Dream and that its message will one day become clear.

Ishi’s grandfather tells the story of Ishi’s father, who, along with several other members of the tribe, was killed by the saldu while attempting to raid a camp of white settlers. Although the raid was viewed by the settlers as unprovoked, it was seen by the Yahi as retaliation for the murders of their people. As Ishi and Timawi grow into young men, they begin to feel the same desire for vengeance that Ishi’s father had. One night, while the two are on a journey together, Timawi leaves Ishi’s side. When Ishi finally finds Timawi, he sees that his friend has been killed in an attempt to avenge the wrongful death of his people.


Through his Wild West Show, William Cody, known as Buffalo Bill, helped mold the image of the American West for the rest of the world. From 1883 through 1913, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show toured the United States and Europe, staging battles between cowboys and Indians, mock stagecoach robberies, and displays of skill by such well-known sharpshooters as Annie Oakley. Ishi himself often attended performances with his friend Dr. Saxton Pope and is said to have enjoyed them immensely.

The proximity of Ishi’s home to the areas populated by the saldu eventually makes it necessary for the remaining Yahi to relocate to a safer site. Ishi finds an abandoned grizzly bear den in a cliff, and the family makes its home there. Soon his grandparents die, leaving only Ishi, his mother, his uncle, and Tushi. Ishi’s mother becomes unwell and is unable to move her legs, which further endangers the group.

Despite Ishi’s attempt to find a secret home for his family, several saldu men happen upon the cave. Tushi and Elder Uncle flee in one direction while Ishi heads in another. His mother, who is too heavy to carry, remains behind. The saldu do not harm her, but they steal several of the Yahi baskets on the floor of the cave.

After the men have left, Ishi searches for Tushi and his uncle. They have disappeared into the wilderness, never to be heard from again. Ishi returns to his mother, and they decide that they must move on before the saldu return. Then his mother dies and Ishi is left alone—the last of the Yahi. He performs burial rights, shaves off his hair in mourning, and starts wandering without purpose or direction.

Approximately three years later, Ishi arrives at a slaughterhouse outside the city of Oroville. He is arrested and placed in jail. The next day he is visited by a man who, to Ishi’s surprise, knows several Yahi words. The man, an anthropologist whom Ishi calls majapa, or “the headman,” takes Ishi to San Francisco to live in a museum. As Ishi climbs aboard the monster (a train) to venture toward the “Outer Ocean” of San Francisco Bay, he finally understands the meaning of his Power Dream. Ishi lives out the rest of his life at the museum with his newfound saldu friends, returning only once to the Yahi world that he left behind.

The Yahi relationship with nature

One of the reasons the Yahi were able to remain hidden from the saldu for so long was their intimate relationship with nature. The Yahi respect for the natural world contrasts sharply with its treatment by white settlers. The reader is first introduced to the saldu as they are slashing at the brush in an attempt to carve out a trail: “A small berry bush came out by its roots and was thrown into the air, landing, unnoticed except by Ishi, in the top of a clump of manzanita” (Kroeber, Ishi, Last of His Tribe, p. 6). In a later passage, as Tushi and Ishi move through the forest, they are careful to only bend the branches when clearing a path. They would not think of breaking them as the saldu have done. This method of travel shows respect for the bushes and the trees, but it also plays a major role in their safety. A path cleared by merely bending the branches does not leave behind a visible sign of their presence.

The Yahi respect for nature can be explained in part by examining their creation myths. Ishi’s grandfather explains that the earth, the trees, and the animals were created before man. When man was finally created, the Great God Jupka told the Yahi people that “there [would] be peace [between] the creatures of air and water and brush” (Ishi, Last of His Tribe, p. 30). The Yahi regarded animals as the embodiment of the great Yahi gods and heroes. For a person to be disrespectful of nature would be an insult to the gods.

Because of their respect for all living things, the Yahi never took more than they needed, and they were careful to thank the earth during their Harvest Feast for providing them with food. When Tushi asks why the saldu have no Harvest Feast, her grandmother replies, “they do not have a Harvest Feast because those who take the food of others without asking and without courtesy do not give thanks for it” (Ishi, Last of His Tribe, p. 10).

Ishi’s personal respect for nature is illustrated by Kroeber in two separate instances. When Ishi catches a marmot in a trap, he senses the animal’s anguish. “I know now why Elder Uncle says a bow is better than a trap,” he states. “The arrow kills; a trap may cause only fear and pain” (Ishi, Last of His Tribe, p. 43). Later in the novel, when Ishi is attracting animals using calls that he has learned to imitate, a rabbit walks into his hands. Although he is hungry, Ishi is unable to take the life of an animal that came to him without fear.

Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding between the Yahi and the saldu was over the concept of natural resources as property. The Yahi did not believe that anyone could own nature. Their lives were based on a belief that one should take only what one needed to survive. The homesteaders, on the other hand, saw cattle and grain and land as personal possessions, and they became enraged when property that they regarded as theirs was taken from them by the Yahi. What the settlers did not realize was that through their actions, they were stealing a way of life from the Yahi, one in which man and nature were able to coexist. As settlers encroached on Yahi land and forced them into hiding, hunting became more difficult for the tribe and plundering became a means for survival.


The man who was known as Ishi by the anthropological community never revealed his Yahi name. The name was given to him by the anthropologist A. L. Kroeber, as Ishi was the Yahi word for “man.” The Yahi’s name is not the only thing that remains lost to history. Encountering an almost insurmountable language barrier, anthropologists found it difficult to learn the true details of Ishi’s life. After studying Ishi’s own attempts to communicate and examining additional historical documentation, Theodora Kroeber, the wife of A. L. Kroeber and an anthropologist in her own right, was able to assemble bits and pieces of Ishi’s life into her biographical work of the Indian. Entitled Ishi in Two Worlds, the biography traces what happened to Ishi after making contact with the outside world. In contrast, Kroeber’s novel Ishi, Last of His Tribe is her attempt to reconstruct the possible nature of Ishi’s existence prior to contact with whites. Little is known for certain, however.

Ishi was probably born around 1860. His early childhood was marked by frequent strife between the settlers and the Yahi. Ishi’s father is thought to have been killed in the attack of 1865 by Hiram Good and his men. It was difficult, however, for anyone to obtain information from Ishi about his fellow Yahi, for he regarded discussion of the dead as a violation of proper tribal etiquette.

Reports throughout the 1870s and early 1880s attest to the fact that the few Yahi who survived the 1865 attack moved from area to area. Anthropologists believe, however, that this changed in 1885, when Ishi and his family moved into the cave formerly occupied by a grizzly bear. There they remained, virtually invisible to the rest of the world, until the discovery of the cave by surveyors in 1908.

Ishi first encountered the surveyors while he was fishing. Unable to reach the cave before them, he went into hiding. The surveyors, upon approaching the cave, saw an elderly man and a middle-aged woman fleeing. Inside they found an elderly woman who was paralyzed from the waist down. Although they did not harm her, they helped themselves to several baskets. When Ishi returned, he realized that he and his mother had to relocate. His mother, though, was too weak to travel far, and she soon died.

Three years later, in 1911, Ishi was found in the corral of a slaughterhouse in Oroville. He was initially jailed, but when an anthropologist from San Francisco by the name of T. T. Waterman expressed interest in him, Ishi was released into his custody. Waterman and his colleagues A. L. Kroeber and Edward Sapir had been studying the tribes of northern California for some time. Ishi, delighted when Waterman began to speak Yahi words, returned with the anthropologist to San Francisco to live in the University of California Museum of Anthropology. There he spent the rest of his life adjusting to the ways of the white men while still attempting to maintain a link with his past. Although he wore the clothes of the saldu and went to their theaters, he was most content when carving handmade bows at the museum.

Ishi returned to his homeland only once. On the journey, he gave A. L. Kroeber and two others information about the way he had once lived. He did not wish to permanently return to his former home, though, for he felt that the Yahi world had died along with his family. Unable to fight off the diseases of the saldu, Ishi contracted tuberculosis in 1916. He died soon afterward and was buried according to Yahi tradition.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

Interest in anthropology

The discovery of Ishi came at a time when interest in anthropology in the United States was increasing at a rapid rate. Anthropologists such as A. L. Kroeber and Edward Sapir were instrumental in the establishment of anthropology as an academic discipline, whereas formerly it had been considered a mere gentlemanly interest. Kroeber and his colleagues stressed the importance culture played in shaping the behavior of a group.

By 1964, when the novel was written, anthropology was well established as a course of study in universities throughout the world. The interest created in the field by such pioneers as A. L. Kroeber and Sapir helped create a market for books such as Theodora Kroeber’s, which focused on the daily activities of a Native American.

Native American rights

Between the time periods in which Ishi, Last of His Tribe was set and written, the United States government went through a fitful string of policies regarding the American Indians. In 1887, under the Dawes Act, the government set out to break up reservations by allotting 160-acre parcels to individual Indian families. In 1934 it switched to a policy of support for the survival of reservations. An aboutface in 1953 had the government trying to eliminate reservations once again through a plan wherein American Indians were paid to relocate in cities. Finally, in the 1960s, a decade in which the civil rights of minorities in the United States took center stage, Indian rights groups urged the government to reverse its policy once again and support tribal independence. In 1970 the government agreed to this plan and adopted a policy of “self-determination.” Under this policy, which recognized the native peoples’ right to independence, tribal groups were given control over money and other benefits received from the U.S. government.


Ishi, Last of His Tribe was not widely publicized in the literary community because of Kroeber’s relative inexperience as a writer of fiction and the book’s classification as a work for young people. A few were critical of the tale. A December 1964 review in Horn Book faulted the novel for describing the activities of the Yahi in such detail that the book would prove tiresome to those with no special interest in American Indians. But generally Theodora Kroeber’s book was warmly received by reviewers, and even the critical December 1964 review acknowledged its importance.

For More Information

Beissel, Henry. Under Coyote’s Eye: A Play about Ishi. Montreal: Quadrant, 1980.

Heizer, Robert F., ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8: California. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1978.

Heizer, Robert F., and Theodora Kroeber. Ishi, the Last Yahi: A Documentary History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961.

Kroeber, Theodora. Ishi, Last of His Tribe. Berkeley: Parnassus, 1964.

Washburn, Wilcomb E., ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 4: History of Indian-White Relations. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1988.

Waterman, Thomas Talbot. The Yana Indians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1918.