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September 1999

Wild As It Ever Was

For almost half a century, California's rugged Ishi Wilderness hid "the last wild Indian." Even today, it is a place that can keep a secret.

For nearly 4,000 years, the creek flowing out there in the dark just beyond our tents was the heart of the Yahi homeland. The Yahi, numbering 300 or 400, were linked to the larger Yana culture surrounding them, but maintained their own distinct language, customs, and territory. They were hunters and gatherers who speared salmon in the creeks and climbed to the cooler slopes of Mt. Lassen (they called it Waganupa or “Little Shasta”) to hunt deer and escape the heat of summer. In fall, harvesting festivals were held to collect the bounty of acorns. Winters were spent in makeshift huts telling stories, chipping arrowheads, and staying warm beneath robes of wildcat and rabbit skins.

The Yahi were known to their neighbors as a fiercely loyal people, good hunters and fighters, and aggressive defenders of their land and their way of life. Those traits served them well as long as the most valuable thing in the creeks was salmon. But in 1849, everything would change.

Rolling over in my sleeping bag, I hear a low rumbling sound audible even over the pounding rain-the water is rising, stones are rolling like bones in the creek.

When gold was discovered in northern California in 1849, it unleashed a flash flood of people to a region that, up until that time, had been too rugged and too remote for the white man to bother with. With gold as the prize, however, nothing would stand in the way, not even the native people like the Yahi who had claimed this land as their own.

“I don’t think holocaust is too strong a word for what happened,” says Orin Starn, an associate professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University who is working on a book about the era. “The native population fell from about 300,000 to just 30,000 by the turn of the century.” Diseases like measles and chicken pox took many. Others were driven off their land and pushed onto reservations. Many were just killed outright. For a time, the state of California offered a bounty on native people: 50 cents for a scalp, $5 for a head. Over $1 million was paid out.

In the increasing wind, the tree limbs above our tents are creaking and moaning. I sit up in the tent and light my candle lantern, watching the restless flame flicker, and flicker, and finally go out.

In Yahi country, gold mining was silting the streams and ruining the salmon runs. Livestock like pigs and cattle were destroying the acorn crop. The Yahi, fighters that they were, did the only thing they could: They fought back. But their weapons were made for hunting deer and spearing salmon, not warfare. Against guns and ruthless men, the Yahi had no chance. The “battles”-more like massacres-were quick, decisive, and gruesome.

In the predawn light of August 15, 1865, 17 armed men silhouetted against the morning sky made their way slowly through the brush and boulders lining Mill Creek, the roar of the water masking every footfall, every snapping twig. They took up positions along the cliffs, waiting for the slow rise of the sun to give them just enough light to take aim by. When it came, a signal was given, and the peaceful California summer morning exploded in gunfire.

It was over almost before it began. To the small band of 50 or so Yahi camped below, it must have seemed as though the world was crashing in. The attackers “poured a hot fire,” as one of the shooters later recalled, into the camp. Men, women, even children were shot dead while still tucked beneath their robes. Others leapt up, only to be gunned down in midstep like birds shot on the wing. Still others made a break for the only place that seemed to offer any possibility of escape, Mill Creek, and threw themselves into the current, hot bullets slicing the icy waters around them. “[F]ew got out alive,” one eyewitness would later write. “Instead, many dead bodies floated down the rapid current.”

Unnoticed among the bodies, a few Yahi, including a 4-year-old boy and his mother, drifted downstream and vanished into the brush.

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