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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.

It was nowhere near a thousand, but a handful of Yahi-perhaps 5 or 6-had somehow survived the bloodshed. They fled Mill Creek and sank deep into another canyon, Deer Creek, at whose heart lay a thick tangle of rock and brush they called Bear’s Hiding Place. It was small, barely a few square miles. But there, the rocks were so sharp and the brush so thick that even livestock avoided it. It was the one place where the white man’s bullets couldn’t follow them. The land that once nourished them would now have to hide them.

In the early 1880s, that handful of surviving Yahi vanished into Bear’s Hiding Place. No one would see them again for half a generation.

Deep in a thicket of brush, both of us crawling on our hands and knees, Tom discovers a fire pit near the base of an immense ponderosa pine. It is very old, hardly more than a depression in the ground, filled with leaves and rocks and dirt. It’s just the kind of place the Yahi would have sought-screened from view in all directions by brush with a branch-hidden view of the draw below. Without a word, our eyes meet.

For 40 years, within earshot of Pullman trains and just a day’s walk from city streets, the last remaining Yahi people clung to life. They strung deer hides to mask the light of their cooking fires, hopped from boulder to boulder to avoid leaving tracks in the sand, bent rather than broke branches while moving silently through the brush. “It is a real tribute to the resilience of the native California peoples that the Yahi were able to survive for so long under such difficult conditions, and keep alive this tremendous reservoir of traditional knowledge,” says Professor Starn.

But it couldn’t last. Fear of being discovered by the white men kept the Yahi tethered to their hideout. They could no longer hunt openly for deer or fish the streams in daylight. Even something as simple as gathering acorns meant risking their lives.

One by one, they began to die. By 1908, Ishi was alone. Three years later, driven by hunger, haunted by a loneliness perhaps no one on earth can imagine, the last Yahi began his walk south, the

walk that would take him to the slaughterhouse outside of Oroville, and through that crack in time.

Ishi likely assumed that he would be killed by the first white person he encountered. But the world had changed. Although he was at first locked in a jail cell reserved for the insane, Ishi was eventually turned over to the care of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber at the University of California at Berkeley and its newly completed Phoebe Hearst Musuem of Anthropology.

With grace, intelligence, and endless patience, Ishi adapted to his new world with its many surprises-safety pins, penny whistles, ice cream-and conveniences, such as electric lights, running water, and comfortable chairs. For nearly five years, Ishi worked with scientists, linguists, anthropologists, and the public to bridge the yawning canyon that separated his Yahi culture from modern life. His years at the museum, and especially a 1914 expedition back to Deer Creek, left anthropologists with mountains of information—hundreds of stories and songs recorded on wax cylinders, 200 Yahi place names listed on maps, the medical uses of more than 100 plants.

But much about Ishi went unanswered.

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