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Wild Men: Ishi in San Francisco

Douglas Cazaux Sackman is a Professor of History at the University of Puget Sound.  His newest book, Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of 9780195178524Modern America, looks at Ishi, “the last wild Indian” and one of the fathers of anthropology, Alfred Kroeber. When Kroeber and Ishi came face to face, it was a momentous event, not only for each man but also for the cultures they represented.  In the excerpt below we learn about some of the media hoopla that surrounded their meeting in 1911.

Headline, San Francisco Bulletin, 5 September 1911, evening edition: “BIG CITY AMAZES CAVE MAN.  PRIMORDIAL MAN BLINKS AT CIVILIZATION’S GLARE.”  Ishi had just arrived late the night before; when we woke up he saw San Francisco, and San Francisco, through the eyes of several reporters, saw him.  The Bulletin’s lede was typical: “The lusty civilization of the twentieth century that is typified by San Francisco upon this shore of the Pacific was viewed today by a primordial man, brought to town from out of the furthermost savagery.”

Reporters had gathered that morning at the Affiliated Colleges of the University of California on Parnassus Heights to get their first glimpse of the city’s newcomer.  They used as much ink describing the man’s perceptions of “civilization” as they did describing the man himself.  That made a certain kind of topsy-turvy sense: their descriptions of the other were really descriptions of themselves, using the man they beheld as a kind of measuring stick for the “lusty civilization of the twentieth century.”  Five years after the earthquake and four years before it was to host the grand celebration of progress called the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco was at once proud of itself and anxious.  That anxiety was reflected in the Ishi reporting that was, by turns, serious and silly.

The reporting recapitulated the exchanges of material items that had characterized Ishi’s stay in Oroville.  Reporters wanted to see, or stage, his initial encounters with civilization all over again.  First, they wanted to get a picture of the man in his native attire.  The anthropologists obliged by bringing a fur cape from their collection (though not one of Yahi manufacture, as they would be collected by the museum only later.)  When asked to undress for the photograph, Ishi, keenly observing his cultural surroundings, objected.  He liked his overalls and his necktie, he said through Batwi.  Besides, he didn’t see anyone else wearing these kinds of clothes.  He’d keep his on, thank you very much.  He did agree, however, to put the fur cape pm over his other clothes, and the photographers rolled up his pant legs to hide them.  By nipping and tucking away the Western clothes, they finally succeeded in getting the staged shot they wanted.  Six photographers began shooting away, while Waterman told Batwi to tell Ishi, “White man just play.”  But being shot by a camera is still being shot.  As Mary Ashe Miller described the scene from the Call, Ishi “stood with his head back and a half smile on his face, but his compressed lips and dilated nostrils showed that he was far from happy.

Ishi’s refusal to return to a pure state of nativity became part of the story.  Bemused and incredulous, reporters wrote that in his natural state he had gone about naked, “as God made him.”  Never mind that he had been wearing some amalgamation of whites’ manufactured clothes and the traditional garb of the Yahi all his life.  The Los Angeles Times headline read, “SHY, LAST YANA DONS PANTS, REFUSES TO POSE IN NATURE’S GARB.”  The reporting thus became self-reflexive, exposing the staged nature of this man’s identity as it might be manifested (or not) in the clothes he wore (or not).

Ishi had been set up in a publicity trap, but he found ways to wriggle free, way to shape how he was seen and portrayed.  After he was handed a bow and arrows from the museum’s collection, the reporters wanted to see hi m shoot.  A photographer put his new felt hat on a stick one hundred feet away.  Thinking the Indian would not be able to hit the mark, he urged Ishi to make an attempt.  His arrow flew true and hit the hat.  Next up was a newspaper as a target; Ishi shot an arrow straight through the rag.

The reporters were impressed, not just by what they saw but by what they heard from Kroeber.  They readily picked up what the anthropologist said about the man’s being “uncontaminated.”  The journalists called him a “human document” and a “treasure” and “the great anthropological find of the twentieth century”; they also likened him to a “specimen” put under the “microscope,” and wondered what secrets of the aboriginal past the man might reveal.  San Francisco newspapers were filled with the story of Ishi, and soon newspapers around the country were carrying stories about the wild man’s arrival in the big city of the West.

As in Oroville, a great variety of things were pressed into Ishi’s hands.  A government Indian inspector who happened to be there that day and who gave his approval for Ishi to remain with Kroeber, gave the man a knife as a keepsake.  As Mary Ashe Miller reported, “His newly acquired pockets…are as keen a delight to him as are those of a small boy, and he has a great collection of odds and ends in them already.”  (She might have said the same of Kroeber’s pockets, for his were always full of this and that as well.)  miller wanted to give the man something too, but all she had was a cheap “white bone police whistle.”  But Ishi took delight in it, blowing into it, making the sound of authority.  Reporters and anthropologists alike looked at him, listened, and noted the incongruity.  The little whistle had captured his imagination, but the vast infrastructure of the modern city barely seemed to make an impression.

From the grounds of the museum on Parnassus Heights the reporters and Ishi could take in a view of the city stretched out before them, and beyond they could see the waters of the Pacific.  Ishi asked Batwi from which direction they had come the day before.  Batwi gestured toward the San Francisco Bay.  Miller asked what he thought about this place and his journey here.  Batwi explained, “First, yesterday, he frightened very much, now today he think all very funny.  He like, it tickle him.  He like this place here.  Much to see, big water off there, plenty of houses, many things to see.”

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3 Responses to “Wild Men: Ishi in San Francisco”
  1. [...] Edgar Rice Burroughs would start writing Tarzan of the Apes. No specific connection, of course, but this sort of stuff was in the water: “Headline, San Francisco Bulletin, 5 September 1911, evening edition: [...]

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