Wild Men, a New Book by Douglas Sackman

January 28, 2010

TACOMA, Wash. – A century ago, a mysterious Native American appeared at a slaughterhouse in the small Northern California town of Oroville. The man, who had been hiding for decades in remote canyons with the few survivors of his Yahi tribe, was whisked away by train to San Francisco, where anthropologist Alfred Kroeber called him “Ishi,” and newspapers portrayed him as “the last wild Indian in America.” A new book by Douglas Sackman, history professor at University of Puget Sound, takes a novel approach to writing the history of this intriguing encounter between two men and two worlds.

In Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America (Oxford University Press, January 2010), Sackman treats Ishi and Kroeber’s relationship as a reflection of America’s fascination with, and longing for, the wild and wilderness as the country was becoming ever more urban and modern. The book is also the story of the cultural resilience and courage shown by a man who couldn’t have been more different than the “wild man” many white colonialists imagined Ishi to be. 

As Sackman shows while Ishi adapted handily to his new life in San Francisco, he discovered that the city dwellers around him were themselves bewildered. Indeed many Americans were ambivalent about living in their brave new world, feeling weightless and inauthentic. They looked to Ishi as a touchstone of a world they thought they had lost or destroyed, hoping to rekindle a wildness of their own. Through his involvement with Ishi, whom he both studied as a subject and came to know as a friend, Kroeber became deeply unsettled about his own profession and civilization.

Written for Oxford University Press’s innovative series New Narratives in American History, which is designed to put the story back in history, Sackman’s book takes an almost novelistic approach that differs from traditional historical monographs. The result is, according to historian Brian Delay, “a splendid narrative—touching, stark, and humane. It illuminates the lives and worlds of these two remarkable men from the inside out.” Patricia Limerick, author of The Legacy of Conquest, says “Wild Men now leads my ‘top ten’ list of books that every person who cares about the American West should read.”

Sackman is also the author of the award-winning Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden, and is editor of the forthcoming book A Companion to American Environmental History. In his teaching and research, Sackman focuses on cultural, environmental, and U.S. Western history.

Press-quality photos of Douglas Sackman and the book jacket are available on request.

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