Review from Arches alumni magazine, Spring 2010
Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America
Douglas Cazaux Sackman, professor of history
384 pages, hardcover
Oxford University Press
Review by Greg Scheiderer
The aim of the Oxford University Press series New Narratives in American History is “to put the story back in history.” Doug Sackman’s contribution to the series, Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America, certainly achieves that goal. Wild Men is a compelling page-turner, at times appalling, touching, humorous, uplifting, and empathetic.
Ishi was, as the newspapers of a century ago called him, the “last wild Indian.” He and the remaining dozen or two of the Yahi tribe vanished into the canyons near Lassen Peak in northern California in the face of violence from white settlers. While rumors abounded for years about the wild men living in the area, the Yahi managed to stay out of sight for more than four decades. Then one day in 1911 Ishi simply gave up hiding and walked into Oroville, Calif., where he was taken in by the local constabulary. Albert Kroeber, an anthropologist who ran the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco, had heard and believed the rumors about the wild men. When Ishi appeared, Kroeber had him brought to the museum, where he lived and worked for his remaining days.
The story of Ishi has been told before, including a couple of TV movies. Sackman focuses much on the relationship between Ishi and Kroeber, and the way it changed both men. That any sort of trust could be established is astonishing. Ishi spent 40 years hiding from violence, described frankly and brutally by Sackman, who noted that official U.S. policy toward the Indians was “domestication, not extermination, but it was easy to miss the difference.” In Oroville, Ishi was immediately thrown into a padded cell, then treated like a character in a circus sideshow. Finally they put him onto a train to San Francisco, and the man who had lived his entire life in the wild was suddenly thrust into the middle of a bustling, modern city.
Yet by all accounts Ishi adapted extremely well. He traveled around the city, liked to ride the trolley cars, had a number of friends, enjoyed the movies, and developed a liking for ice cream and coconut cream pie. When Kroeber and others suggested a trip back to his old haunts to do some on-the-spot anthropology fieldwork, Ishi balked. There were no chairs or warm houses, and not much food. Eventually, he was convinced to go.
Kroeber was in an interesting position. Ishi was the subject of his research, but the two became friends as well. Kroeber did a reasonable job preventing Ishi from being entirely exploited, although he was always something of an attraction at the museum.
The cover photo of the book is fascinating. It shows Kroeber and Ishi standing side by side, in similar suit jackets, slacks, and shirts with ties. Ishi is barefoot. Even living in the city for the final five years of his life, he never had any use for shoes. It’s a fitting metaphor for the conflicts involved in the story. America was rapidly becoming urban but still was fascinated with the Wild West, and it marveled at the wilderness described as “untouched” despite the fact that natives had been living there for centuries. Ishi was the last wild Indian, lived in the city somewhat out of necessity, never completely abandoned his ways and culture, but didn’t want to go back to the canyons.
Wild Men is a marvelous read that brings these characters to life. The story continues to make anthropologists and historians, including Sackman, rethink their approaches to the study of other cultures, present and past.
Greg Scheiderer is vice president for government and public relations at Independent Colleges of Washington and a former member of the communications staff at Puget Sound.