Thursday, 25 March 2010

On This Day 1916: Ishi Died

In europe we have Otzi the iceman, we have a few artifacts, some of his EDC if you will, but the languages we speak were not due to be heard for thousands of years after his death. He's a Polaroid, a snap shot, just one frame (in not too sharp a focus) of a world we can only imagine and even then imagine only through the distorting lens of a viewpoint far far removed from anything Otzi would have known. His world was long gone before ours was born or thought of. We'll never know the date of his death, or the shape of his life, we just get a tantalizing glimpse into the day he died on. A glimpse that asks a lot of questions and answers very few.

On the other side of the pond there's an actual date, a day and a time when the last stone age man in North America saw the door close behind him, and breathed his last. His friends put some of his tools in a simple bag by his side, and committed his empty body to the flame. I like to think of his spirit going to the happy hunting ground. Wherever he went, his body turned to ash and his brain went to medical school.

A lot of things flicker to life in my imagination, but very few have consumed me like Saxton Pope's book about his friendship with Ishi the last of the Yahi people - the last north american to live in the stone age - literally a time traveler who came to the 20th century.

A victim of genocide, born on the run from an encroaching culture that was totally alien to the frame of reference he'd have known. Fresh out of options, he turned to face the very thing he'd run from his whole life, and one afternoon bewildered and exhausted Ishi stepped out of the stone age and into the 20th century.  He was imprisoned, poked, prodded, and gawped at. Then at last, protected, befriended and given the welcome such a stranger deserves.

None of us can ever know the 'real' Ishi. We can only project the Ishi that we wish for onto his legend, but that probably makes him all the more special. I've read Pope's book several times now. It's not a very well written book, its in the style we might now call 'blogging' (it slips from history, to how-to, to eulogy, to call to adventure), but there's something about it. Something beguiling. I sometimes feel it's the book I'd been waiting to read. Pope and Ishi's friendship is a reflecting pool can I see myself in, and if you ever played at Robin Hood with two sticks and a shoelace you too may hear the call Pope was so compelled by.

At the end, against the express wishes of those who knew and cared for him, his brain was taken to medical school with what intent we can only speculate.  Ishi's legacy hasn't come from that bag of cells and inanimate neural pathways, it's come from the fire he lit in the hearts and minds of Dr Saxton Pope and Art Young.

If I couldn't have my hearts desire and become more like Ishi, I'd settle for being more like Saxton Pope and consider it a life well spent.

How you treated that stranger might just be how you really are.
SBW
PS: "Ishi felt Western society was essentially silly - the only things that impressed him were matches and glue,"  

A bit more about Ishi

25 comments:

NorCal Cazadora said...

You know, that's a book I remember seeing on my parents' bookshelf forever. You make me want to read it. Thanks!

Le Loup said...

A good post, but rather deppressing to think of his death and the death of his way of life. I am glad he found a friend in pope, because I hate to think what would of happened to him otherwise. Some people are hard to fathom.
Regards.

Chad Love said...

Saxton Pope's book, along with Maurice Thompson's "The Witchery of Archery" and Howard Hill's "Hunting the Hard Way" are widely considered to be the three most influential books on archery.

But I seriously doubt Saxton Pope would have gone on to become the father of modern recreational and hunting archery without the influence of Ishi.

Pretty fascinating stuff, eh?

Bpaul said...

Great post, an enjoyable read. Love the quote at the end especially.

Bp

Bpaul said...

Ps: grabbing a link to this post for my blog. Full attribution of course.

Bp

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Norcal

Now if you can only snaffle that copy you'd have enough money for a bow!

SBW

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Le Loup

Thanks, I'm glad you liked it. Sometime I think Ishi's story is a cipher for all that's wrong in the modern world, but his story is also about the redeeming power of friendship, in the face of the 'unknowableness' of others. It's made me cry more than once.
SBW

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Chad

That's what i love about the story of Pope's life

" this morning you'll become pals with the last stone-age man on your continent, you'll take up the toy of your youth, and become world famous for hunting HOOJ predators with it, Oh and you'll be having egg and cress sandwiches for lunch"

Who'd-a-thunk-it?

SBW

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Bpaul

Thanks for your kind words, and the mention on your blog. I only found the quote while i was writing this post - great isn't it? Kind of sums it up. This one is a favourite too

"He looked upon us as sophisticated children smart but not wise. We knew many things, and much that is false. He knew nature, which is always true."
Saxton T. Pope

SBW

Bpaul said...

Excellent quote also sir.

Bp

Deus Ex Machina said...

Is it not amazing that we as a society have lost so much in so short a time ... a mere 100-200 years ago people knew these skills and used them. We've sold out for technology and lost that vital link to "reality". I am hoping to gain some of that back for myself, my family, and friends. I guess that's why I bowhunt.

On a funny note, I take Otzi's possessions as a kind of a syllabus for my re-education.

Regardless, thank you.

Tovar Cerulli said...

Hey SBW, thanks for the post.

I haven't thought about Ishi in a while, but I read a couple of books about him when I was a kid. I imagine that elements of his story have been in me ever since.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Tovar

Glad you liked it, as i understand it Ishi is very well known to californian school children but I've only ever met one other english person who'd heard of him.
SBW

Chas S. Clifton said...

A fine update on Ishi's story, including the contemporary political battle between different tribal groups over his preserved brain, is Orin Starn's Ishi's Brain

If you can get it in the UK, a great documentary with footage of Ishi is Ishi: The Last Yahi, made in 1992.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Nice one Chas
SBW

Josh said...

I grew up fairly close to where he lived, and I've wondered many hours about folks like him, how they lived and worked, what they thought and believed.

My coming to traditional archery was through another route, but I've had the express honor of seeing some of his equipment in a well-kept museum in town. His (and others') knowledge and skill is breathtaking.

Ken and Joanne said...

When I first heard of Ishi, in junior high school, I imagined a scenario where Alien Invaders drove us into the hills. Finally, when everyone I knew was dead, I came out rather than die in the brush unremarked -- because there was no one left to remark me. Then I imagined coming out of the hills to discover that not only had everyone I ever knew "gone on," but I was the only one on the planet who spoke my language. Who would I talk to? What would I say?

He was right. Today we have too much knowledge and not enough wisdom.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Ken

that's about it isn't it. Sad but true.
SBW

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Josh
Cool - does the museum have a website?
SBW

LSP said...

Great post - Happy Easter!

Josh said...

Here's a link to the California State Indian Museum:

http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=486

NorCal Cazadora said...

Just finished reading Theodora Kroeber's book, "Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America," and it left me in tears. I already knew that the diseases of civilized humanity (there's an oxymoron for you) had killed so many of the indigenous people here, but reading that it was tuberculosis that felled Ishi made it feel so personal. Perhaps it was because it felt like he was my friend by the time I got to the end of the book (even though Ishi was not inclined to befriend women).

That Pope quote you shared earlier in the comment thread says so much that it's worth repeating: "He looked upon us as sophisticated children - smart, but not wise. We knew many things, and much that is false. He knew nature, which is always true."

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Nor Cal

Sounds great, I'll get a copy.

Interesting to think that the spread to european viruses in the new world, was a large part of what made colonization possible. From the first landings by fisherman from the Grand Banks the introduction of non-native viruses were depleting the local population.

Pope really is an amazing writer, I sometimes re-read the cipher he conjures up of his friend, and cry for Ishi. That quote alone is so fantastic on so many levels. Gets me every time.

SBW

NorCal Cazadora said...

I'll have to get Pope's book. Kroeber's was nicely done - worth reading, for sure.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Norcal
Download it from guttenberg
SBW