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.
PS: "Ishi felt Western society was essentially silly - the only things that impressed him were matches and glue,"  

A bit more about Ishi