So many books, so little time… (Part 4)

ISHI in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America by Theodora Kroeber



I picked this up for 99¢ at the Mennonite-run Care & Share Thrift Store in Souderton, PA just down the road from my parents’ house on my last visit to the states. My friend M and I spent quite a bit of time ransacking this thrift store throughout our high school and university years. She usually walked out of there with her arms full of clothes and fabric and stuff she could incorporate into her art projects.[1] I usually walked out of there with my arms full of books and records. The little old Mennonite ladies, with their bonnets and plain dresses and dentured smiles, were always so helpful and polite. “Now, on Tuesdays, every book with a blue sticker (dramatic pause) is half price. Don’t forget!” On a normal day the blue sticker meant you had to pay a whopping 35¢.

Anyway, the man who was to become known as Ishi stepped out of his Stone Age world and into the 20th century on August 29th, 1911. He was spotted at a slaughterhouse near Oroville, CA. Barking dogs awakened the butchers in the early morning hours. They informed the sheriff, J.B. Webber, that they had captured a wild man. Ishi was taken to the county jail in Oroville. He didn’t resist his captors as he was exhausted, starving and terrified. His only clothing was a scrap of old covered-wagon canvas which he wore like a poncho around his shoulders. He was placed in a cell while the police tried to learn more about their captive. This was no easy task as Ishi spoke no English.

Crowds gathered from miles around to see if they could catch a glimpse of the wild man. Ishi was roughly 50 years old and this was his first contact with white men. He expected to be put to death at any moment since his only experience of white people was that they were murderers of his people. Mexicans, Spaniards and local “civilized” Indians visited the jail and made various attempts to communicate with Ishi in Maidu, Wintu and Spanish, but nobody could understand his language.

The story made the headlines in the local newspapers. Two anthropologists at the University of California, Alfred Kroeber and T.T. Waterman, read the accounts and knew what they had to do. They brought Ishi to San Francisco by train on September 4th, 1911, Labor Day. Ishi had seen and heard the train off in the distance many times from his home in the foothills of Mount Lassen. As a boy his mother had told him it was a Demon that followed white men wherever they went, but that there was no reason to be afraid as it never bothered Indians.

In San Francisco Ishi lived in an apartment in the Museum of Anthropology which was then located in Parnassus Heights. He also worked there as a research assistant. The museum was close to Golden Gate Park where Ishi would sometimes go alone, stroll along the meandering paths and watch, “the captive herd of buffalo, learning the look and ways of these strange and surprising creatures.” (100 years ago there was a herd of buffalo in Golden Gate Park!) During this time he helped Waterman and Kroeber learn and understand Yahi culture and his native Yana language. They made 148 wax cylinder recordings of Ishi speaking, singing and telling stories in Yahi. Ishi also demonstrated firebuilding and toolmaking techniques for thousands of visitors.

Unfortunately, Ishi was often sick as he had no immunity to the diseases of his white friends. He died on March 25th, 1916 of tuberculosis, less than five years after he walked out of the wilderness near Oroville.



Nobody actually ever knew Ishi’s real name. The word Ishi means “man” in the Yana language. Alfred Kroeber gave this name to his friend because a California Indian almost never spoke his or her own name, used it only among those who already knew it, and never revealed it in reply to a question. To quote Theodora Kroeber:

“He never revealed his own, private, Yahi name. It was as though it had been consumed in the funeral pyre of the last of his loved ones. He accepted the new name, answering to it unreluctantly. But once it was bestowed it took on enough of his true name’s mystic identification with himself, his soul, whatever inner essence of a man it is which a name shares, that he was never again heard to pronounce it.”

Theodora Kroeber never actually met Ishi. She wrote the book using her late husband Alfred’s notes. The book was published in 1961, one year after Alfred passed away. (An interesting side note: Alfred and Theodora are the parents of the writer Ursula K. Le Guin.)

While reading this book there were many times when I jumped up and went looking for Lola so I could bore her with some fascinating little detail. For example: canned food being left behind after a cabin had been raided. Due to the pressure from white encroachment during the Gold Rush, it became increasingly difficult for Ishi’s people to hunt and fish. The animals had either been scared off or killed by white men. Occasionally Indians would raid cabins or sheds belonging to white men for food and supplies. They would take things like barley, flour, sugar, tools and clothing, but would leave canned corn and beans. The theory was that the Indians didn’t realize there was food in the cans, or that they had tasted the contents of some that had spoiled.

It’s fascinating to think about a person seeing something like a can of food for the first time, an object that’s been a part of my everyday life since Day One, an object that I completely take for granted, and attempting to figure out what it is, what purpose it could possibly have.

There was also a popular story that had been told to Waterman about a sack of poisoned flour that made me laugh. Supposedly, a man named Elijah Graham left a sack of poisoned flour, clearly labeled as poison, in his cabin. And I quote:

“Many of the white settlers disbelieved that there were Indians in the hills, or were inclined to think that the considerable robbing and pilfering was not done by Indians. The poisoned flour promptly disappeared, which circumstance Graham took for proof that it was Indians who had made off with it. This is a conundrum without an answer. The story’s popularity may have stemmed from the number of people around Red Bluff and vicinity who failed to share Elijah Graham’s faith that it was only Indians who were illiterate.”

[1] I just remembered a clever art project M did in university. She went to a bunch of big, nasty corporate stores (think Walmart) and bought a lot of knit clothing. Back at home she unwound a bit of material from each article of clothing, taking great care to make sure that it was not too obvious. Then she returned her purchases, got her money back, and knitted new clothing (scarves, sweaters, socks) with the “liberated” material.


The Spanish Temper: Travels in Spain by V.S. Pritchett

“We are entering the country of “todo o nada” – all or nothing. And change is slow.”

This covers the author’s trips to Spain in the 1950s, during Franco’s dictatorship. Pritchett had previously lived in Spain for two years in the 1920s and Marching Spain, his very first book, is about his 300 mile walk north from Badajoz to Vigo in the spring of 1927. Pritchett was not a big fan of his first book and he mentions it in the preface to The Spanish Temper as “a juvenile book” which is “happily out of print”.

I enjoyed Marching Spain, especially the author’s grumpy, cantankerous style. And since I’m familiar with many of the towns and villages Pritchett wrote about I found the book to be of special interest. It’s full of good quotable passages, too, such as:

“Travelling has shown me men are almost entirely preoccupied with the endeavours and anxieties of earning a living. That is the great adventure of the world. And after that, men have a little time for the discussion or indulgence of three more absorbing ideas: disease, religion, and love, in that order.”

“Spain has produced more cruel men, and more reckless men, and more proud men, than any other nation; and has discovered they are all hombres buenos  – when they are dead.”  (hombres buenos = good men)

“After his love of children and of the sight of blood and death, the Spaniard’s great passion is his native town.”

NPG x13627; Sir Victor Sawdon ('V.S.') Pritchett by Howard Coster

V.S. Pritchett

On his walk Pritchett passed through Plasencia which he described as, “a brown city rotten with the sun like an overripe apple that has fallen among the lumping hills of iron.” During his stay in my adopted hometown he witnessed a wedding, a funeral procession, and the rituals of washing day.

“[T]he cliffs, the rocks, the river banks for a mile about the town are white with drying linen. There are areas of sheets lying about so that you cannot get within twenty yards of the river without treading on them. All the women of Plasencia are washing sheets, nightgowns, and underclothes in the bubbling green Jerte, now lively as a field of lilies with the snow water of the mountains of Béjar.”

The locals recommended a couple of restaurants in Plasencia: El Sevillano and El Paraíso. I have yet to find anybody in town who has heard of either one of these places.

What Pritchett found when he returned to Spain in the 1950s was a country ruined by years of drought and famine, and a nation still exhausted by the Civil War of the 1930s. He witnessed firsthand the cold, hard truth that, in order to provide a somewhat decent, semi-comfortable life for one’s family, it was necessary to bribe and smuggle and bend over backwards for the lucky few with influence and friends in positions of power.

Tens of thousands of peasants were leaving the land and the cities were growing rapidly, but there was little industry and no means of supporting this massive new population. Wages were lower than they had been twenty years earlier and the price of food was expensive. A car-park attendant told Pritchett: “It is a wage on which one cannot live, but one may die with dignity on it.”

Pritchett also caught a glimpse of El Caudillo  in the flesh in Madrid: “The troops line the Castellana and the Gran Vía because General Franco is driving by. One sees the amiable little fat man standing up in his car, trim, dignified, and homely. The crowd is pretty considerable. (…) The people are waving to the only surviving Fascist dictator in western Europe, the only friend and ally of Hitler and Mussolini to survive in a world utterly hostile to him.”

He was reminded of the story of Franco’s meeting with Hitler at Hendaye in October 1940. Afterwards Hitler said that, rather than suffer another meeting with Franco, he would prefer to have three or four teeth pulled out.


un pregonero (a town crier)

Pritchett was also witnessing the end of the era of el pregonero (the town crier) and el farolero (the street-lamp lighter), and the beginning of the era of mass tourism. But old customs are hard to shake off and he saw that the Spanish obsession with death in everyday life and art was as strong as ever.

Pritchett was aware that “backward” countries like Spain were able to retain the human qualities that more advanced countries were so eager to lose in the interests of efficiency. He recalls a restless night at the train station in Plasencia. He witnessed two men carrying an iron bedstead into the ticket office. They put the bed together and the obese stationmaster, in his blue and white striped pajamas, climbed in and began snoring away. The arrival of the night train wasn’t (and still isn’t) a very punctual affair. One could take a bus, Pritchett noted, but they “are always packed with live-stock” and “the small villages will try the stomach of the traveller.” And, like Marching Spain, this book is also filled with great quotes:

“Spain is the old and necessary enemy of the West. There we learn our history upside down and see life exposed to the skin. Neither in France nor in Italy can one be so frankly frightened. All the hungers of life are blankly stated there.”

“The suspicion common in industrial society, the rudeness of prosperous people, have not touched the Spaniards; one is treated like a noble among nobles. One sits before the hearth, the brushwood blazes up, the iron pan splutters on the fire, and conversation goes on as it always has gone on.”

“Spain is the great producer of exiles, a country unable to tolerate its own people.”

Now go read a book. See ya next time.


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