I was first introduced to Ishi in the Fall of 1994 when I took a Native American History class at Rutgers. One of the requirements of the course was to read Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds. On August 29, 1911 a native american male was discovered near Oroville, California. He eventually became the ward of Alfred L. Kroeber an anthropologist working for the University of California, Berkeley. Ishi was a Yahi a subgroup of the Yana people. Ishi lived at / was studied by the anthropology museum until his death from tuberculosis on March 25, 1916.
Needless to say I was quite surprised the other day when I was walking through the library and discovered Orin Starn’s Ishi’s Brain. I picked up the book not really knowing what to expect. After all it has been just over 20 years since the last time I had read a book about Ishi and while I remembered some of the story, the specifics had long escaped my memory.
Evidently, after Ishi died an autopsy was performed, the body was cremated, and the brain was sent to the Smithsonian. Evidently at one time the Smithsonian had a brain collection (is that REALLY the right word) of some 300 or so brains. Ishi’s was one of them but no one really know it, at least no one back in California. Starn, who grew up in California, is an anthropologist at Duke University. His interest in Ishi led him to follow up on rumors that Ishi’s brain had not been cremated with the rest of his body. Starn’s book is part chronicle of that journey, part history both Ishi’s and Yahi/Yana/California Natives, and part introspection.
Ishi’s brain was eventually reunited with the rest of his remains and repatriated on August 10, 2000. Here is the Smithsonian’s statement on the repatriation.