Ishi, Yahi Indian


Ishi’s Summer in Berkeley

Waterman Family Residence: 2804 Cherry Street

On August 29, 1911 a starving  Indian, with his hair burned short as a sign of mourning, wandered out of the wilderness near Lassen Peak and was found by butchers near an Oroville slaughterhouse. A young anthropologist with an interest in languages, Professor Thomas T. Waterman, was sent by the UC Anthropology Museum Director, A. L. Kroeber, to where the man was being held at the Butte County jail. Waterman’s attempts at communication using words in different California native languages drew a response to the Southern Yana word for “wood.”

Named “Ishi” (“man” in Yana) by Kroeber, he was given an apartment at the UC Museum in San Francisco. Ishi was believed to be the last Northern California Native American to have lived most of his life outside white culture. Before relinquishing his way of life, he had lived in hiding with the few remaining members of his tribe for 37 years. When his mother died, as the lone tribal survivor he meticulously concealed all evidence of his existence for three additional years.

Ishi and Waterman developed a close friendship and during the summer of 1915 Ishi lived with the Waterman family at their home on Cherry Street, spending his nights on a small sleeping porch. He transmitted his knowledge of tribal history, language and culture, demonstrating such things as arrowhead making with flint, obsidian and even a Bromo-Seltzer bottle.

Ishi quickly became an Elmwood neighborhood favorite, sometimes wearing a necktie and hat, the accepted costume of the white folks. He spent hours observing the loud trolley cars on Russell Street which he felt were driven by a “supernatural power.” In 1916 Ishi died of TB in San Francisco at about age 54.

Contributed by Robert Kehlmann, 2012

  • Waterman Residence 2804 Cherry Street, photo (2012) R. Kehlmann.

  • Ishi (ca.1914), Online Archive of California.

  • Ishi (1914), Wikimedia Commons photographer unknown.

  • Ishi’s Quiver (2011), photo Richard Burrill.

  • Waterman demonstrating phonetic machine (1914), Foundations of Anthropology at UC.

  • Waterman’s translation of Ishi's Wood Duck myth (ca.1914), Foundations of Anthropology at UC.

  • Waterman Residence rear, Ishi’s Sun Porch , photo (2012) R. Kehlmann.

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society