Tuesday, December 13, 2016

NRR Project 26: Cylinder recordings of Ishi

Cylinder recordings of Ishi
Recorded September 1911 – April 1914
148 cylinders; 5 hours, 41 minutes
  
These recordings represent, depending on your orientation, a) an astonishing, nearly textbook effort to preserve and extrapolate a vanishing culture in the form of a single individual or b) a pathetic tragedy in which the “last wild Indian” was discovered, brought to civilization, studied and recorded, kept on display in a museum, and dismembered after death for the sake of science.

Or both.

On August 19, 1911, a starving Ishi entered civilization, near Oroville, California, hard by the Lassen Peak wilderness. There Ishi had lived for 50 years, mostly alone, the last member of the Yahi tribe. His people had been hunted by whites, seen their food sources dwindle, succumbed to new diseases brought in by the immigrants.

He was taken in by UC-Berkeley professors, housed and employed by them as they studied him, sometimes demonstrating his woodcraft to touring schoolchildren. Ishi was perhaps the last Stone Age man on the continent, still making tools and weapons by hand. He communicated all he could of his Yahi language and culture. Susceptible to European diseases, he succumbed to tuberculosis on March 25, 1916.

Despite the efforts of his friends, Ishi was autopsied and cremated – save for his brain which was placed in a jar and sent to the Smithsonian Institution. Meanwhile, write-ups of Ishi’s life, both fictional and non-fictional, by the widow of the museum director who studied him, made the case popular in the early 1960s. Other books, and films and even a play, have followed.

Ironically, Ishi turned out not to be the “last of his tribe,’ as he was branded; eventually his brain was found and repatriated to his closest living relatives, the Yana. The recordings, of use to specialists, are housed at Berkeley. A 22-second excerpt of Ishi chanting can be found here.

The contact with Ishi undoubtedly extended his life as much as it endangered it. And who wouldn’t, if he or she were the last person in their left, try to set down everything about it that they could? Was it worth that to become a museum exhibit? He was asked thousands of questions about his people; I don’t see any evidence of anyone ever asking him what he thought of us.


The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Sophie Tucker and ‘Some of These Days.’