This is the title on the cover of an issue of the University of California Alumni magazine, which came to me unsolicited recently. I have no idea why or how it found my way into my snailmailbox, but I’m glad it did. Laura Smith’s article “Into the Ishi Wilderness,” is a clever and entirely appropriate title for this discussion.
Ishi, a name which, when anglicized, means “man” in the Yani language, walked out of the wilderness near Mount Lassen in northeastern California in 1911. His people were thought to be extinct, so his appearance was a surprise. He had grown tired and lonely of scraping a survival out of the dry hillsides near the Feather River above the small town of Oroville, California (now the site of an enormous reservoir), so he decided to more or less surrender to the people who had decimated not only his family, but his entire people. Gold rush invaders and white settlers had overwhelmed his small tribe as well as others in the area and left him quite alone and isolate.
At first, no one could figure out what to do with or about him, how to communicate with him, or just what was the most appropriate approach to this calm, mild-mannered “savage.” Enter Alfred Kroeber, the young, ambitious founder of the UC anthropology department. For him, Ishi was like manna. Given the mores of the time, it was both natural and forgivable for him to treat Ishi as a zoo-like curiosity. He was paraded in western dress, invited to put his customs and wilderness skills and preliterate self on exhibit and generally become an adjunct to the world of his white custodians. He succumbed in 1916 to tuberculosis, doubtless of exposure to one of the scourges that wiped out so many Native Americans.
Fast forward to the present. We are in the midst of a massive reevaluation of the branding of public edifices and institutions. As more details of the depredations of heretofore revered icons of the past–everything from buildings to books–are being renamed and unnamed. Alfred Kroeber is one of them. He flirted with eugenics (as did John Muir) among other ideas. Worst of all, say his critics, he exploited Ishi and other Native Americans and their artifacts for personal gain. The objects he collected and put on exhibit are sacred relics whose removal and encasing was a violation of all that was holy, as if the Sistine Chapel was profaned and defaced.
So, suddenly, more than a century after his death, Ishi has stepped into another white man’s quarrel which he did nothing to initiate or participate in. Kroeber Hall, the venerable Anthropology building to which Alfred gave his name has been quietly stripped of its letters. There is as yet no new name. The artifacts Kroeber so painstakingly collected and catalogued with what many consider to be malicious intent, are being returned to appropriate peoples, as near as that can be determined. Finally there is the question of the future of what Smith calls “repatriation politics.” Are we carrying on practices right now which, despite our best efforts will some day be deemed somehow immoral? While some feel that removing Kroeber’s name was an attempt to erase history,” Smith says, “the opposite appear[s] to be true. History ha[s] been unearthed, discussed contended with.” And so it goes from idea to idea, civilization to civilization, building to building as we stumble across the past on our way to the future.