There was so much I learned from anthropologist, author and ethnographer, Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi in Two Worlds and Ishi: Last of His Tribe. The very intimate depiction of the small tribe of Yahi peoples, their daily life, yearly cycles and cosmological beliefs. The detailed story of Ishi, the one who remained and was willing to share his stories, memories and experiences enough so that she could assemble them into these books. The way Kroeber was able to catch and allow us to know at least something of the character of the man called “Ishi,” once he entered into the world of his enemies, became friends with the White settlers who had destroyed his people, his incredible generosity of heart, without making it sentimental. 

To illustrate just one of the things that impressed itself upon me, landing as a gift inside my soul, was how the Yahi learned the sounds of the birds and animals and used them to call specific animals out in the hunt. This practice, described in Ishi, Last of His Tribe brought home to me the intimacy with place that the Yahi experienced.

In the following passage Kroeber describes a day where Ishi and his Cousin-sister, Tushi went out gathering sedge for Grandmother’s basket making.

“They cut a bundle of sedge-grass, tying it with a long piece of the grass. Now their work was finished, and they played the Meadow Game.

They hid behind trees at the edge of the meadow. With a madrone leaf over his lips, Ishi made a thin squeal like that of a baby rabbit. Tushi called, “Sigaga, sigaga!” Ishi changed his squeal to the bleat of a fawn for its mother. Tushi said, “Kaug, kaug!” The way a crow calls. There was a silence. Then again the meadow was filled with rabbit squeals and fawn bleats and quail and crow calls.

One and then another and another brown rabbit came from the brush, their noses wiggling and their white tuft-tails in the air. They hopped and waited. And hopped again. And waited. They were in the middle of the meadow and on their way to Ishi. A mother deer stepped from the trees into the open circle. The bleating was repeated. Now it was answered, whoof whoof whoof.

Three deer and four more rabbits moved in the direction of the squeals and bleats. Several quail were hurrying toward Tushi, their topknots bobbing up and down. A crow answered her call from the top of a bay tree. A small red fox sat at the edge of the sedge-grass, his bush-tail waving, his nose going nuff nuff nuff! A bluejay, crying its harsh warning, flew low”(18-19).

Ishi, Last of His Tribe is a story, written from the point of view of Ishi, a Yahi Indian trying to survive the white man, or saldu, in northern California at the turn of the 20th century. They all die, save for Ishi. Kroeber reconstructs his story from stories he told anthropologists, anthropological records of the Yana and the Yahi, and stories gathered from the settlers.

In his last days living alone on the land of his people, once his intense and paralyzing grief has left him, Ishi is keenly aware of what is happening. They are all gone. Their way of life is gone. Walking along the old trails and familiar surrounding, he thinks to himself: “No Spirit Presence remains here. I am the last of the People; when I am gone, it will be as though they had never been”(148-149).

And for the Yahi, in this particular location, their place in the world, it is true.

Reading these books is absolutely heartbreaking. “Ishi” was literally the last survivor of his tribe, the Yahi, a subset of the Yana peoples who lived in the foothills of Waganupa (now called Mt. Lassen, in northern California), who could no longer feed himself, care for himself, sustain his way of life, due to the complete encroachment of White settlers on his land.

In 1911, Ishi shows up outside a slaughterhouse in Oroville, CA, looking rather wild, unkempt and barely dressed to the locals, and is taken to the town jail. T. T. Waterman, an anthropologist from UC Berkeley arrives. He is able to speak some words to him in his own tongue. Ishi returns to San Francisco with him to live the rest of his life in the Museum of Anthropology, recently opened, which was then located in Parnassus Heights.

“Waterman took the train to Oroville the same day. That he and Kroeber correctly “guessed” Ishi’s tribe and language was no tour de force of intuition. The guess was based on field work with Indians all up and down California; they knew that Oroville was adjacent to country which formerly belonged to the Yana Indians; presumably the strange Indian would be a Yana. He might even be from the southernmost tribe of Yana, believed to be extinct”(ITW 6).

The Kroeber referred to in the above quote is Alfred Kroeber, the famed anthropologist and Theodora Kroeber’s second husband. He was the director of the Museum of Anthropology at the time. He developed an intimacy and  friendship with Ishi, but years later, when asked to write a book about him, declined. They then asked Theodora to write it. She had already published The Inland Whale: Nine Stories Retold from California Indian Legends, in 1959 to high acclaim. 

She had never met Ishi. He had died by the time she met Alfred. She agreed to write the book about him. I am so glad she did. She ended up writing two books about Ishi and making a documentary film as well.

The book Ishi in Two Worlds is a nonfiction, anthropological study of Ishi and his peoples. Theodora Kroeber uses the first half of the book to tell the story of the Yahi and Ishi’s life up until 1911 and the second half to document Ishis life after emerging from the wild, his life in the museum in San Francisco. 

T. Kroeber opens the book with this note:

“It is nearly a half century since Ishi startled the Modern World by accidentally wandering into it from the Stone Age. There follows an account of all that is surely and truly known of him. What he believed and felt and did in the modern world and, earlier, in his own world are the bone beads of his story. The stringing of such of these beads as could be recovered onto a single strand has been my task. Surprisingly, the circle of his life’s necklace appears whole despite its many incompletions. 

The history of Ishi and his people is, inexorably, part of our own history. We have absorbed their lands into our holdings. Just so must we be responsible custodians of their tragedy, absorbing it into our tradition and morality.”

—T. Kroeber August, 1960 

The Yahi refused to be sent to a reservation and so stayed on the land, even when the incursion of the white people or saldu grew more and more impinging on their lifestyle. They moved higher and higher up and further and further out until there remained only four: Ishi, his Cousin-sister Tushi, his mother and his uncle.

Ishi’s father had been killed by the saldu. He had been a great fighter and brave man. Ishi was born after the saldu had already arrived. He never knew a time without them or the train and its smokestack, called the “Monster,” by the Yahi. 

In his younger years, Ishi had a Power Dream of himself riding the Monster toward White-Shell Woman, who lives in the Outer Ocean. And so he did, eventually, once he was the only one. 

Published in 1961, there are some cringeworthy phrases and words in Ishi in Two Worlds. Referring to Ishi as a “stone age” man and “wild Indian” are a couple. But for the most part, it is a very sensitive retelling and honoring of the man and his people. The term stone age is used to describe the way Ishi lived before he emerged out of the forest because he still used stone tools created by his own hands. From an anthropological classification, the Yahi would be in the category of hunter-gatherer people with their way of life. They had not moved into farming or agriculture. They were still living the way stone age or Paleolithic peoples are known to have lived when the gold rush peoples arrived. This way of life leaves the lowest impact on the earth.

T. Kroeber estimates in the 1961 book that:

“The Yana have probably been in northern California for three or four thousand years. There are those who would double this figure, but in the present state of knowledge three thousand years  as a minimum, is a tentative, conservative figure”(16).

“In 1850, ten or more years before Ishi’s birth, the Yana occupied some 2,000 to 2,400 square miles of land recognized as their own; they and their Indian neighbors distinguished four linguistic, territorial, and cultural groups in the little nation of two or three thousand people—life was as it always had been. By 1872, twenty-two years later, and when Ishi was perhaps ten years old, there were no Southern Yana left; and only some twenty or thirty alive. As for the fourth group, the Yahi, they were believed to have been entirely exterminated also, and so they were except for a handful, Ishi among them. 

This death of a whole people came after the fiercest fighting and most uncompromising resistance that the intruders were to meet anywhere on the west coast”(43).

Theodora Kroeber’s interest in American Indians began in her childhood in Telluride, Colorado where she knew the Ute Indians who lived nearby and later as an adult when she lived in New Mexico with her first husband. Her interest in American Indians and their stories led her to the anthropology department at Berkeley. 

Once married to her second husband, Alfred Kroeber, and the mother of four children, she put her professional life on hold to attend to the responsibilities of raising four children and running two households, one in Berkeley and another summer home in Napa. But the minute the children were out and on their own, she began writing. And continued until she died.  

Theodora Kroeber

As well as the two books about Ishi, she is the author of The Inland Whale, various short stories and novels, and a biography, Alfred Kroeber, A Personal Configuration, published in 1970. She was highly esteemed as a writer and praised for her work on Ishi.

It’s is disturbing for me to read: Theodora Kroeber (1897-1979), wife of Alfred Louis Kroeber as the first descriptor of her on the back jacket of her books. And then of course there is the matter of her daughter, Ursula K. Le Guin. In case you didn’t know what that pesky little K. was for.

Despite being sandwiched between these two behemoths of academia and the literary world, Theodora Kroeber’s work holds its own. 

 Le Guin tells us that though Theodora would not have called herself a feminist, she indeed was one. About her mother’s book, The Inland Whale, Le Guin writes:

“It is very like her to have chosen from all the stories of the peoples of California nine stories about women, at a time when even in anthropology the acts of women were easy to dismiss as secondary, women being subsumed (oddly enough) in Man.  . . . Look for Native American women in White literature before 1960: if you find any at all, you generally find something called a “squaw.”  There are no squaws in The Inland Whale —only human beings. This is not freedom from racist stereotyping only, but also freedom from masculinist prejudice, and a deliberate search for the feminine. Theodora kept telling me to write about women, not men, years before I (the “women’s libber”) was able to do so. She did so herself from the start, not only because the feminists of her mother’s generation had freed us both, but also because she was true to her being, her perceptions, her female humanity”(Le Guin 140).

Theodora Kroeber is a Nasty Woman Writer and Nasty Woman of STEM.

©Theresa C. Dintino 2022

Works Cited:

Kroeber, Theodora. Ishi In Two Worlds. Berkeley, University of California Press.1961. 

_____________. Ishi, Last of His Tribe. Berkeley, CA. Parnassus Press. 1964.

Le. Guin, Ursula. K. Dancing at the Edge of the World. N.Y. Grove Press. 1989.