Ishi’s life is a window through which one can view the ugliest period of California history: the mass slaughter and displacement of more than 100,000 Native Californians. These killings took place from the 1849 Gold Rush to the 1870s when the federal government began moving the survivors to reservations.
Filmmaker Jeb Riffe chronicled the massacres of Ishi and the Yahi in his 1992 documentary, Ishi, the Last Yahi. Riffe describes how a settler death squad brutally murdered 40 Yahi at the Workman massacre (1865), selling the surviving children to local ranchers.
Thirty more were killed at the Silva massacre (1865), and 40 more at the Three Knolls massacre (1866).
“The attack came upon them like a thunderbolt out of the sky,” proudly recounted one of the vigilantes at Three Knolls. “Into the stream they leapt, but few got out alive.”
Ishi and his mother escaped by floating down Deer Creek among the dead bodies.
The last massacre took place at Kingsley Cave, where the vigilantes killed 30 more Yahi. Ishi and his mother fled again and went into hiding.
Beginning in 1849, more than 90,000 gold seekers, adventurers and settlers descended upon northern California. Hungry and without adequate provisions, these immigrants killed and decimated deer and other wild life.
They cut down native trees, creating floods and destroying the Indian’s food supply. They polluted streams with mercury, killing the fish. And when natives slaughtered cattle and sheep to survive, Indian hunters retaliated with more massacres.
The slaughter of Indians was state-sponsored. The state of California paid more than a $1 million to militias to hunt and kill Indians. It paid 25 cents for each Indian scalp and $5 for an Indian’s head.
Other massacres took place at Clear Lake in 1850, where between 75 and 200 Pomo Indians were killed for protesting the rape of Indian women by a white rancher. Two hundred Indians were killed in 1863 at the Sand Creek massacre. Numerous other massacres followed.
California law forbade Indians to own property, carry a gun, hold office, attend public schools, serve on juries, testify in court or intermarry. Indian children were kidnapped and sold to settlers for $50 or $60.
“Ishi’s story is especially relevant today when society is so polarized with debates about race and ethnicity,” filmmaker Jed Riffe told Indian Country Today Media Network. “The slaughter of the Yahi and other tribes is the best documented case of genocide in North America. It was a true American holocaust.”
The documentation, said Riffe, was done by the perpetrators themselves.
“They wrote about what happened in every one of those villages, and they were proud of it,” he said.
Riffe believes that this kind of “white arrogance” has led Americans to the point we are at today.
“We are killing people all over the world with the same kind of justifications,” he said.
Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America, by Theodora Kroeber, University of California Press, 1961. Based on the notes of Theodora’s husband, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber.
Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last ‘Wild’ Indian, by Orin Starn (Duke University Press, 2008). Starn helped locate Ishi’s brain at the Smithsonian museum and restore it to Native Californians for a proper burial.
Ishi: The Last Yahi (1992), 57 minutes. A documentary by Jed Riffe and Pamela Roberts, narrated by Linda Hunt.
The Last of His Tribe (1992), an HBO movie with Graham Greene as Ishi and John Voight as Alfred Kroeber.