Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian

Feb 15th, 2005 | By | Category: 16-3: Indigenizing Education, Media Reviews

W.W. Norton & Co. (2004), New York, NY.
352 pages
ISBN 0-393-05133-1
Hardcover $25.95

Review by Emily Lena Jones, Ph.D.

Orin Starn has provided a fast-moving and captivating account of the story of Ishi, the purported “last wild Indian in America.” After most of Ishi’s Yahi tribe was massacred in the mid-19th century, Ishi and a few others hid in northern California’s mountains for more than 50 years.

In 1911, his companions dead, Ishi entered urban American society, moving to San Francisco with anthropologist Alfred Kroeber to work in the museum there. In 1916 Ishi died of tuberculosis and was buried by his anthropologist friends.

In the 1990s, a group of Native Californians began a quest to recover and rebury Ishi’s remains. Along the way, they discovered that Ishi’s brain had not been cremated and buried. Starn’s book explores the mystery of what happened to Ishi’s brain, but above all it is a history of the complex relationship between American anthropology and Native Americans, from Kroeber to NAGPRA, in the 20th century.

The book is not without faults: In some places the organization seems choppy, and Starn is perhaps unfair to Theresa Kroeber, one of Ishi’s other biographers. As a whole, however, Starn presents a lively and balanced account of the story of Ishi and its symbolic meaning.

Emily Lena Jones is an anthropologist and archaeologist who works with the developmental studies program at Diné College in Tsaile, AZ.

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