• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ishi Speaks

Air Date: Week of


CURWOOD: Nearly 100 years ago the last hunter-gatherer in the continental United States emerged from the California wilderness, dazed and alone. He never revealed his real name, so the anthropologists who brought him to San Francisco called him Ishi. In his native language that word simply means, "man." Ishi died within five years of tuberculosis, but during that time two young anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber and T.T. Waterman, recorded hours of Ishi speaking his now extinct Yahi language. Researchers are still trying to decipher these old recordings and piece together an understanding of California's ancient tribal culture. Nathan Johnson has our story.

(Bird song)

JOHNSON: For thousands of years the Yahi people lived in the wild foothills of Mount Lassen, California.

(Bird song)

JOHNSON: Here, in this land of steep gorges and cliffs, a man named Ishi witnessed the extinction of his tribe. Now, all that's left are some songs and stories recorded on wax cylinder. Most have never been translated.

VOICE ON CYLINDER: April fourteenth, nineteen-hundred-and-fourteen. Ishi.

(Ishi sings)

JACKNIS: Here we have his own words. They're sitting there on the wax cylinders. And it's as vital for us to use every method at our disposal to crack those open and see what's there.

(Ishi sings; fade to footfalls up and under)

JOHNSON: Ira Jacknis is an anthropologist at the University of California Museum of Anthropology.

(Footfalls down steps)

JOHNSON: He leads me down some steps, past stacks of artifacts, to his office in the basement.

JACKNIS: This is amazing. He comes out of the wilderness here. They bring him down to San Francisco. It's the first city he's ever been in. Within three days they sit him down in front of this phonograph to record. The scope of it was unprecedented.

JOHNSON: Never before had such a lengthy ethnographic recording been made. But over the decades the wax cylinders have not held up. They've been transferred to tape but the sound has degraded.

(Ishi speaks)

HINTON: Sometimes we can't quite hear what was said on the tape. If it's a language we don't know, it's really hard to transcribe.

JOHNSON: Lianne Hinton, a linguist at U.C.-Berkeley, is one of only a handful of people attempting to translate Ishi's stories. She uses her knowledge of other native California languages, plus the notes and a dictionary left by linguists who worked with Ishi in the early 1900s. From these translations, she's learned more about what Ishi was like and what interested him.

HINTON: He tends to focus on small everyday activities. So, he will spend maybe an hour talking about arrow making, and then he'll have a little nugget in there of a story about bear swallowing lizard or something like that. And then he goes back in the same story to another hour about arrow making. (Laughs) And then maybe another little nugget of the story, and then back to arrow making again. And these aspects of daily life were what really interested him. They were what he loved.

JOHNSON: And Professor Hinton says there's grammatical evidence of this. In the Yahi language there is a particle that's pronounced "anti." It's placed at the end of a verb to indicate a dramatic point in the story.

HINTON: In Ishi's stories, most of those "antis" are right there in the daily life parts of the stories, where "now he socketed the foreshaft of the arrow." (Laughs) And so that was, again, a little bit of evidence indicating that that's where he got excited when he was telling that part.

(Ishi speaks)

HINTON: At dawn, he smoothed down the arrow shaft canes. He made arrows. He rubbed the arrow shaft smooth. He worked at his arrow making, that's what he did. He fitted the main shafts onto the foreshafts, that's what he did. He socketed the foreshafts into the main shafts. He spun the arrows on the ground. He painted bands on them...

JOHNSON: For some it may be hard to get excited listening to Ishi describe how to make arrows or prepare acorn mush for hours on end. But these daily activities are what make up a culture.

HINTON: Ishi's knowledge of that world, all the knowledge that a people had about the world that they live in and that we live in, is lost.

JOHNSON: Out of all the stories Ishi told, there's one in particular that does seem especially significant.

JACKNIS: Out of the sort of 150 cylinders that Ishi recorded, 51 of them were of one story, the story of Wood Duck.

JOHNSON: Anthropologist Ira Jacknis.

JACKNIS: It's very difficult to know exactly what the story of Wood Duck meant. Right now, the whole story has not been translated. This story seems to have been recorded by nobody else in native California.

JOHNSON: Ishi told the story of Wood Duck to anthropologist T.T. Waterman and a group of newspaper reporters just days after arriving in San Francisco. Ishi began the story in the afternoon. It lasted into the evening and continued the next day.

JACKNIS: I can't imagine that Waterman knew what he was getting into when Ishi told a story for seven hours. I mean, (laughs) that's quite a story. Who knows quite what he was saying? But, that's quite a story.

JOHNSON: T.T. Waterman did make a partial translation of what Ishi said, so we know some of the story. It seems Wood Duck was a young man and a fine hunter who was in search of a wife.

JACKNIS: He attracts all of these sort of animal women, the Turtle Woman and all these different creatures. And he keeps rejecting them. And then, finally, he finds a woman that he wants, that he falls in love with, and then he doesn't get the woman. And Lizard, the other great character of Yahi mythology, Lizard grabs this woman and runs off with her. And Lizard and Wood Duck have a great fight, and Lizard kills Wood Duck.

JOHNSON: Several of the details in the story seem to mirror Ishi's own life. For instance, as far as we know, Ishi never married, probably because he spent his life in virtual hiding with only his closest family. And then, there's the end of the story where Wood Duck is brought back to life in a new body after he is killed by Lizard.

JACKNIS: It's quite interesting that Ishi tells a story about someone who's died and then is resurrected. He must have been very aware of the genocide of his people, and he must have thought of himself as sort of being reborn into -- being sort of dead to the Yahi world, and sort of reborn. That's a striking detail that resonates with me.

(Paper shuffling)

JOHNSON: U.C. Berkeley archaeologist Steve Shackley is preparing to make an arrow point using the same kind of tools that Ishi used.

(Items falls; chipping)

JOHNSON: Using a moose antler as a hammer, he's chipping off large flakes from a beautiful piece of brown and black obsidian.

SHACKLEY: By replicating this way, we can get a pretty good idea how he produced stone tools.


JOHNSON: While they know how Ishi made stone tools, researchers still struggle to know the meaning of stories like Wood Duck. So I asked Mr. Shackley what he thought. Could Wood Duck be some kind of alter ego of Ishi's?

SHACKLEY: Well, I have a couple of reactions to that. One is that a lot of times hunter-gatherers, rather than actually answering a question directly, they'll tell a story.

JOHNSON: But Steve Shackley says it's quite likely Wood Duck is not about Ishi's life at all. Rather, it could be a story with a much more ancient source.

SHACKLEY: The Yahi speak a Hokan language. Hokan is one of the oldest, if not the oldest identifiable language in North America. And stories are the kinds of parts of society that last a very long time, and it's possible it could go back to the Paleo-Indian or Paleo-American period way back tens of thousands of years.


JOHNSON: The ancient worldview of the Yahi, like other native California tribes, didn't really make a distinction between mythology and ordinary life. For that reason, Gerald Vizenor, a Native American writer and novelist, says it makes no sense to try and separate Ishi's own personal story from his tales about Coyote, Wood Duck, and Lizard.

VIZENOR: My guess, and what I imagine, is that his worldview did not make that separation.

JOHNSON: Instead, Gerald Vizenor says we should focus on Ishi's humanity and his incredible generosity.

VIZENOR: I'm interested in how he enjoyed singing in the women's wards in the hospital next door. How he befriended so many people. His moments of resistance. And his pleasure in telling Wood Duck stories. I suppose you could say he's kind of a bad invitation to a party, because you'd want to say, "Please, don't ask him about the Wood Duck stories, he'll go on and on."

JOHNSON: Even as his health began to fail, Ishi was determined to tell these stories. As Ira Jacknis points out, he even berated T.T. Waterman for interrupting a recording session to answer the telephone.

JACKNIS: One of the rules, common rules, in California Indian storytelling, is that once you start telling a story, particularly the myths, is that you must complete the telling. If you stop the story in the middle, something bad is going to happen. So, what happened is, Ishi is telling the story of Wood Duck and the phone rings, and T.T. Waterman goes over to the phone. And Ishi is very upset. And what Ishi said to Waterman is that, "Don't do that. That's very bad, and if that happens again you're not going to hear the end of the story. I'm not going to tell the story." And when I know the enthusiasm that he put into the storytelling, I think we do have a personal obligation to Ishi to listen to what he had to tell us.

VOICE ON CYLINDER: Fourteen, nineteen-hundred-and-fourteen. Ishi. Record 1,700.

(Ishi sings)

JOHNSON: The next step is to digitize the Ishi archives, to make it easier for scholars to analyze. But still, we may never really know who Wood Duck was, or why he was important to Ishi, because the language of the Yahi died with Ishi. And like so much about the man, these stories may forever remain a great and powerful mystery.

(Ishi sings)

JOHNSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Nathan Johnson.

(Ishi sings, fading to music up and under: Tuu, "Body of Light")

CURWOOD: Digital remastering of Ishi's sound recordings came to us courtesy of Bernie Krause and Wild Sanctuary.

(Music up and under)



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth