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I remember first hearing about Ishi, the ‘last wild Indian,’ when I was a boy. The idea of a Native American man, the last of his people, emerging in 1911 for the first time from the Californian wilderness was astounding.
Theodora Kroeber’s Ishi In Two Worlds tells not only the story of what happened in 1911 and after, but also her best reckoning of what happened before. She explains how Ishi’s people, once a powerful tribal group, were greatly diminished in number during the California Genocide. Ishi, apparently born in the 1860s, lived for about 50 years until, after years of living alone, he decided to stop hiding and enter a new world. Miraculously, he resiliently found a new home, and even true friends (including Kroeber’s husband), in an anthropology museum in San Francisco. Drawing from first-hand knowledge from her husband and others who knew Ishi well, Kroeber gives us a fascinating look at the principled, gregarious, and warm man who for so long was forced into a cold life of solitude and hiding.
I’d highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in anthropology or Native peoples. And to anyone whose heart warms upon reading about unlikely friendships.
It is no small coincidence that the author of Ishi In Two Worlds, Theodora Kroeber, was married to anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber, and that the two of them produced the acclaimed author of the increasingly relevant, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin. Ishi is as complete a narrative of the human geography and life story of the book's titular subject, Ishi, as is thought possible. Part I will walk you through the dispersal of First Nations through arid canyons where you will watch languages multiply and Europeans conquer. In Part II, the survivor himself is described with acutely humane attention to character, and what is known about his integration into 1910's Californian culture until his death. This book is a pinnacle of researched reporting even as it skewers you through the heart with frank, bittersweet statements on the depth of personhood all of us share with our collective history. Kroeber's prose is an exemplar to authors following her (*cough* The Left Hand of Darkness) and compels readers not to give up on the whole picture. Nor the last of us left behind to see it.
Readers interested in human rights, anthropology, First Nations, or the complicated pain of human history, get yourself a copy ASAP as it’s no longer in print.
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