Ishi, the Last Yahi

Released 2002


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Jed Riffe
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Ishi, the Last Yahi is a new dramatic documentary film about Ishi, who came to be known as the "last wild Indian in North America." His sudden appearance in 1911 stunned the country. His tribe was considered extinct, destroyed in bloody massacres during the 1860s and 70s. 1911 was a pivotal moment in American history, and the lowest point for Native Americans. The west had been won, and the country now spread from sea to sea. Contact with white men's diseases and violence had reduced their numbers from over ten million to less than three hundred thousand. Geronimo had surrendered twenty five years before. In California, there were only fifty thousand Indians alive. Most were living on reservations or had been assimilated into the general population. Yet here was one survivor, the last of his tribe, who refused to surrender. He had been hiding for forty years. When Ishi appeared, newspaper headlines across the country proclaimed the videoovery of the Wild Man, the last Stone Age Man in North America. For Alfred Kroeber, an ambitious young anthropologist at UC Berkeley, this was great news. He had been searching for years to find unacculturated Indians so that he could document true aboriginal life in America. He arranged for Ishi to come to the Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco, where he lived for the rest of his life. Ishi only lived four more years, but during his brief stay he transformed the people around him. His dignity and sense of self, his tireless dedication to telling his stories and showing his way of life, and his lack of bitterness towards the people who had destroyed his own, amazed and impressed everyone who met him. Because of Ishi's courage and generosity, and Kroeber's meticulous notes and recordings, we have a glimpse of life in this country before the white man. Ishi embodied the entire history of Native Americans: their life before contact, the tragedy of their destruction, their refusal to disappear, their determmoreless

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