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Book Review: “Ishi in Two Worlds”, Theodora Kroeber
By chronodev (Ron)
Published on 10/20/2009
This article reviews the book Ishi in Two Worlds by Theodora Kroeber

   In the book “Ishi in Two Worlds”, by Theodora Kroeber, the author brings us the story of Ishi, last survivor of the Indian “Yahi” tribe. The book follows the story of Ishi from when he was discovered outside a slaughterhouse, his life in the museum amongst modern civilization, and through his death by Tuberculosis in 1915. In the first part of the book, we learn about Indian history in California, Indian geography, culture, languages, and about the confrontation between Indians and Californians during the gold rush, and how the Indian tribe was shattered. In the second part we get to learn more about Ishim and follow him through modern civilization.

Ishi was discovered outside a slaughterhouse in 1911. A sheriff dispatched to deal with the “wild man” did not know what to do and so they locked him up. His language was foreign to all, even other Indians could not understand him. Until one day, an anthropologist named Waterman heard about this, and suspected Ishi might be one of the last Yahi Indians. Equipped with a paper containing Yahi words, Waterman and Ishi managed to communicate finally. Waterman discovered he was the last Indian survivor of the Yahi tribe, He accepted the name “Ishi”, meaning “man” in the Yahi language. Ishi never revealed his real name.

Ishi was then taken to a museum in California where he lived and taught about his ways of life. From building spears, hunting, fishing, crafts, lighting a fire- Ishi demonstrated to anthropologists the Yahi way of life.

The part I enjoyed reading the most was the part which details Ishi’s discovery of the modern “marvels” like doorknobs, clocks, typewriters. Stone age and modern age collide. It sounded as though a baby were playing with new toys.

Another part I enjoyed reading was when Ishi and his newly made friends went on a trip to where he lived, where he was born. There, in the nature, in his real home, Ishi demonstrated the Yahi skills such as hunting a deer, fishing, lighting a fire. It was interesting to read about all the real life demonstrations of how the Indians lived.

Parts I did not enjoy reading were parts about the massacre, or as the author refers to “extermination” of Indians. It is difficult reading about the slaughter of women and children, old and young. It is hard to fathom that people are capable of such cruelty. Hard to accept how we erased a whole culture. Hard to read about Ishi’s family and how all his people and relatives die.

Kroeber wrote this book to preserve and expose Ishi and the Yahi culture. To make sure Ishi, her husband’s friend, is known and never forgotten. Just like in “Ramona”, Kroeber wants to tell us what has happened. Eternalize Ishi. I believe she fulfills her purpose. Through this book me and thousands of people learn about Ishi. He is now in our knowledge and can not be forgotten.

But why did Ishi, who appears to be a very private individual, share his story with anthropologists at UC Berkley? I believe that after all his hardships, watching his tribe die, warching his family die, Ishi decided that he can’t win. As the saying goes “if you can’t beat’em, join’em”. Perhaps the sadness and loneliness led to him seeking a friend,  seeking attention. All of us need a friend. Someone to talk to. This shows how the need for socialization might be common to Indian civilization as well.

This book gave me insights about the Yahi way of life. The connection with nature. How the Indians got along without modern tools such as clocks, running water, gas and electricity. How they got their food. How they could tell the time of day very accurately just by the location of the sun.

Modern, “Civilized” way of life is very different when contrasted with the Yahi’s stone age life.Many things we take for granted: Fire, running water, gas, electricity. We do not have to hunt for food, we buy it at supermarkets. It is a whole different world. After reading the book, and being used to all the modern marvelry, it is very difficult for me to imagine life in nature, having to hunt for food, getting along without gas and electricity.

“Ishi in Two Worlds” exposed me to Ishi and to the Yahi tribe, letting me learn both about Ishi as a person and about the Yahi culture. From this book I learned about the Indian way of life, about how the gold rush impacted the Indians in California, and about what happens when you take a man from a different world, and put him into ours.

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