Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Last Stone Age Man

History records that Ishi, a.k.a. the Last Yahi, the Stone Age Ishi Between Two Worlds, was captured by northern Californians in 1911 and dutifully turned over to anthropologists. He spent the rest of his life in a museum in San Francisco. (And you think your life is boring.)

They said Ishi was the last North American Indian untouched by civilization. I don’t know about that, but it’s clear he was really country and seriously out of touch with recent developments. We’re talking major hayseed.

His keepers turned down all vaudeville, circus, and theatrical offers for the living caveman, but they weren’t above a little cheap amusement themselves. One day they took Ishi on a field trip to Golden Gate Park. An early aviator named Harry Fowler was attempting a cross-country flight. You can imagine the delicious anticipation of the anthropologists. The Ishi Man versus the Flying Machine. What would he make of this miracle, this impossible vision, this technological triumph? The aeroplane roared off into the heavens and circled back over the park. The men of science turned to the Indian, expectantly. Would he quake? Tremble? Would they hear his death song? Ishi looked up at the plane overhead. He spoke in a tone his biographers would describe as one of “mild interest.” “White man up there?”

– Paul Chaat Smith, Everything You Know About Indians Is Wrong (2009)

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