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ISHI’S BRAIN by Orin Starn


In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian

by Orin Starn

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-393-05133-1
Publisher: Norton

As he goes about recording the quest to repatriate the remains of an anthropological icon who lived a century ago, Starn (Cultural Anthrolpology/Duke Univ.) steps back to take a look at the fate of Native Californians.

Ishi, who was perhaps the last member of northern California’s Yahi tribe, lived during his last six years in San Francisco, serving as something of a living specimen for anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. When Ishi died of tuberculosis in 1916, his brain was removed and sent to the Smithsonian, not an unusual occurrence in those times. But by the 1990s, there was movement afoot to reclaim Ishi's body for a proper burial, even though no one was entirely sure the museum’s possession of the brain was anything more than a rumor. Starn set out to see if the rumors were true, beginning with an investigation into the relationship between Ishi and Kroeber. An anthropologist’s anthropologist who, like Franz Boas, believed in the “ ‘absolute equality and identity of all human races’ in their moral and intellectual capacity,” Kroeber did not display much of his sensitive relativist’s streak toward his friend’s traditions when he allowed segments of Ishi’s body to be sent off in different directions. Turning to the subject of repatriation of Native remains, Starn confronts the wholesale slaughter of Native Californians, a major reason that it is difficult to identify direct descendants of bodies currently held as museum specimens. The Smithsonian’s “novel and tricky experiment in atonement and reconciliation” is only complicated by the vexed question of ethnic identity in what Gerald Vizenor has described as a “postnative” society. Ishi’s remains were finally laid to rest, but not before the Smithsonian lit a fuse that potentially imploded the entire process.

Ishi himself remains an elusive character, but as a vehicle for the author’s exploration of identity politics and anthropology’s missteps, he speaks volumes. (15 illustrations)