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Point-Knapping by Ishi (the last Yana-Yahi)

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  • Point-Knapping by Ishi (the last Yana-Yahi)

    By Jeb A. Taylor, Associate Editor

    One of the great pleasures in performing research is the occasional discovery of something new and exciting. Recently, while working on a project analyzing the style of Ishi's projectile points, not just one, but several such discoveries were made.

    At a slaughterhouse four miles from Oroville, California, early in the morning on August 28, 1911 the last aboriginal Native American allowed himself to be captured. This was not the result of a long, protracted battle or extended military campaign. In fact, no one knew for certain, and few suspected, that he even existed. This individual, who would later come to be known as Ishi, was the last surviving member of a small, reclusive tribe called the Yahi (Fig. 1).

    Figure 1: Ishi at the museum in San Fransisco

    If normal protocol had been followed, Ishi almost certainly would have been placed on one of the local Indian reservations to live out the remainder of his life. However, anthropologists Alfred L. Kroeber and Thomas T. Waterman, from the University of California, argued that Ishi would then be amongst his traditional enemies, who shared neither his culture nor his language. Realizing that this situation was untenable, and aware of how valuable Ishi might prove to be as an ethnographic informant, they asked for and received permission from the Indian Bureau in Washihgton, D.C. to place him under the care and protection of the University of California (T. Kroeber, 1961:9). Consequently, on September 4, 1911, Ishi traveled with Waterman to San Francisco where he lived for the remainder of his life (T. Kroeber 1961:233).

    Upon his arrival in San Francisco, Ishi took up residence at the Affiliated Colleges Museum of Anthropology at Parnassus Heights. Although adjusting to life at the museum was undoubtedly quite challenging, by most accounts he adapted very well, and as Waterman noted, after he had been there for awhile, he was "serenity personified" (1918:66). Ishi quickly learned to perform duties at the museum that provided him with a wage and after some instruction, was shopping for his own food, preparing it, and generally taking care of himself. Admirably, he was able to assimilate into this new lifestyle and yet, somehow, remain essentially Yahi.

    While living at the museum, Ishi willingly worked with anthropologists and linguists to record the Yahi tribe's language, songs, stories, and other information for posterity. He also became a major attraction for museum visitors, who loved to watch him demonstrate aboriginal skills such as fire making, and especially the knapping of projectile points, which he sometimes gave to museum visitors (Fig. 2).

    While I was researching the differences between the projectile points Ishi made aboriginally and those he made later at the Museum, several interesting discoveries were made.

    Figure 2: A white glass projectile point made by Ishi for Charles Miles. According to Miles' son, John, (Dietz, 2007, personal communication) Ishi made this point while sitting on a grassy knoll watching a tennis match, a pastime that he was apparently fond of. This point is pictured on page 29 of Miles' book, Indian and Eskimo Artifacts of North America, Figure 1.164 (author's collection).

    Here we will have to back up more than 20 years Darwin B. ("Win") Lyon before Ishi's surrender, to 1889, when a young man named Darwin B. Lyon and his dog, while hunting in the Big Antelope Creek drainage 16 miles east of Red Bluff, had a confrontation with one or more Yahi Indians. There are several versions of this story, but they are essentially the same. Listed below is the one related by Thomas T. Waterman in The Yana Indians, because it was the earliest, and probably the most accurate:

    Thomas T Waterman, 1918:60 -
    Mr. Darwin B. Lyon, a young boy at the time, is hunting deer up Big Antelope Creek, 16 miles east of Red Bluff. He moves about an isolated patch of buckeye brush which lies in a gully, under a rock cliff. The dog hears something moving and goes in, but a moment later comes out afraid. Whatever is in the brush makes noises like tomcats fighting. (His idea at present is that the Indians did it, trying to scare him away.) Instead of running, he throws a rock into the brush to ascertain what is making the noise. The rock hits an Indian, who grunts. One thing leads to another, and Lyon finally goes in to rout out whatever is there. There is open ground all around, so the quarry insists on keeping among the buckeyes. He finally presses them close, and suddenly stumbles over packs, which they have dropped. Then he knows they are Indians. One of them has been carrying half a dozen sheep legs—the sweat from his hand is still on the wool. They also drop a sheepskin. Lyon stops and kicks this stuff over, to see what it is. They suddenly fire three arrows at him, one of them grazing his hat brim. One of these arrows breaks off against a rock just in front of him. Another, he picks up and keeps. He takes time also to pick up a small cloth bag which afterwards is found to contain an interesting arrow-making outfit (see plate 14: the specimens are now at the University Museum). At this point, Lyons considers that his curiosity is satisfied, and he very properly withdraws.

    Figure 3: Image of D.B. Lyon and "Old Dash" in 1890.

    Figure 4: Enlargement of the caption on the photo; Win Lyon -and- Old Dash 1890 – Hair from Old Dash. Dash was almost certainly the dog that sensed the Yahi Indians (including Ishi) in the buckeye thicket in 1889.

    Waterman was mistaken about the arrow-making kit and the arrow Lyon picked up as belonging to the University Museum collection. Both, in fact, are still in possession of the Lyon family, although the arrow-making kit is currently on display at the Kelly-Griggs House Museum in Red Bluff, California.

    The Ishi/Lyon Relationship

    In 1915, Lyon met Ishi in San Francisco where Ishi reportedly immediately recognized him, calling him "man with dogs". This recognition raises some truly provocative possibilities. Was Ishi one of the Yahi Indians in the Buckeye thicket that Lyon confronted in 1889? And if so, could Ishi have recognized him from that single encounter 24 years later? Or, had they seen each other on other occasions as well?

    Interestingly, Ishi not only recognized Lyon, but also exhibited a degree of affinity toward him that is difficult to understand. This was amply demonstrated with his gift to Lyon of three outstanding examples of his museum-made points (Fig. 5). As was already mentioned, Ishi frequently gave points to museum visitors and friends, but these particular points were superior in form and workmanship to even those he gave to his best friends at the museum: Kroeber, Waterman, and Pope. Why? We can never know the definitive answer to that question, but one possible explanation that has to be considered is that there was some sort of connection between Ishi and Lyon prior to Ishi's surrender in 1911.

    Figure 5: Three superb examples of Ishi's museum-made points given to D.B. Lyon (Lyon family collection, currently on loan to the Kelly-Griggs House Museum in Red Bluff California).

    Lyon spent a great deal of time hunting deer and herding stock in Yahi country, so further encounters with, and/or observations of, the elusive Yahi were possible, but since he never mentioned any, it is probable that none occurred. However, even if Lyon never observed Ishi, it is quite possible that the stealthy and observant Ishi observed Lyon on a number of occasions. And even though Lyon never reported seeing other Yahi, he was probably woodsman enough to have been aware of their presence. In any event, for whatever reason, Ishi and Lyon apparently already had a mutual respect and fondness for each other when they met in 1915.

    In 2005, I examined and photographed these three points (Fig. 5), as well as two smaller damaged glass points (Fig. 6 not shown), and several other important Ishi-related artifacts that will be addressed separately.

    Fig 7: Projectile points on Ishi's aboriginal arrows that were stolen from his camp in Deer Creek Canyon on November 10, 1908 by Harry Keefer:
    A - a complete glass point that may or may not be Ishi’s that was added to one of Ishi’s arrows by someone who was inexperienced in sinew use and hafting techniques (California State Indian Museum).
    B - a nearly' complete glass point made and hafted by Ishi that suffered a bend fracture across its blade and has been poorly glued back together (California State Indian Museum).
    C - a nearly complete glass point made and hafted by Ishi (California State Indian Museum).
    D - a nearly complete glass point made and hafted by Ishi (Phoebe Hearst Museum, photo taken by and used with permission from Errett Callahan).

    How, when, or where Lyon obtained these damaged points is not known, but according to Lyon family history, they were made by Ishi. This claim is probably correct because they are morphologically identical to the points on Ishi's aboriginal arrows that were stolen from his camp, Wowunupo'mu Tetna, in 1908 (Fig. 7).

    On my 2005 research trip, I examined and photographed the Ishi arrows at the California State Indian Museum, but I was not able to gain access to the Ishi arrows at the Phoebe Hearst Museum or the arrow that was shot at Lyon in 1889. I had spoken with Lyon's granddaughter, and knew that this arrow was taped to a board in her closet. However, it wasn't until the spring of 2008 that I was finally given permission to examine and photograph it.

    There were very few Yahi left in 1889, so it was possible that the arrow Lyon picked up when retreating from the Yahi was Ishi's. The cresting on Ishi's known aboriginal arrows was very distinctive (Fig. 8) so comparing them with the Lyon arrow would be relatively straightforward. I was, of course, hoping that they would match, or at least be similar, but there was really no reason to assume that Ishi would have used the same cresting pattern for 19 years.

    Before viewing this arrow, I was pragmatically expecting to find a generic California Indian arrow in poor condition that was diagnostically unidentifiable. I was delighted to find, however, that those assumptions were completely erroneous. Its condition was excellent, and its overall workmanship, the cut of its fletching, and most significantly, its cresting were all diagnostically Ishi's (Fig. 9)! It was identical to the arrows stolen from his camp in 1908 (Fig. 8).

    Lacking good images of the proximal ends of Ishi's other aboriginal arrows, I asked a scholar, artist, and good friend, Steve Allely, whom I knew had recently been recording these arrows, to provide exact color illustrations of them. Interestingly, Steve's reaction to the Lyon arrow was exactly the same as mine:

    In my humble opinion as a replicator there is no doubt whatsoever that the Lyon arrow was made by Ishi; too many minute similarities to be anything but one of his.

    Figure 8: Proximal ends of three of Ishi's arrows stolen from Wowunupo'mu Tetna in 1908. The upper two are located at the California State Indian Museum in Sacramento, California and the lower one is located at the Phoebe Hearst Museum in Berkeley, California (illustration by Steve Allely).

    Unexpectedly, however, someone (assumably Lyon) had replaced the original point on the arrow with an oversized side-notch point (Fig. 10) that was not only not original to the arrow, but not even an arrow point. Why this was done is not known, but it is plausible to assume that the original point was damaged when it was shot at Lyon, and that when given a choice, he chose to replace it with one that he regarded as more impressive. I can't help but wonder if one of the glass points in Figure 6 may have originally belonged on this arrow. In any event, the Lyon arrow is the earliest known Ishi arrow, and an extremely important addition to the collection of his artifacts.

    In any event, the kit I photographed at the Kelly-Griggs House Museum in 2005 (Fig. 11) is clearly the same one illustrated by Waterman and Kroeber but confusingly, the contents are not precisely the same. Notably absent from the kit I photographed are at least one pressure flaking tool, several pieces of unworked glass, two arrow foreshafts, a pitch stick, two skin pads, and a bundle of sinew. And absent from the 1918 photograph is one pressure flaking tool.

    Why these discrepancies exist is impossible to state, but we must acknowledge the possibility that the second pressure flaking tool in the 2005 photo may not be Ishi's. The doubt surrounding this one item is further exacerbated by the fact that the projectile point attached to its shaft does not appear to have been hafted by Ishi as it was lashed in a very amateurish fashion (Fig. 12).

    Interestingly, according to a 1979 article in the Red Bluff Daily News, after Ishi came out of hiding in 1911, Lyon reportedly learned that the arrow-making outfit he had picked up in 1898 was Ishi's. Waterman described it only as an "Arrow-making outfit taken as a trophy by D.B. Lyon when he ran upon a party of Yahi Indians . . ." (1918:92). But Kroeber, who used a portion of the same image to illustrate the same kit, described it as "Ishi's arrow-making kit" (1961 – no page or plate number). Now that we know that Ishi was definitely one of the Yahi he encountered in 1889, it follows that the kit could very well have belonged to him.


    Ishi and Lyon definitely had a tense confrontation in 1889, but for reasons that we will probably never know, they apparently developed a cordial relationship in later years. The question that remains, however, is whether that relationship developed after 1915 or whether it began before 1911, when Ishi still lived in an aboriginal state.

    It is probable that they did not actually meet again, and were simply aware of each other's presence and developed a mutual respect for each other. But it is also possible that they did encounter each other on other occasions, and that Lyon chose to keep those encounters secret to avoid subjecting the Yahi to further incursions - and possible violence - from the local populace. In pondering this question, it is nice to speculate that despite the massacres and vendettas perpetrated against the Yahi through the years, at least one individual might have treated them with friendship and respect.

    In any event, there are few stories in history that are as emotionally poignant as Ishi's, and I feel honored that I could contribute, in even a very small way, to its expansion.

    Duplicated from the “Resources” section of and reproduced with permission.
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.