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Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America Paperback – February 1, 1964
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A sobering read, worth going back to occasionally, just like Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", to remind oneself of how we got where we are, and who paid the price for it.
Although Ishi's story is tragically sad, and his death seemingly premature and ironic, his resilience and optimism are an inspiration. Despite the incredible hardships of his life, he apparently entered the foreign world of white California without harboring any deep resentment or even bitterness. I found his enthusiasm to be both incomprehensible and very moving, which served to temper the sadness of his story. In the end, I was left with a more positive than negative aftertaste, in contrast to other books about Native Americans which tend to focus heavily on issues of injustice, warfare, humiliation, etc.
While all those negative themes are undercurrents to Ishi's story, the way in which he coped with his trying life is the most fascinating aspect of the book. In fact, the only negative thing I would say about this book is that a large portion of the beginning is dedicated to historical background about Ishi's tribe, and I felt anxious to read the more personal accounts of Ishi the man. However, this background information is clearly necessary to understand Ishi's life, and is written as colorfully (but acurately) as possible. Even though the historical details are researched (and referenced) carefully, this does not read like an academic text.
This book left me feeling that if Ishi, a man accustomed to living in verdant tranquility, could find peace living in a bustling city, then he should serve as an inspiration for everyone struggling to cope with the hectic pace of modern life.
This is a story of epic character (Ishi's) and epic cruelty. Please do not misunderstand me: this is not a book which has any intent of guilt-tripping anyone. But it did take me by surprise, because you can talk about slavery all day long, or the Nazis, and I feel no relation, no nexus between myself and those crimes. But, here, I felt a little weird. The degenerate conduct is very close to home, literally and figuratively. I had cowboy guns and chaps as a kid, and I pretended to shoot Indians. And that is a really pathetic thing to pretend, because Ishi was an Indian, and I've learned he was just like you and me. He and his people were rational and empathetic. There had to have been a more humane way to co-exist.
"The true ghastliness of these events is that they were carried out not by alien monsters but by people shockingly like you and me."--Karl Kroeber in the Foreword to the book written by his mother. That's exactly right. This book describes how Ishi's family and tribe was basically hunted down and exterminated right in front of his eyes as a child, in at least two major massacres and a few other lesser atrocious moments. It breaks your heart. I always thought the Indians scalped the settlers. In this book, it is the local sheriff and his gang of quasi-criminals that is scalping the Indians, including their children, in retaliation for a theft of some beans or the killing of a cow, or some other handy excuse. "No state in the Union surpassed the Golden State in systematically and shamelessly harassing, murdering, and stealing from its native inhabitants." Since I live in California, this strikes a painful chord as well. The data cited by Ms. Kroeber is compelling and I suspect unrefuted. The conduct she describes is well documented and uncontested. These Indian peoples were treated like vermin, just a little over a hundred years ago, right where your wine grapes are now growing, or nearby.
I'm perhaps unduly emphasizing negative themes. I just learned of these events, or perhaps I should say I just finally comprehended them while reading the book. They struck me out of the blue. This education about nearby and recent enormous cruelties is just a part of the reading experience, however, and isolating these events does this fantastic story no favor, and I apologize. Rest assured, this is a life-altering book, and I've mentioned only the part which shocked me in a negative way.
Ishi the man is a wonderful character, he is warmly introduced and developed here, and I can think of no character, real or fiction, which I came to care about more than Ishi. He was capable, strong, polite, free from bitterness, totally alone. His champions and protectors, Professors Kroeber and Waterman, and Dr. Popey, I came to admire and respect and envy. I loved the depictions of wild nature, and Ishi's ability to make handicrafts, a skill-set described in fabulous detail by Mrs. Kroeber. You may want to make an arrowhead or a bow based on her description. Ishi recommends Mountain Juniper for your bow-making, so heed his advice, he was master.
The writing is first-rate. Mrs. Kroeber was herself a scientist, and her book takes an artful but methodical approach to the events--both tragic and hilarious-- it describes: the way of the Indians; the way of the Yana (Ishi's tribe); the experiences Ishi endured during his hard life in the wild; the discovery of Ishi; the revelations from Ishi; the "camping trip" with Ishi in his old home territory (and his anxiousness to return to the city: he learned to love beds, toilets, stoves, towels, and the other "clever" inventions of the white man); and Ishi's demise from tuberculosis.
I am one of those people who marks up a book as I read it. My copy had virtually every page marked up by the end. This book is so thought-provoking and idea-rich on so many levels it will take me years to fully asimilate it.
One of the newspaper reviewers is quoted on the cover: "A book every American ought to read." True. And, I suspect, every American will be deeply enriched and rewarded for the effort. But the ending is still sad, when you think of what Ishi endured and how little time he had in his hard, hard life to enjoy things. I kept imagining the things I would show Ishi if I had the chance: Disneyland; a Rolling Stones concert; a Benny Hill video, lasagna, a motorcycle ride.
He only spoke about 600 English words by the end, but you will understand him very well. And, I'm confident, he will be someone you deeply respect.