The Brain at the Heart of the Matter
In 1911, the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe walked out of the wilderness near Oroville, California. He spoke no English, wore few clothes, and seemed as surprised by the townspeople as they were by him.
Local authorities, not sure what else they could do, handed him over to a group of anthropologists at UC Berkeley. The anthropologists called him Ishi, meaning “man” in the Yana language, and housed him in, of all places, a San Francisco museum.
There, working both as a janitor and a sort of living exhibit, he became something of a sensation. Ishi taught throngs of visitors how to make arrowheads, and gained fame as “America’s last Stone Age Indian.”
Just five years after he first arrived in Oroville, Ishi died of tuberculosis. His body was cremated and placed in an urn in a San Francisco cemetery.
Nearly a century later, anthropologist Orin Starn was working on a book about Ishi. He traveled to California to meet with members of the Maidu tribe, and learn more about Ishi–particularly about a movement within the tribe to give Ishi a proper Yahi burial.
While there, Starn heard something intriguing. According to a rumor that one of the tribe members relayed to him, not all of Ishi’s body had been cremated. His brain had been removed from his body, and then pickled to be used for science. It wasn’t that outlandish of a rumor. Preserving brains was still something of a scientific craze at the time when Ishi had died. It was entirely possible that’s what had become of Ishi’s brain.
Starn began digging, and found the truth in some letters sent between anthropologists of the period. The rumor was fact: Ishi’s brain was still out there. And it had been taken, says Starn, despite the fact that the idea would have horrified Ishi himself.
“In native Californian culture, and in particular in Yahi culture, there was a quite strong idea that the dead should be handled as little as possible–that once death happened, the body should be buried right away, and that any kind of extended contact between the living and the dead was dangerous to the living and was also the wrong thing to do by the dead, that it hindered their journey up into the second level of the cosmos.”
A little more digging from Starn uncovered the precise journey Ishi’s brain had taken. Never studied, it had been stored for decades first in a jar, and then in a Smithsonian warehouse in Maryland. There, it was kept in a stainless steel tank alongside a number of other brains in the museum’s “wet collection,” where human brains kept company with pickled dolphins, dog embryos, and similarly unsettling specimens.
When Starn passed his findings along to the Maidu activists, they were outraged, and went to the press with what soon became a national news story. As Ishi’s brain made headlines across the country, an embarrassed Smithsonian initiated an investigation into how best to return it to Northern California for a proper burial.
In the end, the Smithsonian agreed to give custody of the brain to two California tribes that they determined were the closest living relatives of Ishi’s Yahi tribe. In August of 2000, a delegation from these two tribes traveled to Washington, and flew back to Northern California bearing an unusual carry-on luggage: Ishi’s preserved brain, wrapped in a sacred deerskin.
After their return to California, tribe members drove into the canyon of Deer Creek, some five hours from San Francisco. They buried Ishi’s brain and ashes in a spot that will, in Starn’s words, “remain secret forever.”
The claiming and burial of Ishi’s remains was about more than ensuring he is at peace. It was part of a national movement for repatriation of native artifacts and remains that had resulted in the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which sought to return skeletons and sacred objects to the tribes they belonged to. As in Ishi’s case, returning these relics couldn’t erase ugly histories, or the legacies of poverty and marginalization caused by government policies and prejudices concerning native peoples. But it could be a step in helping to ease some of these injustices.
“ Doing the right thing by Ishi, reburying in his homeland, became for many native Californians a way to try to reconcile themselves with a history in which they’d been very much mistreated and victimized, and which Ishi himself had been mistreated and victimized, his tribe wiped out and his body desecrated after his death.”
Although he didn’t attend the burial, Starn did go to a public memorial for Ishi following the private ceremony. People from a range of backgrounds joined together to remember Ishi and his legacy. It was, Starn reflected:
“A powerful ceremony, a powerful example of the effort at reconciliation, the effort to try to recognize the terrible things that have happened in the past, the terrible things that may still be happening in the world today, and to acknowledge those together.”
This story comes from our episode on this history of reconciliation in American history. You can listen to the whole episode here.