There is a story that the fathers used to tell, of the fire that burned the world.
After his brothers and his father, his father’s fathers, and his mother’s mother; after her sisters and their daughters and granddaughters were erased, he remained with his mother and his sisters until they died.
Then he was hungry. He took a calf. He was captured by a nineteen-year-old slaughterhouse worker and a self-proclaimed cowboy. He smiled as they handcuffed him. He did not resist.
What is your name? Now they wanted to know. I have none, he told them. They called him the last wild Indian, took him to the sheriff. He sat peacefully. Many came to look. The Last Stone-Age man, one paper proclaimed, of this quiet survivor. His people, all gone now, had been egalitarian, reclusive, resistant to central authority. They once protected the canyons, but these canyons were near the fields of gold, and the newcomers, wild with fever, were armed for bear. They surrounded the peacemakers, hunted the gatherers, cornered them in a cave, in a ravine, and fired. A few had fled the fire, to hide on higher grounds.
Tradition, all but erased, lived in him. Tradition had been clear about his name. Tradition demanded: Never reveal your name to an enemy. Never reveal your name until you are introduced by a friend.
Soon after he emerged from the mountains outside of the city of gold, soon after he was taken into custody, members of the anthropology department at Berkeley took note. They came to collect him from jail. They brought him on campus, made him a custodian, then a research assistant. He learned English.
But what is your name? They asked him. I have none, he insisted, because there are no people to name me. Among the Yana, now extinct, the word for man was Ishi. They called him Mr. Ishi. He was often ill. Over time, until he died of tuberculosis, he taught the white doctor who treated him to make arrows and bows, how to hunt. This white doctor became known as the father of modern bow hunting. The original fathers were gone.
There is a story that these fathers used to tell, of the fire that burned the world. When Coyote dropped the fire that Fox stole, it burned the land, burned the people, burned everything. The eyes of Bear looked in all directions into fire, and finally popped off in the flames. Only Spider remained in the sky, weaving her invisible web.
*On this day in 1911, the man known as Ishi, considered the last of the Yana to make contact with European Americans, emerged from the mountains near Oroville after the death of his mother and sister. He was handcuffed by a nineteen-year-old slaughterhouse worker and taken into custody. He became a public curiosity. Members of the anthropology department at UC Berkeley collected him from the sheriff’s office and brought him to the University. They gave him the title of custodian, then research assistant. Details of his life were documented by various members of the Kroeber family of UC Berkeley, and also by Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, who was concerned about the tendency of the so-called faithful to miss the divine light in the “others” that the self-proclaimed righteous are so often eager to erase or reform.