Ishi

For some reason these days my thoughts turn to Ishi. Perhaps because he died on a March 25 day(in 1916)—it was March 25 when I made solemn profession as a monk. Very, very few people know the full story of this remarkable person. This inspite of a reasonably good book by Theodora Kroeber, “Ishi in Two Worlds,” which Merton read when it first came out, was deeply affected by the story, and wrote an essay on it. But Merton’s essay and book titled “Ishi Means Man” is seldom read—by contrast Merton’s most other stuff has sold in the millions. So let us ponder this amazing story a bit.

First a bit of history and geography. Around 1800 anthropologists estimate that there were something like 300,000 Native Americans in California. Already that number was way down from what had been there before the Spanish came. But by 1900 there were only about 20,000 left. Most had died from being exposed to white man’s diseases; but many also were just simply massacred in numerous acts of genocide—especially from the Gold Rush era on. These massacres took place all over California: at Yosemite, in the Central Valley, in the Sierra Foothills, on the Coast. Native Americans were killed as if they were wild animals. They were in the way of “Progress.” When the Native Americans fought back, the retaliation and retribution was always a hundred fold.

From a Humboldt Times editorial in 1860: “It is as impossible for the white man and the wild Indian to live together as it is to unite oil and water.”
And from the Red Bluff Independent editorial, a more explicit statement: “It is becoming evident that extermination of the red devils will have to be resorted to.”
And from the Chico Courant: “It is a mercy to the red devils to exterminate them…. Treaties are played out—there is only one kind of treaty that is effective—cold lead.”
As you can see from this sample, the genocide of the Native Americans was mainstream policy, not just the work of a few crazed extremists. As the historian Douglas Sackman points out in his book, “Wild Men,” “In 1855 a white man could show up in Shasta City with the severed heads of Indians and receive five dollars for each one…. Indian-hunting militias submitted their expenses to the state government. Such men were paid over a million dollars in 1851 and 1852 alone. The State of California subsequently appealed to the federal government to cover these expenses, and for the most part it did. The blood money was paid out to further what Anderson called a ‘general clean-up’ of all Indians who ‘infested’ the land.”(p.32)

Ishi, who was born sometime around 1860, was a member of the Yahi tribe, whose ancestral home was in the beautiful wilderness area that lies today in the Lassen National Forest, east of Red Bluff and north of Oroville. In the 1870s a series of massacres took place that wiped out his tribe. No one knows for sure how long Ishi lived in incredible solitude in an area that is even today so remote that it is hard to get to. One day in 1911, in desperation because he was starving, he walked out of his wilderness into the outskirts of Oroville. Eventually he was taken care of by anthropologists at UC Berkeley and died from TB in 1916. There is a Trappist monastery at Vina, California, just a couple of hours away from the Ishi Wilderness area. I wonder if they realize the blood-stained ground that is under their feet.

Ishi was a veritable “Last of the Mohicans” as he was the last of the Yahi. Today some believe that in fact Ishi was of mixed blood, maybe a member of two tribes. In diminishing numbers the Natives who lived in that area were often forced to intermarry to survive. Regardless, he was totally “uncontaminated” by white culture when he came out of the wilderness. The anthropologist, Alfred Kroeber, gave him the name “Ishi” which in Yahi means “man,” a human being. What is especially interesting is that in Yahi culture you do not ask someone their name; it is a kind of secret. This Merton found amazing and haunting. Ishi’s real name was never known; something that he carried in his heart. Merton found this to be a sacrament and symbol of that “secret name” by which God calls us into existence out of infinite love. It is a name known by God alone. Speaking of identity(see previous posting), Ishi is simply a human being. One’s real identity is lost in the Mystery of God.

Here is what Theodora Kroeber said in her book: “Personal identity for man in modern Western civilization resides first of all in the family name to which he is born. At birth, or within a few days after, there is added the personal name bestowed by the parents, confirmed by the religious rite of baptism, and made legal and official by its formal recording in the books of the county clerk along with the family name and the exact place and time of birth. It is both a public name and the name by which individual is known to his family and friends….
The stranger whom the dogs held at bay outside the slaughter house was nameless; his jail name became ‘The Wild Man of Oroville.’… Reporters demanded to know his name, refusing to accept Kroeber’s word that the question was in the circumstances unmannerly and futile…. A California Indian almost never speaks his own name, using it but rarely with those who already know it , and he would never tell it in reply to a direct question. The reporters felt, not unnaturally, that they were being given ‘the runaround.’ …the museum people were themselves saying they must have something by which to call the Yahi…. Kroeber felt more pushed than did his nameless friend who remained relatively detached not understanding most of what was said, and standing quietly by Indian custom so far as he did understand. Said Kroeber, ‘Very well. He shall be known as ISHI.’ He regretted that he was unable to think of a more distinctive name, but it was not inappropriate, meaning ‘man’ in Yana, and hence not of the private or nickname category. Thus it was that the last of the Yahi was christened Ishi, and in historic fact became Ishi…. He never revealed his own private Yahi name. It was as though it had been consumed on the funeral pyre of the last of his loved ones. “

And Theodora Kroeber again: “…the commonest initial inquiry of a white traveler made to a strange California Indian took the form, ‘Who are you?’, to which the usual Indian answer was, ‘I am a person.’ What else was he to answer? It was a rude question, whether rudely meant or not. One did not say one’s name, certainly not to a stranger. One belonged to the people. One was a person. As for the saltu, Ishi’s name for the white race, it means a being of another order, a non-human, a pre-human….”

Merton found it fascinating that Ishi simply means Man, a human being. He could not help but comment on our destructiveness toward these people. We are participants in the destruction of mankind itself; in destroying the Yahi, we were destroying ourselves. Sad and tragic that this is going on all around the globe. Merton was also haunted by the solitude of Ishi. There was a depth of solitude there that was almost unspeakable. Ishi, like Merton himself, was not a natural loner—he liked the company of people; but both a physical solitude and a deep spiritual solitude was to be his “home.”

Kroeber has this to say about the early Native Americans of California:
“The California Indian was, in other words, a true provincial. He was also an introvert, reserved, contemplative, and philosophical. He lived at ease with the supernatural and the mystical which were pervasive in all aspects of life. He felt no need to differentiate mystical truth from directly evidential or ‘material’ truth, or the supernatural from the natural: one was as manifest as the other within his system of values and perceptions and beliefs. The promoter, the boaster, the aggressor, the egoist, the innovator, would have been looked at askance. The ideal was the man of restraint, dignity, rectitude, he of the Middle Way”(p.23).

There is not much more to add to this sad story. But every monk and every spiritual seeker should see his/her solidarity with Ishi. Not to mention the changes we need in how we look at our national history and identity. What has happened to the Native Americans is almost unspeakable. Those who survived the genocide were not given their own homeland, like the Jews in Israel, but herded into reservations where their whole world, both inner and outer, was gutted out. It is a very sad, a very unfortunate, a very tragic fact that the Native Americans never had their own Gandhi. The Ghost Dance movement was totally ineffective because it was totally spiritual and never developed a social strategy to combat “the white devils.” The Chiefs who handled their matters in the 19th Century mostly believed in negotiating with the white intruders. The resultant treaties were not worth the paper they were written on. So many Native Americans completely lost their inner orientation and their native spiritual gifts and tried to become like “whites.” So many sold out and endorsed casinos and coal mining on the rez, etc—all of course for the so-called economic good of the people. Instead of going deep within themselves and totally rejecting white values and killer culture, so many simply tried to be “white” and of course mostly they failed and so the despair. The kind of violent confrontations that AIM promoted in the 1970s was also futile and just what “The Man” wanted because whitey can deal with that quite effectively. The solution for the Native American is almost diametrically opposite of what its current leadership is pointing to. But, alas, this is just another white man speaking!!!

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