Ishi, The Last Yahi

Ishi was the sole survivor of California’s Yahi Native American tribe until his death in 1916. This documentary features interviews and historical footage that tell Ishi’s story of survival in the face of non-native encroachment. Since Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492, the original ten million Native Americans have been reduced to 300,000 survivors. Ishi was one of the last — and has become an icon of a lost and decimated people. The following quote from the film is telling: “It’s a very sad chapter in American history when you think that a people lived in their own homeland for over four thousand years, and it gets to a point where you are pushed into a brushy patch below some lava rock living in fear for your life. In that regard, it’s a very symbolic spot.” Ishi is a kind soul, never bitter, who becomes great friends with all who know him — and is sorely missed when he died. This film is told with incredible photographs, and Ishi himself seems to speak through the many still photographs taken of him. The film does an excellent job of presenting the cultural attitudes that led to the extermination of Ishi’s people, neither sugar coating it nor demonizing the white settlers. What the white man did to the American Indian is a shameful chapter in American History. In this way this film is difficult to watch. Manifest Destiny wins but at a great price. Unfortunately, this is a sad part of American history that none of us have anything to be proud about. I’ve never felt more ashamed of my ancestors as this little movie made me feel. At times I wanted to smash the smirks off the faces of the photographs of the “Indian fighters”. Shame runs through me about how savage so-called civilized men can be. My heart goes out to Ishi and all other peoples who have been massacred so their land could be stolen. This was genocide. I have a great respect for Native American people and would like to know more about how the tribes lived as opposed to simply knowing how they died. I wish we could know more about Ishi. As a young man I hunted and fished Deer Creek Canyon, which made this documentary even more special to me. Native American culture has always been interesting to me, especially their ability to live with what nature provided, and their knowledge about nature. The film chronicles not only Ishi’s story, but also the fledgling science of anthropology as it existed in the early 20th century. Anthropologists did their best to record his language and history. It also points to the arrogance of the anthropologists who used him to further not just knowledge of a dying tribe but their own careers. I am glad the anthropologists grew to regret how they were studying Ishi. I appreciated the treatment of the anthropologists who may seem insensitive to us today, but seem to have genuinely cared for this man with no remaining family. I found the documentary to be thorough and intriguing enough to want to study the story of Ishi and the Yahi tribe further. There is a book also titled Ishi: The Last Yahi that has even more detail than this documentary. Theodora Kroeber, wife of the anthropologist, wrote two beautiful and highly-regarded books about Ishi. Why doesn’t the United States have a national day of remembrance to honor the millions of Native Americans who were slaughtered to create this country? A great documentary for all adults, and kids in middle school and above. Interesting, devastating, inspiring. Very highly recommended and essential viewing. Every American should know about Ishi. Narrated by Oscar Award-winning actress Linda Hunt. Documentary 1992 NR 56 minutes.


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