“Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home. Each is an aspect of the other.” – Anthropologist Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive

I led off my last post with a photo of Ishi, perhaps the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, and the caption “Ishi, the last of the Yahi. His story is not identical to John’s in Brave New World.”  While this framing makes perfect sense to me, and I did so with some hope of people actually looking him up, I feel like I should explain briefly before finishing the second post (on Brave New World).  What follows are some brief, deliberately provocative, and unfinished ideas about Ishi’s legacy.

Ishi’s story is sad and horrific, and I won’t try to fully summarize it here.  Everyone who is remotely well-read should be familiar with it.  I’ll even use the second person address here since I feel so strongly:  You should begin with the obvious online sources (this timeline is also a good summary) and then you need to read Theodora Kroeber’s book Ishi in Two Worlds.  Then maybe Ishi in Three Centuries or Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America.  Theodora Kroeber is, incidentally, Ursula K. Le Guin’s mother.  Le Guin’s father, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, was one of the scientists who had the opportunity to work most closely with Ishi.  Arthur’s relationship with Ishi, like that of all those who studied the “wild Indian” is one that can easily be criticized in hindsight, and I won’t defend the exhibitionism and exploitativeness of anthropological science at the time.  However, the Kroebers’ interactions with and documentation of his story are invaluable documentation of  a remarkable man and an awful, yet common, story.

Back to the main point foreshadowed by the Stanley Diamond quote at the outset.  Ishi’s story is a stark reminder of how enmeshed the process of civilization (and I use this word with some precision of definition) is with the practices of genocide and oppression.  By extension, nearly every utopian (and therefore dystopian) story, including the story of Manifest Destiny and the teleological myth of America that persists to this day, carries with it the removal, marginalization, erasure, and eradication of those who do not assimilate, die, or kneel.  And alongside this is the subjugation of those outsiders who do assimilate and citizens who go too far in questioning or challenging the core ideologies.  This is at least in part because the traditional concept of utopia is inherently a civilization- and state-centered one, and neither of the overlapping concepts of  civilization or the state can allow significant deviation from their subjects.  Both must define themselves through those who are unlike their idealized category of worthy members.  Obviously there are exceptions to this so far as utopian fiction and small, inclusive communities go, but the connection between state and utopia and genocide is a long-standing and troubling one.

Beyond this, Ishi’s story is a direct contradiction of the stereotypes of the “savage” or uncivilized human being, especially those of the primitive man hilariously out-of-place in civilization.  He was cagey and careful and not some bumbling idiot, despite the trauma that pervaded his life.

Likewise, he is a reminder that Rousseau’s “state of nature” was and is fictional bullshit (Rousseau knew that it was a thought experiment, but people forget that).  Ishi was alone not because he was some idealized monadistic wild man occasionally deigning to interact with another human because he wanted to get laid/unconsciously fulfill his genetic destiny; he was alone because civilized people wiped out his people . . . a society and culture erased by so-called “progress” and its servants racism and dehumanization and technology and disease.

Finally, and I’ll say more on this in the Brave New World post, Ishi was a product of a long-standing and relatively free society, a society that lived with conflict within and without (not a romanticized, idyllic wild state), but also one that was not confined by outside powers of government to a marginal plot of land.  Some even say he walked out of the woods with the purpose of dying, and they claim he did this because he had no one left and, as a social being, could not bear solitude any longer.  But a weird thing happened, while his conditions in civilization were far from ideal, and its diseases took his life, he found some sense of friendship and society with those he interacted with.

Yahi translator Sam Batwai, Alfred L. Kroeber, and Ishi, photographed at Parnassus in 1911. Image courtesy of UC Berkeley, Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology (via: http://history.library.ucsf.edu/).


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