After a two-year investigation, a report delivered today by a UC San Francisco historian answers a troubling mystery surrounding the autopsy and cremation of Ishi, the last Yahi Indian who became a celebrity and ultimately another victim when he wandered out of the California wilderness in 1911.
The report by Nancy Rockafellar, PhD, a research historian in the UCSF History of Health Science Department, includes her discovery along with Duke University anthropologist Orin Starn, PhD, that Ishi's brain, removed at the time of the autopsy at UCSF for scientific evaluation, has been stored for the past 83 years by the Smithsonian Institution.
The discovery sets in motion a repatriation process mandated by the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires federally-funded institutions to return Native American remains in their possession to the individual's lineal or tribal descendants. Rockafellar's report expresses the hope that the brain might now be reunited with the rest of Ishi's cremated remains and given to appropriate Native American representatives for a final and dignified interment.
Rockafellar's investigation dates from 1997, after the Butte County (Calif.) Native American Cultural Committee began an effort to locate all of Ishi's remains and provide a burial in his tribal homeland near Mount Lassen. Attempts by the committee to locate the brain had failed, prompting UCSF Vice Chancellor Dorothy Bainton to initiate an investigation to determine whether the brain was removed during the autopsy and whether it had been cremated with the rest of the body.
Rockafellar's work uncovered verbal testimony that the brain had been sent to Washington, but her attempts to locate it through telephone interviews remained unsuccessful. In December 1998, Rockafellar sought the assistance of Orin Starn, PhD, a Duke University anthropologist who is writing a book related to Ishi.
Starn was able to find previously undiscovered correspondence verifying that the brain was sent to the Smithsonian. He then met on Jan. 27, 1999 with Smithsonian officials in Washington who confirmed that the museum had the brain and that it has been kept in a Maryland storage facility. Ishi's story, taught to generations of California schoolchildren, began before the turn of the century when he and the last few survivors of a series of massacres by so-called "Indian hunters" retreated to an isolated valley deep in the Mount Lassen wilderness. By 1911, Ishi later told anthropologists, only he remained alive. After emerging in a nearly starved condition in 1911 near Oroville, Ishi was first jailed by the local sheriff before being turned over to anthropologists at the University of California in San Francisco.
Ishi lived the rest of his life at the San Francisco campus, teaching anthropologists about his language, beliefs and tribal arts, roaming freely about the campus and the city, and greeting small groups during Sunday afternoon sessions at the Anthropology Museum where he lived. Anthropologist Thomas Waterman and museum curator Alfred Kroeber befriended Ishi and attempted, in their way, to protect him from excessive exploitation. But in the years before effective antibiotics they could not protect him from a disease that devastated California's Native Americans after the arrival of Europeans. In 1916, Ishi died of tuberculosis.
Following his death, physicians performed an autopsy on Ishi's body. Rockafellar notes in her report that this was a standard procedure following all hospital deaths at the time.
"What was unique about Ishi's autopsy was the removal of the brain," the report states. "None of the other autopsy reports from 1914-1916 involved removal or examination of the brain."
Until Rockafellar and Starn completed their investigation, it remained unclear whether the brain had been stored elsewhere or cremated with the rest of Ishi's remains. The cremated remains currently rest in an urn in a Colma, Calif., cemetery.
Through a meticulous review of records and numerous interviews with individuals who recalled portions of the events, Rockafellar and Starn determined that the preserved brain had indeed been sent to the Smithsonian Institution for scientific purposes in early 1917 by Ishi's friend Alfred Kroeber. This decision contradicts the established historical view of Kroeber as an ardent opponent of an autopsy.
"The inconsistency of cremating Ishi's remains and some of his belongings without the brain in the face of their knowledge of his beliefs reveals an odd rationale on the part of (the scientists who cared for Ishi) Pope, Gifford, Waterman, and Kroeber. As Gifford wrote at the time, they were truly attempting a "compromise between science and sentiment," the report concludes.
Rockafellar's report suggests a series of steps for UCSF to consider in an attempt to bring the past to a proper conclusion and to honor Ishi's remarkable life in the future.
* The report asks that UCSF act as an institutional advocate for the tribes seeking repatriation of the remains. "UCSF should take an active role in assisting in the return of the cremated remains, so that Ishi's body can be reunited and laid to rest in an appropriate manner, according to the wishes of Native Americans," it states.
* The reports calls for the appointment of an Ishi Advisory Committee in UCSF's newly formed Department of Anthropology, History and Social Medicine to bring together the different groups and individuals seeking an appropriate resolution.
* The report proposes using the new information and understanding of Ishi's life as an opportunity to enhance and consolidate the record of Ishi's story. Possible steps include creation of an internet web site devoted to Ishi's story, making updated classroom materials available to schools, or an interpretive center at UCSF's Parnassus Heights campus, where Ishi spent his final years.
* Lastly, the report notes that Ishi's story serves as another reminder of the ravages inflicted on Native Americans by infectious disease in the early 20th Century. Rockafellar proposes that UCSF explore the creation of a scholarship fund for Native American students in recognition and remembrance of this tragedy.
The report concludes by offering Ishi's story as a "morality tale" for scientists and physicians.
"The lesson here is not merely an indictment of anthropologists and physicians of the past, but a harsh reminder of the destructive power of hubris," Rockafellar wrote. "All participants in academic life must recall the historical context of individuals like Pope, Kroeber, and Waterman -- and remember that the source of their conviction that they were "doing the right thing" was the scientific certainty of the day.
"We, in turn, must recognize that a sense of moral discomfort is perhaps a better indicator for action than scientific curiosity."
Materials provided by University Of California, San Francisco. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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