February 20, 1999

Long-Lost Preserved Brain Found

By The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The preserved brain of Ishi, an American Indian known as "the last wild man in America," has been found in a Smithsonian Institution warehouse more than eight decades after it vanished.

Methodical sleuthing by a pair of academics solved a mystery that may finally permit a proper burial of the last survivor of the Yahi Indian tribe.

The discovery, revealed Friday by the University of California at San Francisco, has electrified Northern California tribes who struggled for years to locate Ishi's remains.

"To put Ishi back together, to get his remains back will be something that people will feel good about," said Larry Myer, director of the state's Native American Heritage Commission. "It will give us a sense of healing, a sense of control."

In 1911, Ishi wandered out of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and into American legend. He had been hiding in the wilderness for years after the last of the Yahi were thought to have been killed by settlers or disease.

He became a nationwide sensation as a living example of "the last wild man in America." Ishi lived in a museum at UCSF, giving demonstrations of American Indian life for throngs of visitors. He died of tuberculosis in 1916.

An autopsy was performed -- against Ishi's final wishes -- and his brain was removed. But scientists lost track of the brain, and Indian leaders refused to go through with a burial ceremony without it. Ishi's body was cremated and his ashes are stored in a cemetery in Colma, south of San Francisco.

Two years ago, administrators at UCSF asked historian Nancy Rockafellar to determine whether the brain was at the university.

She learned that Duke University anthropologist Orin Starn was researching a book on Ishi and told him about the autopsy. Starn found a file at the University of California at Berkeley that cataloged the transfer of Ishi's brain to the Smithsonian.

Last month, Starn confirmed the brain was being kept in a tank in Maryland by the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. It is one of nine American Indian brains and thousands of skeletons collected for research.

"It was not uncommon to study brains in the early 20th century," Starn said. "Some people thought that different races had different brain sizes."

A Smithsonian spokesman said Friday that the institution has been in touch with tribes in California's Butte County to discuss repatriation.

Starn said he didn't think there any "bad intent" on the part of the institution, which apparently didn't know people were seeking the remains.

"I think Ishi is important as a symbol a reminder of what happened to indigenous people during the white takeover and conquest," Starn said. "He really was a victim of a holocaust."

As the place where Ishi lived his final years, Rockafellar said UCSF has an obligation to his memory.

"He captures your imagination," she said. "His basic humanness is what shines through in these accounts of him left by the whites who knew him, his humanness and his resiliency."

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