"The Search For Ishi's Brain": Update

"The Search For Ishi's Brain," Duke Magazine, July-August 1999
August 1, 2004
Duke Magazine Cover

A little more than six years ago, Orin Starn, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Duke, went looking for Ishi's brain. Ishi was the last survivor of the Yahi, a small Native American tribe that inhabited the foothills of northern California. In 1911, Ishi wandered into the town of Oroville, California. He was taken into custody and died five years later from tuberculosis. He spent his last years as a living exhibit in the anthropology museum at the University of California in San Francisco, chipping arrowheads on public display.

And yet for all of the observing of Ishi while he was alive, nobody kept much of an eye on him afterwards. His brain, preserved by scientists, was packed up and shipped away. But shipped where? No one seemed to know, and it wasn't until 1997, when a group of Maidu Indians demanded all of Ishi's remains, a requirement for proper burial, that anyone even noticed it was missing.

So Starn, a native of Berkeley long familiar with Ishi's story, put his own brain to work. An article in the Los Angeles Times led him to the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley. There he found correspondence between Ishi's one-time captor and chair of the UCSF anthropology department, Alfred Kroeber, and officials at what was then known as the Smithsonian Institution's U.S. National Museum. Among the papers, Starn discovered one official document confirming the museum's acceptance of Kroeber's donation.

Ishi's brain was found in Suitland, Maryland, floating in formaldehyde in a Smithsonian warehouse. Museum officials eventually returned the brain, but not to the Maidu. "Guided by moral and legal obligations," they said, as articulated by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, they gave the brain to Ishi's closest living relatives, Shasta County descendants of the Yana, a subgroup of the Yahi. And the case was solved.

But the book had yet to be written. Now it is. The Search for Ishi's Brain, published by Duke University Press, is, as Starn told Duke Magazine in 1999, his commitment to "promote an understanding of histories of violence and of the relationship between whites and Native Americans." Ishi's brain is more than just a brain, said Starn. "It's a symbol."