Segment from Let’s Make Up

Out of Body Experience

Anthropologist Orin Starn tells us about the the battle between the Smithsonian and a California tribe over the brain of a Yahi man named Ishi. Read more here.

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***This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of this show. There may be minor changes to the audio version you hear above.***

PETER: In 1911, a Native American walked out of the wilderness near Oroville, California. Hedidn’t speak English. He wore few clothes, and he didn’t know much about the Westernizedmodern world. He was the last survivor of the Yahi tribe.

BRIAN: Local authorities handed him over to a group of anthropologists at UC Berkeley. Theycalled him Ishi, and housed him in, of all places, a San Francisco Museum. That’s where Ishilived as both a janitor and, well, a kind of living exhibit, showing throngs of visitors how to makearrowheads. He was a sensation. He was known as America’s last Stone Age Indian.

But just five years later, Ishi died from tuberculosis. His body was cremated and placed in anurn in a San Francisco cemetery.

PETER: And that’s where our next episode of reconciliation begins. It picks up almost a centurylater in the late 1990s. It was then that a group of Native Americans banded together to giveIshi a proper burial in his ancestral homeland.

Anthropologist Orin Starn, who was writing a book about Ishi, traveled to Oroville to meet withthe Maidu tribe and had heard something intriguing.

ORIN STARN: One of the men there told me that he had heard a rumor that Ishi’s brain hadbeen removed from his body. In other words, that when Ishi cremated, his brain wasn’t part ofthe human remains that were put in that jar in that cemetery. He said that he had heard a rumorthat Ishi’s brain had been pickled, preserved for science, that it was on a museum or hospitalshelf somewhere, he didn’t know where.

PETER: So Starn decided to do a little digging. If the brain was really out there are somewhere,he wanted to find it. After going through some old correspondence between anthropologists,he discovered the rumor was true.

BRIAN: Yep. Strange as it might seem, science in the late 19th century was in the throes of abrain craze. Scientists preserved brains and used them as evidence for their ideas about racialhierarchies. By 1916, the brain fad was on its way out. But it hadn’t disappeared altogether,which helps explain why Ishi’s brain was taken from his body– taken, says Starn, despite thefact that the idea would’ve horrified Ishi, himself.

ORIN STARN: In Native Californian culture, and particularly in Yahi culture, there was a quitestrong idea that the dead should be handled as little as possible, that once death happened,the body should be buried right away, and that any kind of extended contact between the livingand the dead was dangerous to the living and was also the wrong thing to do by the dead, thatit hindered their journey up into the second level of the cosmos. So for Ishi, the idea of anautopsy was something that horrified him and that violated the very basic principles of his ownYahi cosmology. So it’s almost certain that he would not have wanted an autopsy to have beenconducted.

BRIAN: Well, tell us how this comes out. Did you end up finding the brain?

ORIN STARN: Well, what happened was that Ishi’s brain, because the idea of studying brainswas going out of fashion, was never studied. It stayed in a jar and then a tank with a bunch ofother brains in a Smithsonian warehouse, ultimately in Maryland.

BRIAN: Is that what they call a “think tank” in Washington?

ORIN STARN: They may call it a think tank, indeed. They may, indeed. These brains werefloating in a stainless-steel vat.

BRIAN: Now that’s sounds like Brookings.

ORIN STARN: (LAUGHS) They were there through into the 1990s. They called it the wetcollection. There’s a special part of the Smithsonian warehouse where they keep all the pickleddolphins, and the dog embryos, and the brains. It’s the stuff of a crazy science fiction movie or a horror movie all in itself.

And so what happened was I gave these letters that I had found showing that the brain hadbeen sent to the Smithsonian to the Indian activists in northern California. And they went to thepress.

BRIAN: And what year is this, Orin?

ORIN STARN: We are talking 1999, 2000– about 15 years ago now. And so this became a minilittle national story on All Things Considered, and the New York Times, and the WashingtonPost– “brain of legendary California Indian found in steel tank in Washington.” And theSmithsonian was really quite embarrassed. They initiated, right away, an investigation to figureout how to return the brain.

And ironically, they decided that the Maidu tribe– the tribe that had begun the whole crusadeto bring Ishi’s body back to northern California– were not the closest living descendants ofIshi’s Yahi. And instead, the Smithsonian chose two other tribes– the Pit River Tribe and theRedding Rancheria. And to their credit, the Pit River Tribe and the Redding Rancheriaanswered the challenge.

And they picked a delegation of elders and spiritual people– about eight of them. And they flewout to Washington. This is right before 9/11. And they wrapped up Ishi’s brain in a sacred deerskin, and they took it back as carry-on luggage, back to California.

And they drove up into the canyon of Deer Creek, five hours from San Francisco, and they helda ceremony. And they buried Ishi’s brain and his ashes there in a spot that will remain secretforever.

BRIAN: And at this point– we’re talking about roughly 2000– what did you think returning Ishi’sbrain would accomplish?

ORIN STARN: Well, you have to put this in the context of the so-called repatriation movement,which really gathers force in the 1990s. And this is the movement of Native Americans todemand back the skeletons and the sacred objects that had been dug up and stolen from themover the past 100 years.

BRIAN: Well, so it’s a part of a larger reconciliation effort, if you will.

ORIN STARN: It’s part of a larger effort at reconciliation. The US government passes NAGPRAin 1990, which is a long name for a law that obligates museums to return human remains andsacred objects to their tribal descendants. And you have to imagine that Ishi became a verypowerful symbol for Native Californians. Because his tribe was exterminated. His brain, againsthis will, we removed from his body.

So many Native Californians came to see Ishi as a symbol for all of the terrible things that weredone to them. So doing the right thing by Ishi– reburying in his homeland– became, for manyNative Californians, a way to try to reconcile themselves with a history in which they’d beenvery much mistreated and victimized, and which Ishi, himself, had been mistreated andvictimized– his tribe wiped out and his body desecrated after his death.

BRIAN: So once the dust settled, was there some sense of closure on the part of NativeAmericans here?

ORIN STARN: Well, I have a very personal perspective on this. I went in 2000– in September of2000. It was a beautiful fall weekend up by Mount Lassen. And I went to the memorialceremony– the public memorial ceremony– that the Pit River Tribe and the Redding Rancheriaorganized after they had done the secret burial of Ishi’s remains.

And so they held this ceremony out in the shadow of Mount Lassen, with the beautifulCalifornia light, in a meadow. And they invited everybody who wanted to come. So people flewabout from the Smithsonian. People like me, who had been involved, came. Some of the Maiducame. Some people came up from White Sand, Indians from the central valley of California.

And so we had this memorial ceremony there in the meadow to remember Ishi and to reflectupon his life and what meaning it might have for all of us. So this was, for me, a powerfulceremony, a powerful example of the effort at reconciliation– the effort to try to recognize theterrible things that have happened in the past– the terrible things that may still be happening inthe world today– and to acknowledge those together. But Native Californians, and NativeAmericans in general, are realistic. They don’t imagine that a repatriation ceremony are going tofix the problems of poverty, and alcoholism, and marginalization. So I think for NativeAmericans, reconciliation, repatriation is just one piece of a much bigger puzzle that we,together, still haven’t managed to solve.


BRIAN: Orin Starn is an anthropologist at Duke University. He’s the author of Ishi’s Brain– InSearch of America’s Last Wild Indian.


PETER: It’s time for another break. But stick around. When we get back, the surprisingconsequences of a gang truce on the mean streets of New York.

ED: More BackStory coming up in a minute.