Widely acclaimed as the “last member of the Yahi tribe” Ishi, at the age of 50, walked into the western world on September 4, 1911 and was found outside of Oroville, California. Ishi was noticed by the townspeople and the local sheriff, “took the man into custody for his own protection” (Heizer & Kroeber 1999). While Ishi was in holding, the townspeople contacted Alfred Kroeber, the founder of the department of Anthropology at the University of California and the renowned ethnologist, in order to have someone study him. Kroeber took Ishi to a new place of confinement, the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, California. It was common at the time for such museums to house Native Americans, not as display objects, but as informants (T. Kroeber 1961:123, King 1998:3). However, Ishi was put on public display and performed standard Yahi tasks such as “stringing a bow, making fire with a fire drill, or turned out a chipped arrowhead while the visitors watched” (T. Kroeber 1961:136 ,King 1998:4). In December 1915, after living in the museum for four years, Ishi developed tuberculosis. After several hospitalizations, he was moved back to the museum to spend his last days. Ishi died on March 25, 1916, permanently departing the collection of the museum (Heizer & Kroeber 1999).
Although, Kroeber and the museum staff had a deep affection for Ishi, Ishi always remained, a museum specimen, an intellectual resource, a cultural relic, and an object of entertainment for scholars and citizens alike (K. Kroeber & C. Kroeber 2003). Ishi’s career as a museum specimen demonstrates how the sentiments, stories, and structures constructed by curators and museum staff work to...
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...the audience observes and interprets the ‘native body’, situating the viewer in a position of supremacy.
This performative exhibition is significant not only because it unveiled the reproduction of imperial images and idioms in the present, but because it also underscores the possibilities of making exhibitionary and narrative practices central to the representation of Native American cultures and histories illuminate their operations and effects. Their project demonstrates the necessity and the difficulty of employing reflexivity in exhibitionary spaces. Ishi’s life and death in the museum illustrated the colonial conditions under which Native Americans entered into the EuroAmerican imaginary, whereas, Fusco and Gomez-Pena’s reverse ethnography calls attention to the colonial contours of American culture demonstrating that imperial imaginary is still present today.
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