Ishi: University of California Museum of Anthropology
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...
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...these beliefs influence our approach to non-Western cultures (Fusco 1994: 24). People’s acceptance and reactions are reminiscent of early ethnographic theory and practice wherein the anthropologist and audience observes and interprets the ‘native body’, situating the viewer in a position of supremacy (Clifford & Marcus 1986: 34).
This performative exhibit is significant because it unveiled the reproduction of imperial images and idioms in the present. Their project demonstrates the necessity and the difficulty of employing reflexivity in exhibit spaces. Ishi’s life and death in the museum illustrated the colonial conditions under which Native Americans entered into the EuroAmerican imagination, 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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