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Detail of Ho Chunk Bag (NMNH catalog no. E357877b)
The Repatriation of Ishi, the last Yahi Indian

The NMNH committed in March of 1999 to return the brain of Ishi to his descendants at the Redding Rancheria and Pit River Indian Tribe of California, and held it until they could recover cremated remains from the cemetery in Colma, California, where they were held by a private mortuary. The state of California released those remains and the brain and cremated remains of Ishi have since been reunited. Ishi's remains were repatriated on August 10, 2000. The remains were reinterred shortly thereafter at an undisclosed location. For more information review the research on this repatriation.

bullet Op-ed Statement on Ishi's Repatriation Robert Fri, Director
bullet Remains of Ishi coming home to California
bullet Facts About the Smithsonian's Repatriation of the Remains of Ishi to the Yana People
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Portrait of Ishi. Photo credit: National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

Op-ed Statement on Ishi's Repatriation Robert Fri, Director

Ishi is coming home to Northern California. In the next few weeks the Smithsonian Institution will return the brain of Ishi to his closest living relatives, the Yana people of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River Tribe. The Yana will then determine how to proceed with a proper burial. This will conclude a process of repatriation that has been guided by the Smithsonian's legal obligation and moral commitment to return Ishi's remains to his descendants.

Three months ago when the Smithsonian was first contacted about Ishi, we knew of no living members of his tribe. In fact, although he has been described as "the last Yahi," Ishi always identified himself as a YahiYana Indian. During the Smithsonian's consultations with Native American groups in Northern California, the Redding Rancheria and Pit River came forward and asked us to repatriate Ishi's remains to the Yana, or Noso as they call themselves.

In returning Ishi's remains to the Yana, the Smithsonian has followed both the letter and the spirit of the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 (NMAI). The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, reflects the moral principle that American Indians and Native Alaskans have a right to determine the destiny of their ancestral remains, sacred objects, funerary offerings, and cultural patrimonial objects conserved in museums throughout the United States. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History has adhered to this principle in returning more than 4,000 human remains and nearly 1,000 cultural objects, and we continue to follow it as we repatriate other Native American remains and objects still found in the museum's collections. Our consultations with Native Americans to return their ancestral remains and cultural inheritance has helped change the way the museum and the people, whose history and culture we document, work together.

Unfortunately, these constructive developments in the complex relationship between native peoples and museums have been obscured by calls for the Smithsonian to speed the return of Ishi's remains. In the weeks since we were first approached about Ishi's repatriation, the Institution has been described as insensitive to the need to put this matter to rest. This characterization is not only wrong, but it gives the appearance of disagreement between the Smithsonian and Native Americans where none exists. As director of the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, I have stated from the outset that the Institution would return Ishi's remains to California for proper burial, in accordance with the law governing repatriation.

A key element of the NMAI legislation, which was drafted in close cooperation with native leaders, is the requirement that museums consult with Native American tribes to ensure that all interested groups have the opportunity to voice their concerns and take part in the repatriation process. This requirement was included in the law at the request of native groups, who wanted to make certain that their cultural patrimony and the remains of their ancestors would be handled with dignity and respect. There was the fear that without a strict process of repatriation, museums could remove human remains and important cultural from their collections without the participation of Native Americans.

Of course, Native Americans do not speak with one voice, any more than other Americans do. Members of the museum's staff work every day with Native Americans to identify and return their people's remains and cultural patrimony. And we will continue to work diligently and without distraction to ensure Native Americans are not deprived of their legal right to say how and to whom the remains of their ancestors are returned.

Returning native remains to Indian hands does not absolve non-natives of responsibility for having taken them in the first place. But the process of repatriation worked for Ishi. And the Smithsonian is committed to seeing that it continues to work, through thorough consultation with native people who have the greatest stake in its success.

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Remains of Ishi Coming Home to California
Smithsonian prepares to repatriate to Redding Rancheria and Pit River Tribe

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 7, 1999-The Smithsonian Institution will repatriate the human remains of Ishi-commonly believed to be the lastYahi-Yana Indian who died in 1916 at the University of California-Berkeley-to California's Redding Rancheria and Pit River Tribe, Ishi's closest living relatives. The transfer will occur at the time and place, and in the manner, of their choosing, according to Smithsonian officials.

"The Smithsonian Institution recognizes that all California Native Americans feel a powerful connection with Ishi and a responsibility to see that his remains are united and given a proper burial," said Robert Fri, director of the National Museum of Natural History. "We want nothing more than to provide just that. We now offer to repatriate the remains of Ishi to the sovereign tribal governments that represent these Yana descendants, with the full blessing of those related to Ishi."

Earlier this year, it was widely reported that Ishi's brain was in the anthropology collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. In recent weeks, the museum has been engaged in the process, as required under the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989, of returning Ishi's remains to his rightful descendants. This process included careful consultation with northern California Native American groups, which is how Ishi's descendants were identified.

"Contrary to commonly-held belief, Ishi was not the last of his kind," said Fri. "In carrying out the repatriation process we learned that as a Yahi-Yana Indian his closest living descendants are the Yana people of northern California. We consulted with them and they have indicated that they are ready to accept Ishi's remains."

Fri continued, "During the repatriation process the Smithsonian was urged to speed up the process of returning Ishi's brain to California. However, we were guided by the moral, and legal, obligation to find out whether any of Ishi's descendants were still alive. For that reason it has been necessary to take the time to talk with as many Native groups in northern California as possible."

Consultation during the repatriation process ensures that all Native American groups have the opportunity to voice their concerns, contribute to the repatriation process and secure their legal rights. This process has allowed the National Museum of Natural History to provide information on its collection, policies and repatriation efforts, while at the same ensuring that Native considerations and interests govern the repatriation of Ishi's remains.

The repatriation legislation also mandates cultural affiliation as the basis for the return of human remains and objects. It prescribes a process of information gathering, thorough research and consultation, so that all perspectives, both native and scholarly, are taken into consideration.

Since 1984, the National Museum of Natural History has repatriated more than 4,000 of the museum's collection of 18,000 Native remains to American Indian tribes, a process that began five years before federal repatriation legislation was enacted. The repatriation of Ishi's remains back to the Redding Rancheria and the Pit River Tribe represents an important first step in the much broader process to return ancestral remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony of these and other culturally affiliated tribes of northern California.

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Facts About the Smithsonian's Repatriation of the Remains of Ishi to the Yana People

Why Did it Take Two Months to Repatriate Ishi's Brain:

  1. This was completed very rapidly and it has been a little more than two months since the museum was first contacted by Native Americans in regard to Ishi.

  2. We followed the steps required in the law: notification and information sharing, consultation, evaluation of evidence from native and scholarly sources, and an offer to repatriate.

Why Did We Decide What We Did:

The law tells us to do two things:

  1. Identify the "cultural affiliation" of the human remains based on the available evidence from "... geographical, kinship, biological, archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, folkloric, oral traditional, historical, or other relevant information or expert opinion ..."

  2. Repatriate to federally-recognized tribes or their representatives (i.e. individuals or groups specifically identified by the tribal government)

We consulted with Native Americans in northern California in visits to the museum and by NMNH staff to California. The Yana people identified themselves to us and told us they wanted to repatriate Ishi's remains. We then offered the remains to the Yana.

Legal Points:

Repatriation legislation was enacted with the participation of Native people, museums, archaeologists, and legislators. The current process has the strong support of Native people nationwide.

The NMAI Act uses the "preponderance of evidence" standard, which means decisions are made in favor of an option which is "more likely than not":

  1. It is more likely than not that Redding Rancheria and Pit River Tribe represent the majority of all Yana descendants.

  2. It is overwhelmingly more likely than not that Ishi was a Yana Indian

Consultation is the most important step in a repatriation. This is part of the "process" required in the law, largely in response to the concerns of Native people that museums work with them to implement repatriation.

Consultation includes the sharing of information by both sides and the discussion of a broad range of issues. Consultation allows Native people to identify their concerns and tell us what and how they want to proceed with repatriation; we do not have to agree with everything they say, but the process provides a forum for all voices.

We work on a "government to government" basis with Indian tribes, as prescribed in the law and policy. This respects tribal sovereignty over matters which deal with the legal, cultural, and internal affairs of an Indian people. In repatriation, this means that we work through federally-recognized Indian tribes.

Historical Points:

  1. Ishi always identified himself as a Yahi-Yana person. These are terms made up by anthropologists and refer to the two closely related dialects of the Yana language: "Yana" and "Yahi" both mean man, in the northern and southern dialects respectively. Ishi communicated easily with other Yana and with linguists by using Yana-Yahi

  2. The Yana had a distinctive language, with different dialects for addressing men and women: one used a distinctive pronunciations when speaking to men or women. This gender-specific dialect pattern is highly unusual in any language, and demonstrates the close common identity of all Yana speakers (including Ishi as a Yahi speaker).

  3. The notion that Ishi was the "last of his people" comes from the fact that Ishi was the last known Yana to live a life essentially outside of direct contact with whites. There always were many of his tribe still alive, but they had become enmeshed in the larger 'American' society as had other Natives. One might say that Kroeber and the early anthropologists thought of him as the last "real Indian" - a notion that is largely defunct today.

  4. Descendants of the Yana are members of the Redding Rancheria and the Pit River Tribe. Representatives of the Redding Rancheria and the Pit River Tribe traveled to Washington D.C. in August of 2000. The remains of Ishi were formally repatriated to the Redding Rancheria and the Pit River Tribe on August 10, 2000.

Ishi Biography and Chronology:

  1. Born ca. 1864 died of tuberculosis 23 March 1916.

  2. Ishi and an unknown number of Yahi-Yana remained in their traditional homeland in Tehama County (Deer and Mill Creeks) by avoiding direct contact with settlers.

  3. Lived with three other Yahi survivors undetected until 1908, when surveyors disturbed their home. A woman thought to be Ishi's mother, and another thought to be his sister were seen; they probably died shortly afterwards. An old man was also seen and probably died.

  4. Ishi left his homeland and traveled to Oroville, CA, in 1911, where he was found at a slaughterhouse. He was placed in jail for his protection and released to accompany University of California anthropologist T.T. Waterman to San Francisco. Waterman established the first communication with Ishi by using a Yana vocabulary that had been collected by a linguist.

  5. Lived at University of California Anthropology Museum 1911-1916. Employed as a janitor in the museum and gave demonstrations of archery, flintknapping, house construction, fire making, and other crafts and skills. Worked with anthropologists to document Yana culture and language.

  6. Autopsy performed at University of California medical school. His body was cremated along with some possessions and placed in a Pueblo jar in Mt.Olivet Cemetery, Colma, CA.

  7. Alfred Kroeber, head of the anthropology department at Berkeley, sent the preserved brain to SI in early 1917. It is a donation from the "University of California."

  8. Offered for repatriation: May 5, 1999

  9. Repatriated to representatives of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River Tribe on August 10, 2000.

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