Sunday, March 23, 2014

Local researcher retraces the “Ishi expedition”


“The story begins in San Francisco with Ishi and Professor Alfred L. Kroeber.” He and his fellow anthropologists wanted “to learn how California Indians lived and survived in pre-contact times.” So, on May 13, 1914, “Ishi and his friends” depart by train to Vina where he “becomes the lead guide for a trip into the rugged and remote Yahi foothill country.”

As independent researcher Richard Burrill puts it, “they experience, in all, nineteen days of adventure, turmoil, challenges, discoveries, and some resolution. The group remains in the foothill country until the evening of May 30, 1914, when the sleeping volcano, Lassen Peak, awakens and starts erupting!”

The proceedings are recounted in a kind of narrative encyclopedia. “Ishi’s Return Home: The 1914 Anthropological Expedition Story” ($29.95 in paperback from The Anthro Company, available at or locally at Lyon Books in Chico) contains 357 photographs, almost thirty maps, and numerous documents, including Ishi’s 185 Yahi place names.

The story is driven by many personalities, not least of which is Jack Apperson of Vina. He was hired “as the trip’s lead muleskinner to guide and supply saddles and pack animals.” Kroeber and colleague Thomas T. Waterman made “a calculated decision to work with … ‘One-Eyed Jack,’ as Ishi called him.” Apperson “was the one who had started it all. If truth be known, One-Eyed Jack was the local Vina rancher who led in discovering and sacking Ishi’s Yahi village in 1908.”

Then, a few days later, “Apperson informed the outside world of the wild Indians’ existence” by going to the Chico Record, which headlined the story “Camp of Wild Indians Reported Found in Deer Creek Canyon” in Eastern Tehama County. The story hit the wires and came to the attention of Kroeber and Waterman. In 1914 Apperson was arrogant and “always wanted to be in the limelight.” Waterman despised Apperson, and what must Ishi have felt toward One-Eyed Jack? As Burrill recounts it, part of the tale is one of extraordinary forgiveness.

Sections of the book take the reader to the landforms traversed by the expedition, and detail Ishi’s skills and experiences. It’s an immersive adventure.

Burrill will be speaking about Ishi on Thursday, March 27 at 7:00 p.m. at Lyon Books.

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