Sunday, April 03, 2016

“Ishi Means Man”

Ishi “died of tuberculosis in 1916,” Thomas Merton writes, “after four and a half years among white men.” For the hundredth anniversary of Ishi’s death, Paulist Press has reprinted a small compilation of essays, written toward the end of Merton’s life, exploring the spiritual lives of the indigenous peoples of the West.

Merton, the influential Catholic writer, who died in 1968, entered a Trappist monastery in Kentucky in 1941. According to the Thomas Merton Center he became an activist in the civil rights and peace movements of the Sixties, drawing “severe criticism, from Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who assailed his political writings as unbecoming of a monk.”

“Ishi Means Man” ($9.95 in paperback from Paulist Press; also for Amazon Kindle) features a short introduction by Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933 to promote her radical economic ideas. Some of the essays were originally published in Day’s newspaper, as was the title piece.

Merton’s reflections on Ishi are shaped by Theodora Kroeber’s “Ishi In Two Worlds: A Biography Of The Last Wild Indian In North America,” published in 1964. “The Yana Indians,” he writes, “(including the Yahi or Mill Creeks) lived around the foothills of Mount Lassen, east of the Sacramento River. Their country came within a few miles of Vina where the Trappist monastery in California stands today.”

Merton sees Ishi’s story as a “parable.” Facing attacks, Ishi’s people retreated into the hills. “The Yahi remnant (and that phrase takes on haunting biblical resonances) systematically learned to live as invisible and unknown.”

Writing during the throes of the Vietnam conflict, Merton contrasts “the spectacle of our own country with its incomparable technological power, its unequalled material strength, its psychic turmoil, its moral confusion, and its profound heritage of guilt…. What is most significant is that Vietnam seems to have become an extension of our old western frontier, complete with enemies of another ‘inferior’ race.”

Ishi never revealed his actual name. “In the end, no one ever found out a single name of the vanished community. Not even Ishi’s. For Ishi simply means MAN.”

If Merton co-opted Ishi for his own political agenda, readers may still find his words worth pondering.

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