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Theodora Kroeber (1897-1979)
by Janice Albert

The Kroeber home in Berkeley

 

The work of Theodora Kroeber, a writer who lived most of her life in Berkeley, California, captures extremes both of sorrow and of wonder.

To read Mrs. Kroeber's most famous work, Ishi in Two Worlds, is to read the story of the reduction of a Northern California tribe, the Yahis, from a group of about 15,000 to a single survivor whose death marked their total extinction. The man known as "Ishi" lived an estimated 50 years among his people as they slowly died of famine, disease, massacre and unthinking callousness. With the remnants of the tribe, he lived for seven years in complete hiding, walking in stream beds and brushing away all tracks as they continued to search for food in the familiar ways of hunting, fishing and gathering.

When Ishi was discovered in Oroville, a mining town on the Feather River, in August 1911, he probably expected to be killed, but hunger and loneliness had made him desperate. He had spent the last two-to-three years completely alone and was wearing traditional marks of mourning. Even after he was placed in the care of University of California anthropologists, there was no one to whom he could speak beyond a few words, painstakingly presented from a list of a related language group.

"Ishi" was not his tribal name, but a word meaning "man" in Yahi. Because of tribal prohibition against using one's own name, Ishi stopped using this word after he realized that others were treating it as his name. How, under such circumstances, is it possible to write about Ishi?

One of the men to whom Ishi was entrusted after he was discovered (and jailed) in Oroville was the young Alfred Kroeber, then 35 years old, ten years into his long career with the University of California. Kroeber and his colleague Waterman took their charge to San Francisco where Mrs. Hearst was helping the university build a museum of anthropology.

Curious as it sounds, Ishi became a resident in the museum, teaching the scientists about his life, examining the curious features of his new world, and providing Sunday afternoon entertainment for families who would bring their children to Parnassus Heights to watch "the last wild Indian" chip arrowheads out of obsidian and glass.

Ishi lived only three years in this arrangement. During this period, Kroeber's first wife, Henriette, was dying. A bond formed between the two men as Kroeber felt his grief to be understood by a fellow creature to whom grief was the color of life. Theodora Kroeber, Alfred's second wife, writes

Through the few words they exchanged, through the comfortable silences between the words, [Kroeber] felt Ishi trying to help him in his own loss, to comfort him, to transmit to him something of the strength and wisdom of his own Yana faith….Kroeber returned to his own room. He took from the safe one of the Yurok notebooks. He worked for an hour, for two hours…. He was exhausted, but relatively at peace. He had discovered, with Ishi's help, an anodyne--work--which from that day would rescue him when grief, worry, the agony of living threatened to engulf and overwhelm him.

In 1916, Ishi died of tuberculosis following a series of colds and pneumonia. Kroeber, who had not realized how ill he was, was unable to be with him. Although he went on to complete many distinguished books, Kroeber never tried to write the story of Ishi. Theodora tells us that when she began to draft the story in the fifties, Kroeber patiently read her notes and corrected her misinterpretations, but doing so brought back the painful as well as the fulfilling memories. "I knew then that Kroeber would never have written Ishi's biography. He had lived too much of it, and too much of it was the stuff of human agony from whose immediacy he could not sufficiently distance himself."

Kroeber died in 1960. One year later, Theodora, a woman who had published only one book before at the age of 62, brought out Ishi in Two Worlds, a story so well-told and immediate that a reader is stunned to realize that she is working entirely from secondary sources, writing about a man she never met.

Ishi in Two Worlds recounts the prehistoric world of northern California before the Gold Rush. (The travels of Junipero Serra and the development of missions never did not come far enough north to disturb the native way of life.) Working from her husband's stories and from historical material in the archives of the Bancroft library, Theodora reconstructs the years which marked the beginning of the end for the Yahi, including reports of the Kingsley Cave massacre which was clearly intended to exterminate the tribe.

Theodora Kroeber's other writing includes a children's version of the story, "Ishi, Last of his Tribe;" a book of nine Indian tales, "The Inland Whale;" and a children's tale, "A Green Christmas." Her reminiscence of her life with Kroeber is titled, "Alfred Kroeber, a Personal Configuration," (UC Press 1970.)

Born Theodora Krakow in Denver, Colorado in 1897, she married Clifton Spencer Brown. When he died in 1923, she was left with their two sons, Clifton and Theodore. After her marriage to Alfred Kroeber in March, 1926, two more children were born and Kroeber adopted his stepsons, creating a family of Theodore, Clifford, who went on to become a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Karl, who became a professor of English at Columbia University, and a daughter, the Oregon-based author of speculative fiction, Ursula LeGuin.

The family lived together at 1325 Arch Street on the north side of the university campus. Set into a hillside, the house known as "Semper Virens" was designed by Bernard Maybeck and is finished inside and out with unstained redwood. A one-car garage betrays the fact that the house was designed for simpler times. Its garden of wild flowers and California natives is entirely in keeping with the requirements of drought-prone northern California.

"Ishi"

Alfred Kroeber's "monument" must be Kroeber Hall, on the south side of the university campus. Here, in the Lowie Museum, visitors can view for themselves the collection of Ishi's earthly possessions--arrowheads, bows, flint. In their short time together, Kroeber and Ishi recorded many of his songs and traveled to the Lassen area where Ishi showed Kroeber and Dr. Saxton Pope the arts of survival that he practiced. These photos and sounds are preserved on a videotape funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the California Council for the Humanities. Alfred Kroeber is buried at Sunset View cemetery in El Cerrito. Theodora lived until 1979. The site of Ishi's discovery is California Historical Landmark no. 809, six miles north of Oroville in Butte County.

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