by Janice Albert
The Kroeber home
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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