Thursday, June 10, 2010

Currently Reading...

Ishi's Brain - In Search of America's Last Wild Indian

"Touted in his day as "the last wild Indian," Ishi, of the Northern Californian Yahi people, survived by adapting to a life housed within a San Francisco anthropological museum, where spectators paid to see him make arrowheads, until he died in 1916. Under 1990s repatriation laws, a group of Maidu Indians from the Sierra Nevada region sought to reclaim Ishi's ashes, buried in a San Francisco cemetery, but a rumor persisted that Ishi's brain had been removed during autopsy, pickled, and was still hidden somewhere. Duke University anthropologist Starn searched for the brain and here offers an unlikely narrative, informative and politicized, with easy-to-read, much-needed thumbnail histories of the Indian Wars. (As Starn notes, California Gold Rush atrocities against Native Americans are so recent that people remember them firsthand from their grandparents.) One of Starn's main accusations is that the widow of the important, early anthropologist Alfred Kroeber first made Ishi's story famous through "writerly liberties" as well as "careless research and made-up dramatic effects." Starn himself makes his own feelings and impressions central to the story, allowing himself to tell us, for example, that he "fell asleep at midnight with the motel swimming pool's blue floodlights glowing through the curtains like the beams of an alien spaceship." His search takes him from the University of Berkeley to the Cornucopia Restaurant in Oroville, Calif., to the Repatriation Office and "wet collection" in the Smithsonian Museum of National History, to an Ancestral Gathering at Mount Lassen National Park, to "Grizzly Bear's Hiding Place." For some readers, Starn-as-protagonist will ground this intellectual mystery, while others will find him distracting. But on the whole, the book satisfies as a quick review of sordid chapters in the nation's history, and a genuinely compelling investigation of how one culture's attempt to dominate another can take bizarre, persistent forms."