Theodora Kroeber’s husband, Alfred Kroeber, was the curator of the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology in 1911, when Ishi appeared in the corral of a slaughterhouse in Oroville, California, completely alone and the last of his people. Upon hearing of Ishi, Kroeber immediately sent a representative of the museum to Oroville and instituted negotiations with the Indian Bureau in Washington, D.C., to save this “last wild man” and to bring him to the museum. Kroeber was among those closest to Ishi during his days there and, in fact, gave him the name “Ishi,” which means simply “man” in the Yahi language. (The Native American remained true to his tribal ways and never revealed his given name to the white strangers.)
Theodora Kroeber drew on her husband’s memories of Ishi, as well as on the published accounts of him. She also incorporated, as did Robbins the illustrator, Ishi’s material possessions and other representative artifacts that are still preserved at the museum. Although Kroeber tells the story in the third person, her use of Ishi’s point of view throughout makes the book less a memoir or an anthropological study than a sensitive re-creation of the Yahi world. Kroeber’s sympathies are certainly with Ishi and his people. Nevertheless, she is careful to offer a balanced representation of both the Native Americans and the whites, emphasizing the differences among those who feared their counterparts and regarded them...
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Ishi, Last of His Tribe is the second book that Theodora Kroeber wrote about Ishi. The first, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America, was published in 1961 and written for adults. It has become a classic in anthropological studies and, read in conjunction with her version of the story for young adults, fills in much of the background to Ishi’s story. Kroeber’s writing style for adults has the same lucidity and occasionally poetic quality that marks Ishi, Last of His Tribe, and her first treatment could be read easily by older adolescents desiring to know more facts about Ishi.
Kroeber’s work on Ishi has three advantages that many other biographical works for young adults—especially on Native Americans—do not. First, it is based on an actual event unique in American history: a Stone Age man living and working among twentieth century city dwellers. Second, Kroeber knew intimately several people who knew Ishi himself, and she had full access to all historical and anthropological materials about him, as well as a solid understanding of anthropological methods. Third, Kroeber is a writer before she is a historian or anthropologist; her handling of character, events, and time is virtually unsurpassed for its sensitivity and the depth of its intuitive understanding. Her book goes beyond an attempt to educate and becomes an unusual opportunity for young people truly to share the life of a unique person.