It’s just a couple of arrows, but the pair of slender wood weapons are a reminder of a man who chose to live the rest of his life in museum rather than a reservation. And they’re easy to miss among the multitude of objects in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York’s ongoing Infinity of Nations exhibition.
“Live like the white people from now on. I want to stay where I am. I will grow old here, and die in this house.”
Those were the words uttered by Ishi, who claimed to be the last of the Yahi Indians, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs offered a relocation to a reservation in 1911. He’d suddenly appeared from the California wilderness, and found himself at the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco, acquiring the Yahi word for “man” as his name due to the Yahi custom of not saying your own moniker aloud. For the last five years of his life until he died in 1916 from tuberculosis, he was a sort of living diorama, as well as a voice for a vanishing past.
There’s some debate over if he was actually the last Yahi; either way he was isolated as a survivor of the disease and destruction that had claimed his culture. With the anthropologists at the museum he explained his now obsolete traditions, and created the arrows now in the Museum of the American Indian. However, they weren’t the only relic of his life that found its way to Smithsonian. After his death, and an undesired autopsy, his brain was given to the Smithsonian, and not repatriated to his descendants until August 10, 2000.
“Ishi’s arrows represent the hyper-real: objects of ethnographic interest reproduced within the walls of the museum,” John N. Low, American Culture PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, writes in the label text. “Perhaps Ishi resisted becoming a sideshow by creating tools of war and survival. If so, these objects can be understood as telling a story of control and compromise or strategic accommodation — or a combination of both.”
Ishi’s arrows are on view in the ongoing Infinity of Nations exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York (1 Bowling Green, Financial District, Manhattan).