Review: Ishi, The Last Yahi (1993)

Yolanda Lynn


The film, Ishi: the Last Yahi is based on the work of White American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. One of the guiding principles for his “scientific” study has it that “the study of culture begins only after the individual person is subtracted out of the equation” (quoted from instructions for this paper). It is the thesis of this essay that this afore mentioned method puts the discipline of imperialist anthropology squarely inside the bounds of a dying culture — that of Western civilization. This review is written according to the principles of People’s Research.

Of Subjects and Objects: The Relationship between Researcher and the Researched

While to the mind of the everyday sentient human living today, this method may sound astonishing, the everyday human, witnessing the death of this culture also understands it to be at the same time the normal functioning in the United States today. Indeed, in cataclysmic times the normal and what is astonishing can blur and be submerged with one another. Kroeber, armed with this method, set out to study the Yahi as an already dead people through the lens of Ishi, his alleged “Last Yahi.” Indeed, in typical imperialist fashion this White American anthropologist sees all non-White Americans as “other” and views his “discoveries” as universal. The truth, from both a material and spiritual perspective, that Ishi is far from the “Last Yahi,” is irrelevant and secondary to the valuable study being conducted by Kroeber (Gretchen, 1996). After all, the actor in imperialist anthropology is the subject, the anthropologist. The Native American being examined is a static, non-acting object. That, in scientific fact, Kroeber and US imperialism represent all that is dying in the universe today only flashes before this anthropologist’s mind fleetingly throughout this film.

Kroeber’s Findings, I

It must first be established that while Kroeber was intent upon finding “wild men,” the truly wild men are the Europeans who wantonly (wildly) slaughtered millions of native nation peoples in order to establish the dominance of their political, economic and cultural ways. Kroeber at no time situates himself in this reality, this slaughter of the native peoples, as a cultural extension of genocide. As Kroeber endeavors to “subtract” Ishi “out of the equation,” he fails to experience his anthropology as a ritual of death. As such, this researcher is like a cultural blind man.

Kroeber’s Findings, II

The film’s narrators inform us that there was “a passive acceptance” among the research team that “this race [sic] of people was to disappear” entirely once Ishi dies. Again, the subject is White Americans — real humans — and the objects, from which their “science” endeavors to extract valuable information for the continued preservation of Western life, are the Native Americans who they have taken off the planet. This observer experiences this anthropology as being far from “passive.” It is a cultural foundation stone upon which Western imperialism continues its death march.

Kroeber’s Findings, III

In what may be considered an instance of a “fleeting flash of truth” mentioned earlier, Kroeber describes the passing of Ishi and his people as “a sad chapter in the life” of Western civilization. He says that revisiting this chapter through the study of Ishi “is like visiting a battefield.” Notice the second hand distance the anthropologist uses to identify his practice — he does not see imperialism as war against the peoples and life on planet earth. Instead, he sees his study as being “like visiting a battlefield,” when, in fact it is a battlefield.

People’s Research and the Liberation of Humankind

People’s Research teaches us that research conducted of, by and for the People’s Liberation Movements is the only legitimate source of anthropologic truth. Such research, conducted, for example, by Native Americans and their natural allies in concert with their efforts to free humankind from this dying social system, is an activity which is in concert with the natural rhythms of the universe. “People’s Research starts with the people as we search in our communities to discover the inner logic of events and circumstances, and thereby, identify the keys to our social progress” (Social Justice Education, 2016).

Conclusion: This observer’s assessment of the Ishi episode in the life of Western anthropology and US imperialism is contained within the thesis of this paper: To the extent that there is any “harmony” in death, this study of “Ishi: the Last Yahi” is in “fluid” harmony with the death throes of Western anthropology as a fake scientific discipline, and with the death of US imperialism as a social system. Hope for the world lies in the People’s Liberation Movements.

Works Cited

Ishi: the Last Yahi. National Endowment for the Humanities/Rattlesnake Productions.

Kell, Gretchen. “Ishi apparently wasn’t the last Yahi, according to new evidence from UC Berkeley research archaeologist.” University of California at Berkeley Public Information Office. (1996).

Social Justice Education. People’s Research.