Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Museum Piece

Joe & I went to the Hearst Museum of Anthropology today, over in Berkeley. Lots of California Indian artifacts, including things made by Ishi, "the last wild Indian." If you haven't heard of Ishi, it's worth using The Google to find out about him. Briefly, he was a Yahi Indian who spent pretty much his whole life in hiding from whites, and finally came out of hiding in 1911 when the rest of his family had died. Of course the officials didn't know what to do with him when he appeared - eventually Alfred Kroeber from what was then the San Francisco Museum of Anthropology took charge of him and he lived in the museum until he died of tuberculosis about 3 or 4 years later. It's a tragic but fascinating story, and when I teach my Survey of North American Indian Languages class I make sure to tell the students about it. (Relevant because Kroeber and Sapir did lots of language work with Ishi.) It always provokes very interesting discussions about ethics and intentions and the norms of the era and such.

Interestingly, and jarringly, the museum today had a living display - a Mayan woman in traditional clothing doing traditional weaving. (They have a large display of Mayan textiles which I guess she was illustrating.) What I found jarring about it was that the Berkeley Anthro department issued an apology for Kroeber's treatment of Ishi in the late 90s - wouldn't you have thought they would be sensitive about displaying a living human being in their museum almost 100 years after the Ishi episode?

We did enjoy it when the Mayan woman pulled her cellphone out of her huipil (the woven shirt they wear) and had a little chat with someone. Ishi didn't get to do that.

1 comment:

John Cowan said...

What on earth were they apologizing for? Ishi's people were murdered over a period of many years, and by taking him to Berkeley, he was kept safe from Indian-haters who would have done the same to him. As for the brain business, Kroeber had nothing to do with that, and tried to prevent it.