Orin Starn, Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004)
Reviewed by Brandi Denison
The Native American Grave and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 was the result of years of advocacy work by Native Americans. In returning Native American remains and sacred objects from museums and criminalizing the sale of such objects, NAGPRA was meant to resolve long-standing disputes and extend an olive branch in efforts of reconciliation after centuries of violence. However, the implementation of the law has resulted in complex contestations over identity and definitions of the sacred. Many of these contestations have taken place in the American West. There are many excellent books investigating NAGRPA, including our own blog contributor, Greg Johnson’s Sacred Claims: Repatriation and Living Tradition. Today, however, I’m revisiting an old friend, Orin Starn's Ishi's Brain, in honor of the Native American Religions course I will start teaching today.
Starn’s Ishi’s Brain is to be read with caution: upon reading, undergraduates may consider a life in the academy in order to emulate Starn’s work. This text chronicles Starn’s involvement in the repatriation of Ishi’s remains, a California Native American who captivated early twentieth century Americans as the last “wild” Indian. Ishi, who some claimed was the last Indian of the Yahi tribe, was found in 1911 in the Sacramento Valley and brought to San Francisco, where he lived in a museum and was taken care of by the leading anthropologist Alferd Kroeber. Upon Ishi’s death, doctors performed an autopsy and removed the brain to weigh it. While some historians claimed that the brain was cremated with the rest of Ishi’s remains, in the late nineties, some Native American groups were not so certain. Starn’s quest to locate Ishi’s brain is infused with the elements that make a good detective novel: intrigue, deception, and cryptic clues. That many of the events occur in San Francisco (a favorite location of film noir) only adds to the book’s alignment with the mystery genre. The search for Ishi’s brain sets the stage for Starn to reflect on the historiography of United States anthropology, the tangled history of California pioneer and Native American interactions, as well as United States government efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to confront and reconcile a troubled past “without any costly or personal sacrifice of their own” (168).
Starn also chronicles with a gently critical eye the meaning of Ishi’s remains and his past for a variety of groups wishing to connect with a “pure, primitive” past. Repatriation is a central issue, but the law remains in the background as Starn focuses on the human implications and complications of NAGPRA. By comparing Native American groups focused on burying Ishi to white American nostalgia for the “last wild Indian,” Starn reminds readers that funeral ceremonies are often not for the dead, but for the living. He suggests that the process of repatriation is an avenue for expressing Indian identity and reclaiming something that had been lost, reflecting “the decline of the assimilation model of leaving behind the old Indian ways and embracing a brave new American future.” Through remembering and honoring ancestral remains, groups could “insist on a distinctive apartness from the American mainstream” (277). The text also hints at the necessity of invention of tradition, as “no prescribed ‘traditional’ ceremony existed for reuniting a dismembered body” (266). The Native Americans who interred Ishi’s brain with his cremated remains, thus, did their best to honor “traditional” practices with the circumstances at hand. This text is highly effective at raising complex questions about the nature of the sacred, the relationship between science and ethics, tradition and law, and at humanizing people of the past that could all too easily be dismissed as “bad people.”
I’m anticipating that this will be a popular book to close out the semester.