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The Kroeber‑Ishi Story: Three Cinematic Versions

Jack Glazier

Oberlin College

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Glazier, Jack, 2022. “The Kroeber‑Ishi Story: Three Cinematic Versions”, in Bérose - Encyclopédie internationale des histoires de l'anthropologie, Paris.

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Cet article fait partie d’une série de six communications présentées le 19 novembre 2021, lors d’une session intitulée “Alfred L. Kroeber : The Man, His Work and His Legacy”, organisée pendant la réunion annuelle de l’American Anthropological Association (AAA). Le 27 janvier 2021, l’Université de Berkeley (Californie) a débaptisé le “Kroeber Hall” qui abrite le département et le musée d’anthropologie - institutions fondées par Kroeber. Il nous a semblé intéressant d’offrir en lecture dans Bérose ces six contributions discutées en novembre. Sans prétendre à l’exhaustivité, elle offrent des éclairages complémentaires sur l’oeuvre d’une figure majeure de l’histoire de l’anthropologie états-unienne. Participaient à cette session : Herbert S. Lewis (organisateur, Université du Wisconsin-Madison), Stanley Brandes (Université de Californie, Berkeley), James Stanlaw (président, Illinois State University), Jack Glazier (Oberlin College), Nicholas Barron (Mission College), et Nancy Scheper-Hughes (Université de Californie, Berkeley).

In 1960 the University of California conferred the high honor of naming a building after the dean of American anthropology, Alfred L. Kroeber, who attended the dedication of Kroeber Hall just months before his death. Sixty years after that dedication, the chancellor of UC Berkeley, attentive to her administrative, faculty, and student minions, censured Alfred Kroeber for his research on California’s first inhabitants. Like college and university administrations across the country, a timorous Berkeley leadership dreads allegations of racism and avoids the possibility at all costs. Distorting the historical record and fearing the opprobrium of a self-righteous constituency capable of shaming a great university, a weak-kneed leadership without hesitation sacrificed its moral authority to freshly emboldened ethnoracial communities and their allies. American Indian students, for whom identity alone established their authority to assess Kroeber’s career, thus compelled the sympathetic attention of the chancellor, who approved the removal of the name from the building. Kroeber’s long-ago critique of autobiographical data in the analysis of culture offers a prescient commentary on his censorious Berkeley accusers “for whom recency is the most significant feature of thinking” (Kroeber 1945:318). Earlier this year the visible result of their reputational revisionism lay in a pile of debris where a workman had chiseled off the letters of the Kroeber name from the building.

The name “Kroeber” is now linked to the LeConte brothers, former slaveowners and university benefactors, whose name, now removed, for many years identified the physics building. The effacement of the LeConte name exposed an ignored history of race suppression that the university now acknowledges and from which it now dissociates itself. Bravo. The expurgation of the Kroeber name, however, does just the opposite, perverting history by inventing his complicity in shameful events. Sanctioning Kroeber’s defamation, the chair of the Berkeley anthropology department observed that “The name binds the discipline to a past it no longer needs.” It might also be said that the past no longer needed is the past that is politically inconvenient. A past discarded solely for contemporary political reasons, as George Orwell knew, represents not only the triumph of an authoritarian present but also the pathway to a totalitarian future now within sight.

Three dated films depicting the relationship of Kroeber and Ishi, the last survivor of the decimated Yahi, serve as retrospective counterpoints to the “unnaming” of Kroeber Hall. Those cinematic representations can help to illuminate two cultural moments sixty years apart when homage and ignominy embodied two radically opposed memories of Alfred Kroeber whose relationship to Ishi is integral to each memory. Prompting reflections about how we remember the two men, none of the films betrays the historical tone deafness of those who endorsed the purge of the Kroeber name.

The films are Ishi in Two Worlds, directed by Richard C. Tomkins (1967), companion piece to Theodora Kroeber’s famed 1961 book of the same title ; The Last Yahi, an acclaimed 1993 documentary directed by Jed Riffe and Pamela Roberts ; and The Last of His Tribe, a 1994 HBO production directed by Harry Hook which reflects admirable historical research as well as inventive flourishes that advance understanding of the Kroeber–Ishi relationship. The narrator of Ishi in Two Worlds concludes the film with these words : “What does Ishi mean to us today ? No more than what we remember of him.” “Today” was 1967 when the memory of Ishi was different from what the filmmakers of the 1990s recalled. Each film explored the Kroeber–Ishi relationship, constrained by the known facts in the two documentaries. Even the artful dramatic license of The Last of His Tribe expands the story without serious distortion. Since they were produced, continuing scholarship has further illuminated the intersection of two lives, revealing Ishi’s considerable agency. Efforts to portray him as a passive victim of a singular anthropological drive to extract information from him do not accord with what we know of his daily life in the museum and the warm relationships he enjoyed with people in San Francisco and Oakland. The films and scholarly publications of recent years memorialize the Kroeber–Ishi relationship and Alfred Kroeber’s anthropology, although not in the same way. But they do share a fidelity to the historical record.

Until 1961 Ishi was not remembered except by a few California anthropologists and archeologists familiar with the documentary record of his life. That record includes the Yahi entries in Kroeber’s monumental Handbook of the Indians of California (1925) and articles in the University of California Publications in Archeology and Ethnology by anthropologists Edward Sapir and Tom Waterman as well as Ishi’s personal physician and archery companion Saxton Pope. After fifty years of collective amnesia, Theodora Kroeber’s book and companion film revived the saga of Ishi along with Kroeber’s personal, understated tribute in the Handbook : “He was industrious, kindly, obliging, invariably even tempered, ready of smile and thoroughly endeared himself to all with whom he came in contact” (1925:344).

The three films reflect the relationship between anthropology and broader cultural currents of their time. Ishi in Two Worlds appeared six years after the book when anthropology was at its apex, marked by an expansion of departments, tenurable faculty positions, graduate student enrollment, and financial support. Margaret Mead remained the admired face of anthropology, providing excellent public relations and international visibility for her self-confident discipline.

Ishi in the 1967 documentary appears as the living repository of a vanished culture, a unique individual with great strength of character, dignified and stoic. The anthropologists are well meaning, concerned about Ishi’s welfare and seemingly without shortcomings. In passing, the film notes the violent destruction of the Yahi and projects images of Kingsley Cave and other sites where the Yahi were massacred. But the primary narrative focus is ethnographic salvage through Ishi, the sole exemplar of Yahi life, and Alfred Kroeber, the ethnographer and cultural historian then immersed in research for the Handbook. Ishi, both at the museum in San Francisco and in a return visit to his remote home, appears with friends and patrons as a vital and willing cooperator and the only hope for the archival preservation of Yahi history and culture. Still, the film leaves viewers wondering about Ishi’s interior life, which is practically unknown. He remains a mystery.

The film celebrates Ishi’s humanity and his relationship to Kroeber, the “anthropologist as hero” in the apt phrase Susan Sontag applied to Lévi-Strauss (1970 [1966]). Like the book, Ishi in Two Worlds is an affectionate tribute to Alfred Kroeber by his loving second wife and partner, Theodora. We hear Ishi chant the gambling songs that Kroeber recorded on wax cylinders, a singular and invaluable record of the Yahi language that we now know much more about thanks to the splendid work of our late colleague Ira Jacknis (2003). Without controversy, the unproblematic Ishi in Two Worlds premiered as the ferment of the 1960s was catching up with anthropology ; those conflicts would engulf the field in the next decade and beyond, insuring the Kroeber–Ishi story would be recast or reinterpreted in later tellings, including the ideological deformations leading to the suppression of the Kroeber name.

My teaching provides a case in point. I recall two instances and two very different reactions to my showing Ishi in Two Worlds in class. In fall 1971, I began teaching at Oberlin College. My reading list for introductory cultural anthropology included Theodora Kroeber’s book. I also showed the relatively recent companion film. Years prior to the institutionalization of course evaluations that quietly terrorized my colleagues, several students spoke to me after the last class, thanking me for assigning Ishi in Two Worlds and showing the film. They found the story moving and even revelatory of a part of American history wholly new to them. I was gratified, especially since I knew that other features of that first course were less commendable.

Fast forward to the early 1990s. I decided to show Ishi in Two Worlds in a course on culture theory. A veteran teacher by then, I thought the film would provide a useful instructional aid for discussions of Boasian historical ethnology, salvage ethnography, and of course the early career of Alfred Kroeber. It was not to be, at least as I had planned it. At a particularly tacky point in the video—perhaps those who have watched it remember the scene—a clumsily doctored portion of the film showed salmon suddenly appearing out of thin air and then soaring past a mid-journey waterfall. Coincident with the salmon leaping, a student leapt from her seat in an audible huff, heading upstream to the exit. Others, more polite yet still unforgiving remained to protest what they saw as the objectification and exploitation of native people. Students interpreted Ishi’s live demonstrations of flint knapping and other Yahi practices at the museum as more akin to a carnival display that only served to advance what they regarded as the self-serving career of Alfred Kroeber.

What happened over the approximately twenty-five years between student gratitude in 1971 and the edgy 1990s student criticism of the film ? However self-assured it was when Ishi in Two Worlds appeared, anthropology by the latter decade was facing some off-setting forces of a different order. Challenges from within springing from an ascendant anti-science postmodernism had settled onto campuses where offended virtue could stifle or corrupt any discussion. It has gotten worse as canons of ethnographic reporting face challenges from a self-righteous, ethnocentric moralism. For a brief time until protest effected its reversal, the 2010 mission statement of the American Anthropological Association defined the goals and aspirations of the discipline as outside the purview of science. Nonetheless, an anti-science ideology continues to pervade the subfield of cultural anthropology. These developments, already apparent in the anthropology of the 1990s, provide the backdrop of my students’ critique of Ishi in Two Worlds as well as the defense by some anthropologists of the unnaming of Kroeber Hall.

The two films from the 1990s, The Last Yahi and The Last of His Tribe, commendably portray Ishi as a much more complex figure than we encounter in Ishi in Two Worlds. His life and death take on a new resonance in both the documentary and semi-fictional retellings of the complex bonds uniting Ishi and Kroeber. There is great interest in Ishi’s inner state, both in his isolation before his museum years and in that latter period among the anthropologists. Neither film shrinks from a more critical but not cynical portrayal of those relationships and, at times, the anthropologists’ insensitivity toward Ishi’s wishes. Trying to discover more about Ishi and perhaps to imagine his frame of mind, The Last Yahi shows Native American scholar Brian Bibby and colleagues reviewing Kroeber’s notes and maps of the 1914 expedition back to Ishi’s homeland. They hoped to visit the final hidden refuge of the Yahi remnant. But Bibby’s visit to Bear’s Hiding Place seemed only partly a journey of discovery ; it was also akin to a pilgrimage to a holy site, where contemplative reflection about Ishi, his mother and his sister could occur. Its location remains a guarded secret, protecting its near-sacred character from desecration by curiosity seekers.

Both The Last Yahi and The Last of His Tribe, more bluntly than Ishi in Two Worlds, expose the atrocities ultimately leading a desperate and despairing Ishi to surrender himself to an unknown fate. The Last of His Tribe enacts in graphic detail the massacres and the murder of Ishi’s father and later his sister. Both films subtly criticize Kroeber’s decision not to write of the destruction of the Yahi, a task that Kroeber rationalized in scholarly terms. He believed that the historian rather than the anthropologist was better suited to that task. We also gain some psychological insight into Kroeber, a private man, not given to overt emotional expressions. Thomas Buckley, in The Last Yahi, remarks that Kroeber once said he couldn’t stand the tears that would accompany any close look at the violent destruction of the aboriginal populations of California.

While The Last Yahi documents Kroeber’s turning away from historical atrocities, focusing instead on close work with Ishi and ethnographic recovery, it acknowledges the barriers that limited an understanding of Ishi’s inner thoughts. The primary obstacle was of course language, even after five years. Neither Kroeber nor Waterman could understand Yahi. How could they ? And the foremost linguist in the world and authority on Indian languages, Edward Sapir, made only limited progress in penetrating the enigmatic texts Ishi provided in the summer of 1915. Sapir had studied the neighboring Yana language, but it was only of modest value in trying to comprehend Yahi owing to the remarkable diversity of California languages, even over short distances. Communication with Ishi was thus restricted to a few hundred words of English he had learned and the limited grasp of Yahi that the anthropologists could attain. Ishi’s recordings of Yahi on wax cylinders are all that remain of the spoken language, but they have enabled contemporary linguists to produce some translations that even Sapir could not achieve (Luthin and Hinton 2003a, 2003b ; Perry 2003). This fact among many others gives the lie to the preposterous claim, even among anthropologists, that anthropology has been responsible for the erasure of native peoples. It doesn’t take a leap of faith to summon what would be the nearly blank picture of aboriginal California in the absence of Kroeber’s cooperative research with American Indian elders that culminated in the Handbook.

The question of communication is glibly handled in HBO’s The Last of His Tribe. In advancing the drama and the complexity of the Kroeber–Ishi relationship, the film depicts an ease of communication between the protagonists that is pure fiction. The most imaginative begins when Ishi, played by Oneida Indian Graham Greene, arrives from Oroville, greeted at the museum by Kroeber, played by an overly exuberant John Voight. Kroeber/Voight immediately begins to converse with Ishi in fluent Yahi, a feat even beyond Kroeber’s genius. The language consultant for the film was William Shipley, who worked with Kroeber and Mary Haas, studying Maidu, the medium that Ishi and Kroeber were likely speaking in the film. Later, Ishi demonstrates a command of English he did not possess, although we have learned that Ishi’s restricted English did not prevent his forging warm acquaintanceships with various people in his solo walks near Golden Gate Park.

The Last Yahi in some respects embeds an extended metaphor of death and renewal. Early in the film, we learn that the Yahi land of the dead lies south and west, precisely the direction Tom Waterman and Ishi took on the way to San Francisco and the terminus of his life. At one point, the real Ishi declared that it was his will to die in his new home amid the material residue of Yahi culture, where lifeless artifacts resided in display cases, including a basket his grandmother made as well as other purloined goods he recognized. Ishi, the man, nonetheless remains, largely unknown, and the film honestly acknowledges the limitations of the best anthropologists of the day.

Ishi’s death led to an autopsy that Kroeber, absent in New York, opposed, knowing that postmortem desecration of the body violated Yahi practice. Each film reflects Kroeber’s action on learning of Ishi’s death. Edward Gifford, a young assistant in the museum, knew that Kroeber opposed an autopsy but was unable to resist the force of medical opinion demanding it. A subsequent telegram from Kroeber to forestall an autopsy arrived too late. Anticipating that the medical people would invoke science to justify the autopsy, Kroeber’s impassioned telegram angrily declared that “science can go to hell, we propose to stand by our friends.” While none of the films or published sources up to the 1990s attaches responsibility for the autopsy beyond a faceless scientific establishment at the medical school, one can infer that Saxton Pope had considerable influence on a decision that betrayed Kroeber’s explicit, respectful postmortem instructions. Grace Wilson Buzaljko writes that Pope, to verify the suspected cause of death, “insisted on the autopsy.” In another way, he violated Kroeber’s instruction that burial should be the disposition of Ishi’s remains. Pope instead arranged the cremation, consistent with Ishi’s instruction about the Yahi practice of burning the dead (2003:55).

At the end of The Last of His Tribe, Ishi’s death from tuberculosis prompts an uncharacteristically emotional Kroeber to chant Yahi mortuary songs in order that Ishi might find his way to the land of the dead. Although invented, the scene appropriately captures the depth of Kroeber’s grief, certainly compounded by the death of his wife, Henriette Rothschild, also from tuberculosis two years before. The Yahi dead find peace only when they make their way to the spirit world, where they unite with those who have gone before. Thus, on his anxious return to Deer Creek with Kroeber and company in 1914, he could finally put to rest his initial opposition to the expedition out of fear that the spirits of his dead kinsmen might still be wandering about, seeking the path to the spirit world. A young Saxton Pope, Jr. recalled many years later that Ishi, shortly after arriving at their Deer Creek destination, explored the area late into the night to listen for restive spirits unable to find their way. Ishi was relieved when he determined that the spirits of his dead kinsmen had completed their journey.

Theodora Kroeber wrote of how deeply affected Kroeber was by Ishi’s death, so much so that his grief-stricken silence was broken only in answering Theodora’s questions when she was writing Ishi in Two Worlds decades after Ishi’s death (T. Kroeber 1970:92-93). In The Last of His Tribe an angry Kroeber says to a hectoring admirer, after repeated entreaties that he write a book about Ishi, that he would never write that book. Ishi’s death had plunged Kroeber into a deep professional questioning compounded by self-doubt and health problems associated with debilitating bouts of vertigo. Just as we comprehend little about Ishi’s innermost thoughts, so too do Kroeber’s most personal sentiments remain hidden, undoubtedly shared by his psychoanalyst but lost to posterity as he desired. We know as much as Kroeber intended his colleagues, students, and the public to know about his uncertainties during those crisis years. Following completion of the Handbook in 1916, he entered psychoanalytic training and later established a psychoanalytic practice, both enabling him to work through troubling questions about the course of his career. Kroeber’s reticence about his relationship to Ishi occurred when privacy had not yet yielded ground to self-absorbed postmodernist confessions.

We get a sense of Kroeber’s guarded emotions in The Last of His Tribe, when a dying Henriette, played by a luminous Ann Archer, chastises her husband for his denial of her perilous condition, insisting as he does that she will recover. Henriette criticizes her husband’s objectification of the subject matter of anthropology—that culture inheres in things, as observed by Thomas Buckley in the The Last Yahi—trying instead to persuade him to acknowledge human feelings, not only her own but Ishi’s. “It’s you,” she tells him, “who can’t stand to know the truth about things.” An invented scene, certainly, it nonetheless rings true as a representation of Kroeber’s almost clinical, fact-based view of anthropology and its subject matter, leaving no room for the emotional truths Henriette tries to elicit from him not only about herself but also about Ishi. For reasons of his own, the historic Kroeber chose to maintain a closely guarded privacy about the evocative feelings he confronted in his relationship with Ishi.

“‘Truth and Responsibility’ is a call to reimagine anthropology to meet the demands of the present moment.” So reads the opening statement explaining the theme of the 2021 meeting of the American Anthropological Association. That call has been answered on the Berkeley campus, where a reimagined anthropology is serving the tendentious demands of the present moment by inventing a past cravenly indifferent to biography and history. For those new to the game and interested in gaining some perspective on Kroeber, the man, his work, and his legacy, a night at the movies would be a good beginning.



Ishi in Two Worlds. Written, directed, and produced by Richard C. Tomkins. Carlsbad CA : CRM Films, 1967.

Ishi : The Last Yahi. Directed by Pamela Roberts and Jed Riffe. Berkeley Media, 1993.

The Last of His Tribe. HBO Pictures, A River City production ; a Harry Hook film ; produced by John Levoff and Robert Lovenheim ; written by Stephen Harrigan ; directed by Harry Hook, 1994.


Buzaljko, Grace Wilson. 2003. “Kroeber, Pope, and Ishi.” In Ishi in Three Centuries,” eds. Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber, 48–64. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press.

Jacknis, Ira. 2003. “Yahi Culture in the Wax Museum : Ishi’s Sound Recordings.” In Ishi in Three Centuries,” eds. Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber, 235–274. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press.

Kroeber, A. L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 78. Washington : Government Printing Office.

Kroeber, A. L. 1945. “A Yurok War Reminiscence : The Use of Autobiographical Evidence”. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 1(3) : 318–332).

Kroeber, Theodora. 1961. Ishi in Two Worlds. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Kroeber, Theodora. 1970. Alfred Kroeber : A Personal Configuration. Berkeley : University of California Press.

Luthin, Herbert and Leanne Hinton. 2003a. “The Story of Lizard.” In Ishi in Three Centuries, eds. Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber, 293–317. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press.

Luthin, Herbert and Leanne Hinton. 2003b. “The Days of Life : What Ishi’s Stories Can Tell Us About Ishi.” In Ishi in Three Centuries, eds. Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber, 318–354. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press.

Perry, Jean. 2003. “When the World Was New : Ishi’s Stories.” In Ishi in Three Centuries, eds. Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber, 275–292. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1970 [1966]. “The Anthropologist as Hero.” In Claude Lévi-Strauss : The Anthropologist as Hero. eds. E. Nelson Hayes and Tanya Hayes, 184–196. New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.