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Last of his tribe


The mummified brain of Ishi, the Yahi Indian known as "the Last of His Tribe," was re-discovered a few years ago in a tank stored by the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1911, Ishi walked out of the Sierra Nevada foothills in northern California. A member of the Yahi tribe, he surprised the world since all of the Yahi had presumably died of disease or been killed. He became known as "the last wild man in America."

Before he died of tuberculosis in 1916, he expressed his wish that an autopsy not be done on his body. Unfortunately, his wish was not respected. Not only was an autopsy done, but his brain was removed--and preserved. Because his body had been desecrated, he was not buried. Rather, his body (minus the brain) was cremated and his ashes stored at a California cemetery. 

And the mummified brain was lost (or hidden)--until  an administrator named Nancy Rockafellar at the University of California, San Francisco, decided to find out if the brain was on campus. With the help of Duke University anthropologist Orin Starn, she discovered that the brain had been transferred to the Smithsonian. In fact, according to the Associated Press, it was one of nine American Indian brains collected for research.

Anthropologist Starn told the AP: "It was not uncommon to study brains in the early 20th century. Some people thought that different races had different brain sizes." Researchers know that this is simply a racist notion now. Starn continued: "I think Ishi is important as...a reminder of what happened to indigenous people during the white takeover and conquest. He really was a victim of a holocaust."

On August 8, 2000, at a private ceremony in Washington, D.C., officials of the Smithsonian returned the brain to members of California Indian tribes. The brain was then reunited with Ishi's cremated remains and buried in a secret ceremony at the foot of Mount Lassen in northern California. 


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