ISHI, THE LAST YAHI begins in 1492 when there were more than ten million Native Americans in North America. By 1910, their numbers had been reduced to fewer than 300,000. In California, massacres of Indians in the 1860s and 1870s had nearly exterminated the Native peoples in the state. Therefore the sudden appearance in northern California in 1911 of Ishi, "the last wild Indian in North America," stunned the nation. For more than 40 years, Ishi had lived in hiding with a tiny band of survivors. When he walked into the white man's world, he was the last Yahi Indian alive.
For young anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, Ishi's appearance was a windfall. Kroeber had been searching for years to find "wild, uncontaminated Indians" who could document their traditional way of life. Through Kroeber's invitation, Ishi left a jail cell and lived out the remaining four years of his life as an informant and teacher at the Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco. Ishi dedicated those years to relating Yahi stories and demonstrating the traditional way of life he knew so well. His quiet dignity and remarkable lack of bitterness toward the people who had destroyed his tribe greatly impressed everyone who met him.