Description of a bow made by Ishi, the Last Yahi

by , ©


Imagine a piece of wood slightly curved at each end, with a backing to one side of the wood, a handgrip of woolen tape in the middle, and a string connecting the two ends. This is a bow that was made by the last Yahi Indian, Ishi, while he was living at a museum in San Francisco during the last years of his life. I chose this object as my subject because Ishi's character impresses me, and one of the things I learned about him is that more than anything else, he loved his bow best (Heizer and T. Kroeber: 173). I hoped that by being close to one of the actual bows made by Ishi, I would gain some insight into his life.

Specific description

This is a hunting bow made of Oregon yew with a thin backing of rawhide. The width and thickness of the wood varies with smooth curves according to its position on the bow. Saxton Pope, Ishi's friend, doctor, archery student and companion, describes this as one of Ishi's best bows. The following drawing is reproduced from the bottom of page 176 of Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History, which is a collection of reprints of source materials. The original was from an article published in by titled “Yahi Archery” in Vol. 13, No. 3 of University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology.

Ishi's short bow

This bow was made by the last survivor of the Yahi tribe from Northern California, closely related to the Yana. They spoke a Hokan language that was unusual in that there were separate forms for male and female speech. This tribe may have been in California a very long time. Even before white settlers came, later arriving Penutian speaking tribes that outnumbered them had pushed this tribe into the hills (Benson). The Yahi lived in a rugged landscape in the hills to the east of the Sacramento Valley. When white settlers came, took their land, and killed the deer, these Indians sometimes had nothing else to eat but the white men's horses and cattle. Yet when they did this, retaliation was swift from the settlers. The Yahi were hunted and exterminated like vermin, and the men who did this were local heroes.

As for the man who crafted this magnificent bow, we never did learn his name for himself. wrote in “Ishi, the Last Aborigine”: “The strongest Indian etiquette…demands that a person shall never tell his own name, at least not in reply to a direct request” (Kroeber: 12). Kroeber called him Ishi, which means “man” in Yana, and that is all we know him by.

The bow belongs to the University of California Museum of Anthropology, now in Berkeley. It is Museum number 1-19590. Ishi crafted this bow sometime between 1911 and 1916. Its length is 44 inches, which is shorter than most of the bows Ishi made and used. The bow “weighs” or pulls 40 pounds, which according to Dr. Pope was Ishi's favorite for hunting bows (Heizer and T. Kroeber: 177).

The materials used were Oregon yew with rawhide for the backing. The handgrip is woolen tape. The Eskimo also make bows with backing. It is a superior device to those without backing (Benson). While living at the museum, Ishi made bows from many different woods, but his favorite material for the bows he lived by was mountain juniper (T. Kroeber: 189). He told the anthropologists that other tribes used yew, and he knew the leaves were poisonous to eat (Heizer and T. Kroeber: 175).

Saxton Pope describes in “Yahi Archery” how Ishi made a bow (Heizer and T. Kroeber: 175-177). Dr. Pope spent much time learning archery from Ishi. The production of a bow is a time-consuming labor-intensive process. Ishi selected the wood, seasoned it, shaped it, chewed the animal tissue for the backing and applied that in thin layers, made a string out of more animal sinew, and finally strung the bow. There was much time involved in each step, and between steps as well.

This particular bow was not decorated, although some others were. Ishi seemed to only decorate a bow after it had demonstrated some outstanding virtue or had been involved in some deed of valor (Heizer and T. Kroeber: 177). The bow is beautifully symmetrical, having been carefully shaped and formed by Ishi. “The ideal bow, in his mind, curved in a perfect arch at all points, and at full draw represented a crescent” (Heizer and T. Kroeber: 177). The bow is beautiful yet functional at the same time. Its beauty derives from its carefully crafted form, shaped by traditions passed down to Ishi from untold hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

Viewing this bow produces mixed feelings in me. I rejoice that people are capable of such craftsmanship. At the same time, I grieve for all the lost opportunities from the genocide of peoples and cultures throughout history. There is a quotation in the film by Jed Riffe and Pamela Roberts that expresses my sentiments exactly about Ishi. When their film shows Ishi leaving Oroville at the train station in 1911, the narrator says: “I would have liked to have had some more time with him. I always thought there was something there I should know, that I would like to know.”

Cultural context

Bows have been around for thousands of years, in most cultures of the world. As for Yahi culture, sadly, not much is known. Even more sadly, there are no living representatives of this tribe and no written tradition. The most we have are the stories that Ishi told during the few years that he lived at the museum. More than anything else, these give us a clue to his culture's worldview. However, even where we have the words to translate these stories literally, we do not have the cultural context to know what these stories meant to Ishi and his people (Riffe and Roberts).

Ishi's people had two main functions for bows: hunting and warfare. The bows made specifically for hunting were lighter than those made for warfare. This short bow I described was used most at targets (Heizer and T. Kroeber: 174). Ishi made this bow, and many others, while living at the Anthropology Museum of the University of California Affiliated Colleges on Parnassus Heights in San Francisco (now the site of UCSF) during the last four years of his life (Daybreak Editor). I learned from an Internet document written by Jeff Miller for UCSF that The Anthropology Museum moved to Berkeley in 1931 and over time expanded into the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of today (formerly the Lowie Museum).

Ishi used this bow while practicing archery with Saxton Pope, his friend and doctor from the hospital next door to the museum. We do not know Ishi's socio-cultural role in his tribe, for by the time he came of age there were few Yahi left, and he outlived them all. Ishi spent some time making artifacts at the museum, and when he went back to Deer Creek with the anthropologists in for a field trip he showed them how he selected and shaped the materials in his homeland. As far as I know, this particular bow was not made in his homeland, but at the museum.

Ishi's people had been massacred repeatedly by the white settlers until he was the only one left, yet he showed no bitterness. Ishi died in March 1916 from tuberculosis, a disease for which he had no resistance. When Ishi died, the anthropologist who first spoke to him, T. T. Waterman, said: “He was the best friend I had in the world” (Riffe and Roberts). Pope, Kroeber, and Waterman had come to realize what a friend they had found, and all deeply mourned his loss, as do I.


At the time this essay was written, in the Fall of 1997, the URL's given for Internet sources were valid addresses. This is no longer true as of . Such is the nature of Internet research at this time: here today, gone tomorrow.

Lectures to Native American Culture class (Anthro 32);
Santa Rosa Junior College, Fall semester, 1997.

Daybreak editor
Ishi Lives On In Cyberspace;
www internet article at
Regents of the University of California. Last Updated Sept. 12, 1997.

Heizer, Robert F. and Theodora Kroeber (editors);
Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History.
University of California Press. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London. .
Copy purchased from bookstore in Healdsburg, California.
This is my main sourcebook for this essay.

The Mill Creek Indians and Ishi: Early Reports by A. L. Kroeber.
University of California Printing Department. .
Copy purchased at Phoebe Hearst Museum, Berkeley, California.

Ishi in Two Worlds;
University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. .
Copy purchased from SRJC Bookstore, Santa Rosa, California.

UCSF characters - Ishi;
www internet article at
Last updated .

Riffe, Jed, and Pamela Roberts;
Ishi, the Last Yahi.
a film by Rattlesnake Productions. .
Copy purchased at Phoebe Hearst Museum, Berkeley, California.