August 19, 2010

Ideas for Ishi statue

A few weeks ago a woman called me out of the blue. She said she was a veterinarian in Chico, California:Chico is the most populous city in Butte County, California, United States.

The original inhabitants of Chico were the Mechoopda Maidu Native Americans.

The City of Chico was founded in 1860 by John Bidwell, a member of one of the first wagon trains to reach California in 1843.

Chico was home to a significant Chinese American community when it was first incorporated, but arsonists burned Chico's Chinatown in February 1886, driving Chinese Americans out of town.

Chico is located at the northeast edge of the Sacramento Valley, one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. The Sierra Nevada mountains lie to the East, with Chico's city limits venturing several miles into the foothills.
She said Chico was building a traffic circle outside her office that would disrupt her business for a couple years. But she came up with a a way to make lemonade out of this lemon: by adding a statue of Ishi.

You can learn more about Ishi in Ishi, Last of His Tribe. When he emerged from the hills to join "civilization," it wasn't far from Chico.

Anyway, she Googled "Ishi statue" and came up with these hits:

The Flintknapping Ishi Memorial Statue Project

and from Newspaper Rock:

Good reasons for Ishi statue

So she called me to talk about her idea.

No Ishi statues yet?

Judging by the search results, it seems no one has ever done a serious statue of Ishi. All I could find was this "Concrete statue, life-size, of Ishi, by Van Zant" from the 1960s:

I'd say this is more a piece of folk art than a real memorial to Ishi.

Anyway, we talked and said encouraging things. Could be a real tribute to California's Indians and a boost to local tourism. Make sure the area's Indians are involved. Perhaps a gaming tribe would be willing to sponsor it. Etc.

Although I didn't offer any brilliant ideas, she thanked me for my support. She said she'd write a proposal for the statue, and that was that.

Thoughts on an Ishi statue

Here are my thoughts on the proposed statue:

Certainly the artist should make it look lifelike. We have photographs of Ishi, so there's no excuse for making it a generic Indian.

The temptation probably will be to show Ishi in his traditional clothing of skins. Perhaps with his arms outstretched as if he's praying or welcoming tourists. But I'd suggest doing something more creative:

  • Show Ishi in the modern business suit he often wore. Leave off the shoes since he didn't like them. Other than someone like Will Rogers, I doubt there are many statues showing Indians as modern people.

  • Show Ishi in his "primitive" clothing but have him leading other people, including the white settlers who founded Chico and the Chinese immigrants who lived there. This would graphically depict the idea that Indians were here first.

  • Show the "primitive" Ishi side by side with the modern Ishi, or shaking hands with him. This would suggest the continuity of California's Indians from the past to the present.

  • Show "primitive" Ishi and modern Ishi shepherding a couple children. This would convey the idea of the older civilization (Indians) guiding the younger civilization (Americans).

    In short, don't just give us a traditional Indian standing there stoically. Use the artwork to send a message about the continued existence and relevance of Indian cultures.

    The Newspaper Rock connection

    As I said, I didn't contribute much to the woman's idea. The posting she found was an excerpt from a column in the Union newspaper of Nevada County, California. When I posted it, I didn't add any comments.

    And yet I did my job. I disseminated the article to a wider audience. I preserved it in my blog where it would get a high Google ranking. I don't think the woman would've found the column otherwise.

    Now I've posted some thoughts to the subject. This posting also will get a high Google ranking. The next time someone searches for "Ishi statue," these thoughts will add to the conservation.

    What this demonstrates is the education value of blogging--something critic Michael Cooke doesn't understand. Most Americans don't have a clue who Ishi is. Now I've exposed a few thousand of them to the idea of honoring him with a statue. Some of them will remember and think about this the next time the subject arises.

    Don't forget that each Google search is the tip of the iceberg. For all we know, a thousand students are Googling "Ishi" at this moment. Anyone who comes across this discussion may disseminate the ideas further.

    So the blog serves the same purpose as the statue will, if it's ever built. They're both about raising awareness, educating, and changing the terms of the debate. When people realize there's more to US history than Columbus, the Pilgrims, and the Founding Fathers, they'll start paying attention to Indian issues. The blog and the statue may inspire little Johnny or Janie to protect tribal sovereignty when they grow up.


    Anonymous said...

    I saw this movie many years ago and believe it or not, I thought it was JUST a movie.I had NO idea it was a true story. Graham Greene was ISHI and at times I felt sorry for him.

    DeborahPenner said...

    I just revisited this blog site and discovered the August posting. I am "the woman from Chico" who called about the Ishi statue idea out of the blue. Well, the wheels are turning, the city has hired a landscape architect and an art consultant who have come up with the brilliant idea to place a statue of John Bidwell in the roundabout. Inspired by the blog "Good reasons for Ishi statue", I have come up with my own list. In preface let me state that nowhere in our local public art does Ishi’s face appear.
    His face is beautiful and powerful. He was the last survivor of his Yahi people

    1. Ishi is a Native American icon and he is a "local boy".
    Chico’s own Yahi Trail, running the length of Big Chico Creek canyon begins at the proposed round-about.

    2. Ishi’s legacy of civility and forgiveness is unparalled.
    These are primary qualities we should all seek to bring to our relationships.

    3. There is no site in the world where Ishi can be sought out and honored.
    His bones and brain were recently reunited and returned to his native land in secret by local tribes.
    Prior to this event, Ishi’s bones laid in a cemetary south of San Francisco, where many came to
    visit and honor his memory over the last century. (His brain was in the Smithsonian)
    Ishi, like Ghandi and Mother Teresa, is renowned for his goodness and poise in the face of
    stupifying suffering and transition.

    4. We have enough of John Bidwell. He has a mansion, a park, a coffee house, an avenue, a title company... Enough already.

    5.Our native American forebears were a beautiful, healthy culture for 3,000 years before they
    were decimated by white man’s guns and diseases. It is time for us to honor them and
    acknowledge their history in our landscape.

    6. A statue of Ishi would serve as a starting point for many valuable conversations

    Tracie Feldhaus said...

    brn and raised in Chico, Ishi was a huge part of our local history. Grade school had all of us writing reports on Ishi. His humanity was apparent even to a 7 year old in 1964.
    This year honors the 100 year anniversary of Ishi's reappearance after years of exile. (August 29, 1911.)
    Directly across from the location of this newest roundabout is Annie's Glen. A beautiful picnic spot for those in downtown Chico.
    I truly believe that Annie would have wanted and acknowledged Ishi's impact on the relationship between the Yahi's and the Mechoopda and our understanding of these beautiful people.
    Let's honor this "gentle-man's" life and the heritage that these Native American Indians had on our community.
    Most sincerely,
    Tracie Johnson-Feldhaus