UC presents a searing play about Ishi, the last of his tribe
By Frances Dinkelspiel
It is an entertaining, although deeply disturbing, play, filled with scenes of prejudiced white men massacring Indians for a $5-a-head state bounty, gunfire, rape, murder, cannibalism, and even academic jealousy. But if you are shocked and disturbed after seeing it, (and at three hours long, you see a lot) then Fisher, the artistic director of Theater Rhinoceros in San Francisco and a frequent lecturer in the theater department, will have attained his goal. He clearly wants to tell people about this unknown chapter of California history: that the slaughter of Native Americans also happened here, not just at Wounded Knee or on the Trail of Tears.
New: EYE FROM THE AISLE: “ISHI, the last of the Yahi” reprise at UCB Zellerbach Playhouse
By John A. McMullen II
I scratched my head. Was this a comic scene? Why didn’t the prospector just shoot him to begin with instead of chasing him? And how could a starving man keep up the chase like that?
That was my question at the start of the play. My question at the end of the play—THREE HOURS LATER—was why didn’t award-winning playwright John Fisher take this opportunity to rewrite this play that premiered four years ago at Theatre Rhino with an eye to shortening and tightening this intriguing script.
“ISHI, the last of the Yahi” is epic in its breadth. It is about the genocide of the Native American tribes as financed by the legislature of California by way of a $5 bounty per head. It is about a man whose culture was destroyed and was starving in the wilderness before giving up and coming into the white man’s town of Oroville in 1911, fully expecting to be killed. It is about the anthropologist who befriends him to study him. It is about ambition, using others, and then turning on them. It is about man’s criminally ambitious culture, under the motto, “Homo homini lupus” (trans., man is a wolf to man). It has a little O’Neill, a little Albee, and a lot of history that UCB TDPS department lecturer Fisher liberally tweaks with poetic license.
Telling this tale educates us about the horrors and blood-money on which our society is founded.
Emotionally, its intention must be to break our hearts for this abandoned man and how his story affects those who first hear it.
Regrettably, by the end of the evening, the result is numbness from the length and repetition of horrors.
Ishi: the Last of the Yahi: A UC Berkeley Production that Perpetuates Gross Violences Against Native Peoples
By Tria Andrews
While the play’s concluding characterization of Ishi as a European-American commits yet another horrific act of violence against Ishi, unfortunately, the play also fetishizes violence to Native characters’ bodies—or the bodies or non-Native actors playing Indian. The opening scene reveals a Native man in a loincloth who is chased by a White man wielding a gun. The White man is starving and intends to murder and eat the Indian. This action takes place both center stage and off stage as the actors circle the audience and whoop. One character warns another not to “pollute the [Indian’s] flesh with bullets.” These scenes of gruesome violence are staged as spectacle and rationalized in the narrative. Three White men brutally murder an Indian man, whose death the audience witnesses in scene. The Indian is beaten, tied to a stake, knifed, and finally, set on fire. This dramatization of violence, like others throughout the play, is accompanied by the bloodcurdling screams of the Indian characters. At one point in the play, while European-American characters are brutally beating an Indian, an image of a White woman wrested by two Native men is projected center stage to seemingly justify the violence committed against the Indian. As the play makes clear, the violences against Native peoples continue postmortem as Native remains are stored in museums and universities, such as UC Berkeley, which currently houses 12,000 human skeletons. However, the production commits even further violences. Through Ishi’s perspective, Native remains are labeled “evil," and the housing of these bodies in museums and institutions is presented as an unavoidable and resolved circumstance, which is certainly not the case given the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Considering the immense violences that Native peoples—and in particular Native women—continue to endure from non-Natives, violent scenes, which are unsparingly utilized in the performance, reveal disgusting and insulting displays of ignorance. European-American men and Ishi himself beat and threaten Native women or “squaw[s]” as the cast list derogatorily refers to one of the female characters. In the play, Native women, unlike their European-American counterparts (with the exception of Dr. Saxton Pope, M.D. who goes native, donning a two piece buckskin ensemble while simulating masturbation), are not only sexualized, but also beaten and raped. The depiction of Native American women as promiscuous, their bodies, like the land, seducing European-Americans, is yet another racist trope that the production cannot resist. Ishi’s narrative, which the main characters expend most of the play attempting to extract from Ishi, is presented in two versions, both of which render a Yahi woman, Ishi’s sister, as incestuous, murderous, and inherently rapeable. Rape, as Cherokee activist and writer Andrea Smith highlights, is a tool of conquest. Yet, the production portrays Native men as rapists and Native women as enjoying their violability because of their cultural upbringing: “Copulate and rape are not different words in Yahi.” This Western, patriarchal portrayal of violence against Yahi’s sister, who revels in her own rape so much so that she seeks out her rapist—also her parents’ murderer—as a lover and father for her child, is absolutely inexcusable. Yet another irresponsible scene conflates violence with sexuality as Ishi is positioned behind his sister in a manner that suggests intercourse while the two work together to commit infanticide. To add insult to injury, the production completely misrepresents Native conceptions of “balance” or harmony, insisting, “There’s balance in all [Ishi’s] stories.”
But in Ishi: The Last of the Yahi, Ishi’s so-called stories are not his own. They are stories of Ishi narrated through a Western lens. I could continue by citing the multiple violences against Ishi and Native peoples that the play commits and which I have not yet specified: unproblematizing privilege and power dynamics; portraying Ishi as childlike, savage, and subordinate; reinforcing racial and gender binaries, etc., but I want to conclude in a way that is more useful.
As a mixed race (Cherokee, Irish, and Filipina) woman, who identifies as indigenous and who was required to watch this production for a class, I want the director, cast, and crew to try to understand what it was like to be a Native person in the audience. The jolt sent up my spine when I read word “squaw” in the cast list, the knot that took root in my stomach and held while I witnessed the gunning down of an Indian in the opening scene, the stiffening of my shoulders when I was surrounded by staged violence accompanied by the villainous laughter and whoops of European-American characters in a play that professes to treat the history of our nation and the mass murdering of Native peoples as “gray matter.”
By Cutcha Risling Baldy
It's meant to be tongue in cheek, I get it. These crazy European American scholars, tee hee, ha ha.
In the mean time, they want to continue to pressure Ishi to tell his story. His story will make them a lot of money, you see, and "build them a museum."
When Ishi finally does tell his story it rests with the fate of his sister. You see Ishi and his sister had been in an incestuous relationship for a while now but then she was "raped" by a white man. However, when Ishi points this out to her she desperately clings to him and says "First I was unwilling, now I am willing. This makes it alright."
It was at this point I started gathering up my things. I couldn't take it any more. First Ishi is just "a man" and then he is a man who has sex with his sister and then he is a man who kills his incestuous baby by drowning it in a creek because they are trying to get away from being hunted by the "colonizers" of California. And then he is a man cuckholded by his own sister who has to let her go or otherwise she may say things that he doesn't want to hear and "If she said it, I knew I would beat her, I was almost beating her now."
Later Ishi helps to kill her half breed baby, because the sister believes this will mean she can be with her man. Why Ishi helps her is a little unclear. Why he sends her to her death is also a little unclear. Anyway you cut it Ishi's sister doesn't have a name, she's just called "Woman" and in the end her last line is "Good. Dead. Dead for you." I eerily felt like she was speaking to the playwright himself.
Baldy's response was similar to Andrews's:
The talk back continued with people speaking about the effort to "create dialogue" by the play and "calling attention to these issues." After one audience member asked for a response from the American Indian students about why they didn't like the play a Native man stood up and took the microphone. He couldn't finish his statement and it ended in tears. It was a meaningful illustration of what this play really does, it doesn't open dialogue but glorifies trauma. It erases the real, living Native peoples (some of whom are Ishi's relatives). It forgets that those people could be sitting in the audience. It refuses to dialogue with them when they ask real questions, how can you justify portraying Ishi and his story in this way? Why do you use this opportunity to give him a voice to destroy that voice? Why must you "confront" us with these images of the holocaust and genocide but also include a pseudo-justification for it by allowing that "even the Natives were participating in these atrocities--against each other?" Why would you take a peaceful, intelligent man and belittle his story to a sensationalist, animalistic portrayal? Why will you not acknowledge that your "art" could have been better? And now that you have access to Native people who want to have a dialogue with you and offer real feedback so that you can learn something and also teach others why won't you actually talk to them?
One thing Andrews and Baldy didn't mention: When you focus on the depraved cruelty of white men, it actually becomes easier to dismiss their guilt. You tell yourself, "Those people were crazy. I'd never do anything like that. The conquest and murder of Indians was their fault, not mine. I didn't take the Indians' land or rights, they did."
In reality, of course, 99.9% of Americans didn't kill an Indian personally. Most people never met an Indian. Yet they voted for politicians who carried out the conquest and murder of Indians--people like Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Most of the killing happened indirectly--by forcing the Indians onto unfamiliar lands, where they succumbed to disease and hunger.
In other words, genocide was a systematic problem that most Americans contributed to, at least indirectly. Portraying it as acts of torture and murder ignores the larger structural problems. The Euro-American mindset that encouraged land grabs and broken treaties is what ruined the Indians, not individual acts of depravity.
Anyway, this Ishi sounds pretty bad to me. I hope it doesn't appear again without a substantial rewrite. If it does, I hope people protest it.
For more on Ishi, see 100th Anniversary of Ishi's Emergence and Ideas for Ishi Statue.
Below: "Two bounty hunters shoot at Native Americans. From left: Evan Bartz, Sanford Jackson." (Ryan Montgomery)