June 07, 2008

Discrepancies in Ishi's museum period

A reviewer on Amazon.com notes some "unnecessary liberties" taken in The Last of His Tribe, the story of Ishi:No mention of translators E. Sapir or Indian S. Botwi.

Ishi was more involved with the community--playing with local children, dating, etc.

What stunned Ishi most was crowds--he had never seen more than about 60 people together in his life.

Dr. Pope was one of Ishi's main advocates/friends & not weird & insensitive.

Kroeber was able to go on sabbatical in Europe [not work at a NY museum] b/c Sapir was working with Ishi.
Comment:  Here are some other differences between fact and fiction:

  • In the movie, Kroeber was 54 and Ishi was 40 (the ages of actors Jon Voight and Graham Greene). In reality, Kroeber was 35 when he met Ishi, who was about 51. As Chris Watson writes:Kroeber was young and ambitious, and when he heard about the Wild Man of Oroville, “he had found the Indian he was looking for” (Riffe and Roberts). An example of Kroeber's initial attitude towards Ishi is in the telegram he sent to the noted linguist Edward Sapir on September 6, 1911: “Have totally wild Indian at the museum. Do you want to come and work him up?” (Riffe and Roberts).
  • Ishi was more active than the movie depicted. He went into San Francisco, where he attended the theater and watched an airplane fly, and put on demonstrations at the museum. In The Last of His Tribe, he's almost a recluse. He rarely leaves the museum's grounds or interacts with non-museum personnel.

    As Laurence A. Marschall put it:Ishi ultimately adapted well, even to his duties as a "living exhibit," putting on Sunday demonstrations of arrowhead making and other native arts for eager crowds of visitors. He learned to converse in broken English and developed a taste for doughnuts and ice-cream sodas. Professors came west to interview him, take down his utterances, and make wax cylinders of his chants.
  • Society's reaction to Ishi wasn't totally benign. According to Watson:[T]he newspapers did not even give Ishi credit for being human. For example, the San Francisco Examiner of August 30, 1911 said this about him: “He is a savage of the most primitive type” (Heizer and T. Kroeber: 96).

    I believe the newspapers had to call Ishi primitive in order to rationalize what the white man did to the Indians. Rationalization is a psychological defense to justify one's doing terrible things. The process is unconscious (Lindgren and Byrne: 242). Once it becomes conscious, it no longer works.
  • In the movie, Ishi was healthy until a night "on the town" gave him tuberculosis. In reality, he was hospitalized for a respiratory infection, bronchopneumonia, abdominal pain, and back pain before he caught TB. Moreover, Kroeber was aware of the risks but kept him in the chilly, crowded Bay area anyway. Sending him south to the warm, dry desert might've kept him alive.

    As Nancy Rockafellar writes:Our late twentieth-century eyes and sensibilities are appropriately offended by the fact that Ishi was brought into an urban environment where he would almost certainly acquire white diseases. There is ample evidence to show that Dr. Pope and the anthropologists were extremely concerned about the dangers of tuberculosis and infectious diseases from the time of Ishi's arrival, and his medical record shows that he was constantly and carefully treated and tested. In this pre-antibiotic age, however, medical science had little to offer in the way of effective therapeutics.
  • As the reviewer said, many if not all of these changes were unnecessary. Instead of spending a few seconds on events that didn't happen, the movie could've spent them on events that did happen. It's not as if The Last of His Tribe was so tightly and grippingly written that every scene was indispensable. (Dr. Pope's creepy campfire chant is the first thing I would've jettisoned.)

    Usually I complain about Native-themed movies overemphasizing the most sensational points. But The Last of His Tribe seems to have underemphasized these points. For instance, the age change makes Kroeber a father figure, so his paternalism seems more natural than forced. The lack of scientists studying him or crowds watching him makes Ishi seem less exploited than he actually was.

    Hmm. Maybe the filmmakers deemphasized the exploitation issue because their primary source, the The Last of His Tribe book, did likewise. Maybe they did it because it made the story feel too predictable. It's difficult to say.

    Incidentally, I believe Jon Voight is interested in Indian issues. He attended the FAITA awards ceremony once, and his wife--Angelina Jolie's mother--was part Indian. Maybe they rewrote Kroeber's part, made him older, to attract Voight.

    For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

    1 comment:

    dmarks said...

    "He learned to converse in broken English and developed a taste for doughnuts"

    The triumph of Western civilization: to turn a man into Homer Simpson.