Things Keep Their Secrets

I live in the high foothills of northern California, along the Cascade-Sierra divide, on land where Ishi once lived.

Ishi, “the last of the Yahi.” The marooned American Indian famously portrayed, with no little sympathy, by Theodora Kroeber in Ishi In Two Worlds. The man who, on August 29, 1911, most probably walked across what is today “my” “land,” on his way down out of the wilderness, into a corral occupied by east Oroville butchers. Who was briefly jailed, then spent the four remaining years of his TB-shortened life as a museum piece, literally living in a Museum of Anthropology, at the University of California in San Francisco.

Ishi, in his four short years among whites, didn’t say much. He never, as an example, revealed his name. At all times, however, whenever among whites, he was adamant: he was the last of his tribe. All other Yahi, all his relations, alpha to omega, had died.

This is my 34th year (on and off) on Ishi’s land.

And I will tell you this: Ishi was not the last of his tribe.

And, in this diary, I will tell you why that is all I will tell you.

My friend, whom I will call J, is a working cowboy. For more than thirty years he has, seasonally, pretty much yearly, run cattle from the flatlands of the Central Valley up into the Sierra and Cascades—and occasionally down into Susanville—and back again. He has ranched and wrangled and wandered all over northeastern California.

He is the most inquisitive and close-attentioned man I have ever met. I have never caught him in a lie—though many times I have tried.

From his vocation, and his inclination, J, I figure, has spent as much living-off-the-earth time on Ishi’s land as any white man in the history of the planet.

J had already long been taken with Ishi when I met him, ten or so years ago. He’d scouted out with close-attentioned appreciation the remote canyon recesses where Ishi and his people for more than 60 years evaded white detection. Eventually I went with him to these places, lent a hand as he secreted there caches of weapons. For J believes in being prepared for the utter meltdown of civilization, and has fixed on Ishi’s former haunts as the place, in that event, to go. He expects me and mine, in that event, to join him there. Though I tell him, time and time again, that I am not a weapons man. Though I suppose, in that event, I might, to keep me and mine alive, be persuaded.

The Yahi were the southernmost subset of the Yana people, who occupied, prior to the advent of white people, the upper Sacramento Valley.

Because the floor of the valley is uninhabitable in summer—daytime temperatures commonly running at 90+ degrees, with fortnight-long spikes to 115, from late May through early October—the Yahi spent hot times in the cooler surrounding foothills.

In the winter, too, the Yahi remained for some periods somewhat above, as California’s Great Central Valley became a rain-freshened large shallow lake . . . every spring receding to reveal what—even today, even fucked out by decades of chemical fertilizer and wanton abuse—is recognized as, outside the Ukraine, the most fertile soil on earth.

The place that presented to John Muir, when he crested the Sierra in 1868, what must have been one of the finest sights in the history of the earth: a solid sea of riotous wildflowers, more than 400 miles in length, 40-60 miles across.

The domain of jaguar. Exterminated from this place in the early 1900s.

Ishi’s story was that the Yahi—never numerous to begin with—were pretty much on the run from white folk commencing with the Gold Rush.

That they hid, their numbers ever dwindling, for nearly 60 years. That the surveyors who in 1908 blundered onto, way up along Deer Creek, a male Indian and three females, had blundered onto Ishi and three female relatives. That the women had meanwhile died. That he, Ishi, was all that was left: the last of the Yahi. That they could do with him as they wilt, but they should meanwhile leave off looking for any more of his kind. Because there weren’t any.

White folk believed him. Because they’d barely been able to believe Ishi, when first he arrived. For they’d thought they’d completely cleansed the place of all “Injuns,” at least twenty years before.

Several years ago, at the tail end of hours-long yarn-swapping sesssions, or when in his cups, J began hinting around with me about Ishi.

It had never sat comfortable with him that Ishi had walked on out of the wilderness to say he was the last of his kind. J regarded Ishi as a man. He believed that if Ishi had been truly alone, he would have died alone. J had always figured that Ishi, in coming in out of the wild, was giving himself up for somebody else.

And so one night J told me that he had learned that Ishi had come down out of the mountains to announce himself “the last of his tribe” so that others of his tribe could move into the weird new white world undetected and unmolested.

That Yahi had been adopted into remote white ranching families, to be passed off to those with noses for others’ business as “Spanish” kin. That he, J, had recently cowboyed with a man who had admitted being descended from said Yahi.

And then he gave me the man’s name.

The title of this piece—”Things Keep Their Secrets”—comes from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who tried to figure the world out circa 500 BCE.

Heraclitus comes to us only in fragments. Most of what he wrote has been lost. Today, we do not know if there was any other text surrounding this phrase—”Things Keep Their Secrets”. We do not know if Heraclitus stated this simply as fact, or if he passed judgement upon it, good or bad.

Thus, the phrase—”Things Keep Their Secrets”—succeeds in keeping its own secret.

I moved up here at 19. I immediately commenced setting fire to the land as a journalist. I was a Watergate baby, eager to expose all and every. At 17 I carried a tape recorder with me everywhere I went, croaking fervently that “every moment of life should be recorded.” There should be no secrets. Not of anyone, from anyone.

If I’d heard J’s tale round about then, I’d have trampled children to get it into print. That was a scoop. Something the people should know.

And even if I couldn’t get it precisely confirmed, I could always do a “some say.” Wasn’t Fox News that came up with that, folks. I did it, too. Won a city council election for the Good Guys with “some say.” But that’s another confession.

Thing is, of course: J never would have told the story to the kid who would have “some said” it into print.

I like to think that J’s story is true, that there are Yahi among us, that Ishi gave himself up for them, that decent white people succored them and raised them and snuck them into our  white world. That, just as amy wrote in “Anacaona, Taino Princess,” where once it was believed the Taino were exterminated by Columbus, today we know, from DNA tests, there are still Taino among us; so too may there be Yahi.

But, of the Yahi, I’m not going to go looking for—much less town-crying about, much less demanding DNA tests of—”the truth.”

Because it’s none of my business. And neither is it anyone else’s.

This is not Ken Lay robbing people. George II killing people. Alberto Gonsalves torturing people. This is not, as once I would have thought, “news.”

This is besieged people, in a dangerous world. What they left behind. Who should be left alone.

In Carroll Ballard’s astonishing filmic adaptation of Farley Mowat’s autobiographical Never Cry Wolf, the protagonist, at film’s end, must face the fact that his benevolent interest in a family of wild wolves led directly to fellow human beings killing the adult wolves, and rendering their cubs orphans.

After a time, he understands this:

In the end there were no simple answers. No heroes, no villains. Only silence.

But it began the moment that I first saw the wolf. By the act of watching them, with the eyes of a man, I had pointed the way for those who followed.

The pack returned for the cubs, as there are no orphans among the wolves. And eventually the losses of that autumn became a distant memory.

I believe the wolves went off to a wild and distant place somewhere. Although I don’t really know. Because I turned away, and didn’t watch them go.


1 Response to “Things Keep Their Secrets”

  1. 1 santera hoochie October 21, 2008 at 3:48 am

    beautiful and compelling essay. love the photos, too.

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When I Worked

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