Ishi, the Last of the Stone Age Super Heroes

                                                      Study Guide and Stories

Comment: Stories 'n Stones developed a program to go along with the Illinois summer reading program called "Super Heroes: Powered by Books. In the process we discovered an amazing man who lived almost 100 years ago. The following is the story I told as an introduction to the program..


Imagine, if you will, that you are the last of your people - no mother, no father, no brothers or friends. No one to help you do the many things it takes to live in the wilderness. You are all alone. What would you do? Stay on the land that you know and love, but will surely mean death or take a chance on the very people who caused the destruction of your people. This is not a story of fiction like James Fennimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" where a Mohawk Indian finds himself the last of his tribe, this is a true story that took place along the foothills of the land we now call "California." It is the story of Ishi.

Before I tell you his remarkable story, I must tell you a little about the land where Ishi lived. Ishi belonged to a tribe called the Yahi. They were a fierce, resourceful, brave tribe that lived in the hills of California for a couple thousand years. They had a good life with plenty of deer, bear, rabbits to hunt, plenty of fishing for salmon and other fish, and plenty of roots and berries for gathering. Then, in the early 1600's Spanish missionaries traveled up the coast line and began small missions. Perhaps, you have heard of them - San Diego, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Nowadays, we know these as big cities, but years ago they started as small missions. Then, in the early 1800's, the United States bought land from France called "The Louisiana Purchase" which led to the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. They found a route via rivers and mountain passes to the Pacific Ocean. Then, in 1849, the real change happened - Gold! Gold was found in the hills of California and now the people came. They came by horseback, they came by wagon trains, and later they came by the new Transcontinental Railroad. And the land the Yahi knew changed forever.

Several things happened to the Yahi. First, when two cultures meet there is often fear and distrust that can easily lead to violence. The Yahi's arrows were no match for the white man's guns. So, many died. And, the Indians had no natural defenses for the diseases that the white man brought with him. There were no vaccines against such diseases so thousands died of influenza, tuberculosis and small pox. Finally, with so many people coming into the area, the hunting grounds of the Yahi shrank until it was almost impossible to continue living off the land. Bit by bit the Yahi died off.


Then, on August 29, 1911, a bedraggled man who was so hungry he looked to be all skin and bones stumbled out of the wilderness and into the little mining town of Oroville. The man's hair was burned short, and he wore a piece of canvas from a wagon as poncho to cover himself. Luckily, he happened upon a sheriff who immediately put him in a jail cell to protect him from the public. He notified some anthropologists from the University of California. Anthropologists are people who study man - their language and culture.

Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Waterman came immediately to meet this man and eventually brought him back to the museum. There, they made an area for Ishi to live. You must understand that, at first, they had no way to communicate with him. There was no record of the Yahi language and no one to translate. Bit by bit, Ishi began to understand a little English and, bit by bit, the Americans began to understand Yahi. They really never knew his name for, in the Yahi tradition, it was considered impolite to ask anyone directly his name. A friend or family member could say your name, but he had no one left who could say his name. So, they called him "Ishi" which means "man" in Yahi.

Surprisingly, Ishi loved modern society. He was astonished and curious about everything. They said one of the things that fascinated him was a window shade. He marveled as it blocked out the light and then, seemingly disappeared as it rolled back up. He, also, loved to look at pictures of himself and often laughed when he saw them.

One of the things that amazed me was that, even though this was almost a hundred years ago, they were able to record his voice. Oh, not like the cassette recorders we have today, this was on cylinders. And, Ishi, loved to hear his voice. Can you imagine? With no one else around to hear his language, now he could hear himself speak in his native tongue. If it had not been for Ishi, the Yahi language would have been lost. One of the things that Ishi recorded were some of his stories. Then, in 1992, a picture book was published "Ishi's Tale of Lizard." It is really a story about Ishi as an arrow maker, but as a lizard. Try as I might, I couldn't get the story from the way it was written. But, I found a story from the Lakota people called "The Rabbit and the Bear with the Flint Body"  that had many similar parts. So, I took Ishi's story and combined it with the Lakota story and added some of my own telling to it to develop a story I call "Rabbit, the Arrow Maker."

Long ago, long...long ago, when the animals still talked to one another Rabbit was known as arrow maker. He often collected branches from the hickory or sycamore. He put them over the fire and rubbed them on his thighs to straighten them. That is what he did. He was Rabbit...Arrow Maker. Then he found some turkey feathers and put them on the end of the arrow shafts and burned them just so. That is what he did. He was Rabbit...Arrow Maker. Then, he went to find the flint - along the creeks or in the quarries. He chipped the flint with his billet to make fine arrow points. He chewed some sinew until it was soft and used it as glue to attach the points to the shaft. That is what he did. He was Rabbit...Arrow Maker.

Sometimes Rabbit used his arrows to hunt. Other times, he traded his arrows for food or perhaps a basket or a stone axe. Everyone was eager to have one of Rabbit's arrows.

But one day Rabbit could not find any more flint. Without any flint, he could not make his arrows and without any arrows he would surely starve. So, he went to Grandmother Rabbit. Perhaps, she would know where there was flint.

Grandmother Rabbit was in her teepee when Rabbit asked if he could come in for a visit. "Yes, Rabbit, please do. I always enjoy your company." They sat and ate. Finally, Rabbit said, "Grandmother, what am I to do? There is no more flint! I have looked everywhere. Do you know where there is flint?"

Grandmother thought and said, "Yes, Rabbit, I have heard that the bear clan has much flint. It is a long and dangerous journey to the bear clan. But, you will find the flints that you need to make your arrows."

The next day Rabbit prepared for his journey. He took some food and put two of his arrows in his quiver and set off to visit the bear clan. He went on and on - over the mountains, across the plains and rivers, on and on until finally he came to a place where the land jutted out. Under this overhang was the bear clan village. Poor Rabbit! He was so tired. He had come such a long way.

The first lodge he came to belonged to Grandmother Bear. Since her lodge was the first one, many visitors stopped there. When she saw Rabbit, she said, "Come in, Rabbit. It looks like you have been on a long journey. Come and sit by the fire while I get you some much-needed food."

 Rabbit sat by the fire and gratefully ate all the food. He thanked Grandmother by telling her stories that night. Early the next morning, Rabbit told Grandmother, "Grandmother, I have heard that there is flint here. Can you help me?"

Grandmother smiled, "Yes, if you go see the chief of the bear clan, he will help you." So, Rabbit left the lodge and went to find the lodge of the chief. Finally, he saw it. It was the biggest lodge of all. Surely, that must belong to the chief. Rabbit waited until he was invited inside. When he came inside, he was surprised. The chief of the bear clan was big...2 or 3 times bigger than any bear he had ever seen. He wore beautiful buffalo robes. When the chief saw the rabbit, he bellowed, "Rabbit! What are you doing here?"

Rabbit began to tremble and shake. "Oh, I have come such a long way. I am Arrow Maker and I have no flint. I have heard that the bear clan has flint and is very generous."

"You are right, Rabbit. Look at this!" Bear bore away the robes he wore. Rabbit was astonished to see that one-half of the bear looked very much like a bear, but the other half was made of flint. The most beautiful flint he ever saw - all creamy white with swirls of pinks and blues and purples. Oh, that flint would make fine arrowheads.

"Rabbit, you may take some of my flint." Rabbit came over with his billet and "ka-ching!" Several pieces fell to the ground. Rabbit picked up the pieces and put them in his pouch.

But the chief just laughed. "Rabbit, that hardly tickled me. Try harder." So Rabbit took his billet and "ka-chunk!" a good-sized chunk fell to the ground. Again, Rabbit picked it up and put it in his pouch.

The chief seemed annoyed, "Rabbit! We'll be here all day at this rate. Take more of the flint and be done with it."

So, Rabbit reared back and "ka-blam!" Oh, no! with that swing the chief split into two pieces. The fleshy part falling to the side but the pillar of flint still standing. The other bears in the lodge saw what Rabbit did and pointed at him, "You, you have killed our chief. Now, we will kill you!"

Rabbit was so scared he hopped this way and that until he found his way out of the lodge. As he hopped around trying to find the path that led back to his village, he could hear the bears calling to the others. More and more bears started to chase Rabbit. Finally, rabbit found the path, but now the bears were closing in on Rabbit. But Rabbit, who has special connections to the Mother Earth, called out "Snow, Snow, Snow!" and black clouds came racing down from the North and snow started to fall. But...still the bears came. Rabbit called out again "More, More, More!" And a blizzard laid a thick blanket of snow. Now, some of you know about rabbits. You know that rabbits have long feet so, the can hop right on top of that snow. But bears have thick, heavy legs. The snow was slowing them down. But still they came! Rabbit quickly strung his bow and took an arrow from the quiver. He shot the arrow (shuwaa!) into the air. Higher and higher it went. Then it turned around and headed down to earth...right towards the bears. It came down and landed right in the middle of those bears.

Immediately, the bears stopped. They were stronger than rabbit. It was true. They were faster than rabbit. It was true. But, it was also true that rabbit's arrows were too strong of medicine. They turned and ran back to the village. They gathered all the bears and they raced off to the nearest caves. They ran all the way to the back of the caves and there they went into a deep sleep until spring. Bears to this day, in wintertime, take that long nap when they hibernate.

When Rabbit saw that the bears ran away, he made his way back to his village. He took the flint and made the best arrows. When he ran out of flint, he had a secret place to find the best flint - all creamy white with swirls of pinks and blues and purples. But, Rabbit is careful to only go to the bear clan village in the winter...for that is when the bears are sleeping.

Ishi was able to save his language for others to hear. But, he also taught modern man how to make many stone age tools. Like Rabbit in the story, Ishi was an arrow maker. His skill were passed down from generation to generation until modern flintknappers today still use the techniques that he taught. Here to tell you about the skills Ishi taught is Larry Kinsella.

At this point in the program. Larry comes out and demonstrates flintknapping. The following are some of the terms he uses:

Obsidian - black, volcanic glass used to make very sharp arrow points. Obsidian (also called Apache tears) is a volcanic glass that is usually black, but is occasionally red, brown, gray, green (rare), dark with "snowflakes," or even clear. This glassy, lustrous mineral is found in lava flows, and obsidian stones can be massive. Obsidian is formed when viscous lava (from volcanos) cools rapidly. Most obsidian is 70 percent silica. Obsidian has a hardness of 5 and a specific gravity of 2.35. The pin above is Mahogany (brown) obsidian.

Ishi Points Ishi usually made arrowheads from obsidian but often used chert and modern glass materials. His points were longer than most arrowheads and had notches that widened on the inside.


Flint or chert - Rocks used to make arrowheads. A hard, brittle stone, usually a type of chalk or limestone that can be flaked in any direction and easily shaped. Flint occurs naturally in many locations and often formed the material for human tools, until humans learned to work metals. Flint was the most common 'stone' of the Stone Age.                             


Arrowheads - Mostly small triangular points made of flint or obsidian that are used as the pointed end of arrows.

Knives, Scrapers, Spears - Other stone tools used for a variety of purposes.

Knapping or Flintknapping - the art of making arrowheads by chipping and pressure flaking the stone into a useable tool. The Art and Science of Making Stone Tools. Specifically - the process of precisely applying one of several possible reduction techniques to a lithic material in order to produce a desired outcome. The application of and choice of reduction technique is based upon an intimate knowledge of the materials breakage patterns (like conchoidal fracturing) acquired through training and/or experience. The most recognized desired outcome of flintknapping is the production of stone arrowheads

Flintknapping Tools:     

                                                              courtesy Ken Peek                       

bullet Billet - a flintknapping tool made either from copper or from an antler
bullet Hammerstone - A flintknapping tool used to knock flakes from cores. In archaeology, a hammerstone is a hard cobble used to strike lithic flakes off a lump of tool stone during the process of lithic reduction. Often, a hammerstone is made of a material such as limestone or quartzite, is ovoid in shape (to better fit the human hand) and develops telltale battering on the ends. This technology was of major importance to prehistoric cultures who had yet to learn to work metal
bullet Pressure Flaker - a tool, approximately 6 inches long made of antler, bone or wood, that is used to take chips off the flint by applying pressure.
bullet Ishi Stick - A type of pressure flaker used by Ishi to make arrowheads. A long stick (approx. 18 inches) is held under one's arm. It's usually made with wood or bone and has a copper wedge on one end and a pointy nail on the other.
bullet Leather Knee Pad - Protective leather pad placed over the knee while pressure flaking.
bullet Safety Glasses - Protective eyewear used when knapping to keep silicon from entering the eye.
bullet Sandstone - A grainy rock used to dull the edges of the flint rock.
bullet Palm pads - leather pads that fit over the thumb to allow for delicate pressure flaking.

Fletching - Feathers (usually Wild Turkey or Goose) used on the end of arrows to aid in flight.

Bow - bow-making-instructions.htmlInstrument made of wood (Osage, Hickory) and strung with string for the purpose of shooting arrows.

Sinew - the tendons from the backbone of the deer used for a variety of objects including "gluing" the arrowhead to the shaft.

Harpoon - a spearing device used to catch fish.                     

Kanzi - a flintknapping chimp


Olduvai Gorge - Olduvai Gorge is an archaeological site located in the eastern Serengeti Plains, which is in northern Tanzania.

Ishi taught modern man many of his ancient skills including fire-making. The following story is a story from the area where the Yahi lived. There are many versions of this story  - notably the Karok and Shasta,. Each telling is basically the same. They mainly differ in the list of animals that help Coyote. I have combined the elements of several versions and added a scene as I adapted the story to tell   

                                                                                                            Coyote Brings the Fire       


Long ago, so long ago the people and the animals still talked to one another. So long ago there was no fire. All of the fire was jealously guarded by the Fire Beings, three old hag sisters. Oh, the Fire Beings - whose skin was scorched and scarred, the Fire Beings whose hair was like yellow, orange and red strands of flame, the Fire Beings whose eyes blazed a charcoal red. They said that if anyone got too close to the Fire Beings, his skim would begin to bubble and burn. If anyone stared at the fire beings, he would surely go blind. And, if anyone looked into their charcoal red eyes, he would burst into flames.

So, you see, not very many people wanted to go to the Fire Beings to bring back fire. Those who did came back maimed or worse...suffered death. But, it was the people who suffered the worse with out fire. Without fire they could not cook their food. Without fire they could light their torches at night and worst of all without fire they could not keep their lodges warm.

One day the people went to see their friend Coyote. Oh, Coyote! He was friend to all. He was a friend of the Creator, he was a friend to the animals, he was a friend to the people. Whenever anyone had a problem, they went to see Coyote. The people came inside Coyote's lodge. "Coyote, please, you must help us. We need fire. Many have died - our youngest and oldest suffer the most. Can you help us?"

Coyote thought and finally he agreed that the people needed fire. He would see what he could do. After the people left coyote fasted and prayed for four nights. On the fourth night he had a dream. He had a dream about fire and animals and people. When  he awoke he had a plan.

The first thing he did was to go to the mountain where the Fire Beings lived. At night all he had to do was follow the glow of light. When he got there, he remembered he many stories about the Fire Beings and stood well back among the bushes so they would not see him and he would not be harmed. He watched till the sun rose in the East, he watched all the next day and the next night. He noticed something as he watched. He noticed that every so often one of the Fire sisters would throw pine cones or sycamore branches onto the fire. This made the fire strong. "Ah, I must remember that," thought Coyote. He also noticed that there was always a Fire sister guarding the fire. How would he ever get some of that fire? Then, he noticed that early in the morning, the one Fire Sister would have a hard time waking up her sister to take her turn. "Ah-ha!" thought Coyote, "I think I know just what to do."

Quietly he crept back down the mountain and called for a great council of all the animals. Oh, there was bear, and mountain lion, deer and chipmunk. There was eagle and buzzard and many other birds. There was even old man turtle. Coyote stood in the middle of the circle and said, "I have come to you because The People need our help."

The animals cheered, "Yes, let's help the people."

"The people need our help to bring back fire."

Now the animals were silent. Fire? Oh no, just look what happened to the other animals when they tried to bring fire. Possum lost his furry tail! No, they would not bring fire.

Coyote could see the fear in the animals' eyes and said, "This is what I ask of you. I ask that the strongest animal come forward."

The animals looked at each other until mountain lion came forward and they all cheered, "Yes, Mountain Lion, he is strong!"

Coyote greeted Mountain Lion. I thank you Mountain Lion for your gift of strength. Now, I need someone who is fast."

Again the animals looked at one another... Fast? I am not fast. He must mean someone else. When, all of a sudden, vulture flew down from a tree. All the animals cheered, "Yes, Vulture, you are fastest of all."

Oh, Vulture, he was a handsome bird - a black coat with a huge multi-colored headdress that he proudly wore. Coyote greeted Vulture. "Vulture, I thank you for your gift of speed. Now, I need one more animal. Who will it be?"  This time the animals did not look at one another. They looked down on the ground. When, who should walk to the middle of the circle, but Old Man Turtle. The animals began to laugh. "Old Man Turtle, what are you doing? You are too old. You are not strong. You are not fast."

Old Man Turtle looked at the others. It is true. I am not strong and I certainly am not fast. And, it is true that I am old, but with age comes wisdom."

Coyote greeted Old Man Turtle. "Old Man Turtle we welcome your gift of wisdom." After the animals left, Coyote told Mountain Lion and Vulture and Old Man Turtle what they must do.

"Mountain Lion, you must hide yourself among the boulder about halfway up the mountain. Vulture, position yourself high up in a tree along the base of the mountain. And, Old Man Turtle, you must stay along the edge of the lake." Then Coyote went up the mountain.

There, he hid behind some bushes and waited until the sun began to rise in the East. He saw the old hag fire being rise up and go into the lodge. He could hear her calling to her sister to wake up. "Wake up, wake up, I say. It's your turn by the fire. I have been up all night and it time for me to sleep. Wake up I say!"

Coyote knew that this was his only chance. Her ran toward the fire and found a fire stick lit only on one end that was sticking out of the fire. He grabbed it with his teeth and began running down the hill. When the Fire Sister came out, she could only see the tip of coyote's tail and a trail of smoke. She knew what Coyote did and she screamed for her sisters.

There is something I did not tell you about Fire Beings. You see, they can transform themselves. So, they folded up inside and became like three balls of fire. Then, they flew the sky in pursuit of Coyote.

Did I tell you how fast Coyote was? He was a good runner. He ran fast...faster. Ha! But, Coyote was small and soon he became winded and began to slow down. Just when he thought he could not take another step, he spit that fire stick onto the path. But, Lion was there to pick it up in his teeth and he began to run. I told you mountain lion was strong. So strong he bounded down that mountain...jumping from one rock to the next until he got to the bottom of the mountain. And now, even Mountain Lion was winded. He spit the stick onto the path. Aha! But vulture saw it and flew down. Vulture did not know about fire so he put the flame in his beautiful headdress and took off for the skies. Oh, Vulture was much faster than the Fire Beings. Up, up, higher and higher. The Fire Sisters could not keep up. When...when the fire stick began to burn the feathers on his head. Vulture couldn't stand the pain and nodded his head. The fire stick fell...fell...fell from the sky. Down, down, down it came. Down, do...Then it disappeared!

The Fire Beings saw the fire stick falling from the sky. The dove down to retrieve it...when, they suddenly stopped! For they we flying right up the surface water of the lake. And if there was anything that was the arch enemy of the Fire Beings, it was water. Even so, they flew back and forth over the water hoping to catch a glimmer. But, seeing nothing they flew off in disgust.

Now, you remember me telling you that Old Man Turtle was sitting by the lake. When he saw that fire, he swam out to the middle of the lake and caught the fire. Then, very carefully, he put that burning ember inside his shell and dove down to the bottom of the lake. He looked up and could see the eerie glow the fire beings. He waited until they disappeared and swam to shore.

Coyote was waiting Old Man Turtle. "Old Man Turtle what have you done? Where is the fire?"

Old Man Turtle reached inside his shell and brought out the burning ember.

It was Old Man Turtle that put some of the sparks from the ember into the trees and into certain the Fire Beings would never find them.

Then Coyote went to the People. He taught the people how to take two sticks and rub them together to make fire. It was Coyote who taught the people to find rocks called flints and strike them together to make a spark.

                                                                   It was Coyote and his animal friends who brought fire to the people.

Other origin of fire stories - Origin of Fire - Apache 

                                             Grandmother Spider Brings the Light  (Cherokee)

                                             How Fire Came to the Six Nations (Iroquois)



There are a few books about Ishi and his remarkable life. Here are a few:

bullet Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America, Deluxe Illustrated Edition , by Theodora Kroeber
bullet Ishi in Three Centuries (2003), a collection of 22 essays and testimonies edited by Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber, sons of Alfred and Theodora Kroeber.
bullet Ishi's Tale of Lizard: Books: Susan L. Roth,Leanne Hinton by Susan L.
Roth,Leanne Hinton. Translated tale by Ishi

Here are some interesting websites:



                                                                         Stories 'n Stones at the Missouri History Museum