“I think it is going to be a very strange and beautiful piece,” says Mudd Butt Mystery Theatre Troupe co-director Sally Davis of this weekend’s performance of Ishi Flying.
The multimedia production delves into the story of Ishi, the last living member of the Yahi, the last surviving tribe of the Yana people of California, and thought to be the last Native American in Northern California to have lived most of his life completely outside the European American culture.
Ishi emerged from the wild near Oroville, Calif., in 1911, tattered and near starvation, after leaving his ancestral homeland in the rugged foothills near Lassen Peak.
In true Mudd Butts fashion, this fantastical Ishi comes into contact with some of today’s most recognizable figures – larger-than-life-sized puppet heads of presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama are two – as well as modes of transportation that range from a covered wagon to a streetcar.
The ranging between two worlds is appropriate, Davis says, because Ishi ranged between two worlds – the last speaker of the Yahi language (which prohibited the saying aloud of one’s own name, so that he died known as “Ishi,” which means “man” in Yahi), he lived in northern California until his death, from tuberculosis, in 1916 – spending his last five years in an America at his “home” at San Francisco’s University of California Museum of Anthropology.
There he became close with well-known anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, whose wife, Theodora, would go on to write the anthropological classic Ishi in Two Worlds: The Last of His Tribe.
And yes, there is a Telluride connection – Theodora Koebler, who spent the first 17 years of her life in Telluride, riding horses provided by Ute Indians and visiting American Indian ruins as far away as Mesa Verde. She is the mother of noted writer Ursula LeGuin, who figures in this Mudd Butts production as a character who “kind of spins us in and out of different moments in time,” says Kim Epifano, longtime Mudd Butts co-director.
Rounding out the one-and-a-half-hour production at the Michael Palm Theatre (Friday and Saturday nights, 7 p.m. and a Sunday matinee, 2 p.m., followed by a prop auction) are “a lot of bird heads” and images flashed onscreen of Ishi in his last five years of life, as a kind of “wild man” oddity on display for curious museum visitors.
“We go from when Ursula was a child, on the Mojave River, in a boat with her parents following ‘bird song’ maps,” says Davis, explaining that the Indians “actually had bird masks” to wear when traveling from one place to another “singing bird songs – there were maybe 300 bird songs – if they knew the songs, it meant they knew the route.
“This was something that Theodora and Alfred got into; they did a lot of research on these bird songs that were actually stories.”
The world Ishi sprang from was a purely natural world, until the incursions from California settlers that demolished the Yahi tribe from its population of roughly 400 in 1865 to Ishi, in 1911.
“Ishi was the only person left in the world who spoke his language,” marvels Davis, a longtime student of this history of this extraordinary man who profoundly touched those who were lucky enough to come to know him during his five years in “modern” society.
“He was never angry,” says Davis, whose first Ishi-related Telluride production was with Telluride Elementary School fifth-graders in the graduating class of 2004. “He was a soulful guy. He had been through a lot. He had a Buddha quality.
“He really turned the people who got to know him inside out,” she adds. “He became their teacher. He had a super-intimate relationship with the natural world; he carved his own tools; he was a beautiful craftsman and hunter with incredible survival skills beyond the norm. He had to live in silence, because of the concealment,” she says of the years he spent in hiding that spanned 1865 to 1911, when Ishi finally came out into the white man’s world. Of survival, she says: “He had it down to a fine art.
“People who worked with him were really changed by who he was,” among them Alfred Kroeber, “who quit his job – it was so intense – for two years after Ishi died; he was at the absolute pinnacle of his career, but he never wanted to talk about Ishi after that.”
Voice recordings and pictures of Ishi will be used in the show – including “the first photo anyone has of him,” says Epifano, “right after he came wandering out” of the wild, “very thin, very much in shock.” He came out after the deaths of his mother and grandmother, with whom he was in hiding, “and he had burned his hair off, in mourning.”
A dance representing Ishi’s “transitioning into another world” is part of the Ishi Flying performance, as well.
In his last five years, Ishi was viewed by thousands of curious visitors “who came to see him at the museum where he as on display,” says Davis.
Former Northern Ute Tribe Chairman Roland McCook, great-great-grandson of Chipeta and Uncompahgre Ute Indian Chief Ouray, grew up on Hill Creek in Desolation Canyon on Utah’s Green River, in traditional Indian style. McCook now works with the Smithsonian Museum to return precious bones and artifacts to the descendants of the people to whom they belonged.
While with the Mudd Butts: “He taught us a round dance,” Epifano adds, “that’s going to be part of one of the dances” in the program.
“If we had Ishi’s ability to adapt to problems, we’d all be less stressed out,” says Davis, as the troupe goes through its fnal rehearsals. Between seeing most of his tribe killed and those surviving members slowly die, she adds, most people would “have gone stark raving mad.
“Basically, he walked onto another planet,” she says, of Ishi’s arrival at 1911 California – at the height of the California Gold Rush, months before the sinking of the Titanic. Because it was taboo in Yahi society to say one's own name, Ishi died without anyone ever knowing his real name; the word Ishi means man in the Yahi dialect.
In 1865, the Yahi population numbered approximately 400, but following the 1865 Three Knolls Massacre, which maybe 30 Yahi survived, the survivors went into hiding until there just one remained – Ishi - who in 1911 came out into a new “settled” California.
This year’s Mudd Butts’ range in age from 10 to 13, and are “an incredible troupe,” says Epifano, who have worked hard for the last month to weave the story of Ishi into a story of today, with appearances from candidates McCain and Obama, “lots of bird heads,” says Epifano, “a cable-car, a covered wagon.” “There’s lots we can learn as we fly into the uncertainty of this crazy modern world” from Ishi’s story, says Davis. “There’s information in his story for all of us.”
The Mudd Butts performances of Ishi Flying take place at the Michael Palm Theatre Friday, Aug. 15-Aug. 16 at 7 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 15 at 2 p.m., with a prop auction following the Sunday matinee. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for children.