March 27, 2011

Ishi and Le Guin

Wired magazine has an article about Ishi, the last of the Yahi tribe of American Indians, who died on March 25, 1916. He emerged from the wilderness in 1911, and was offered a place to stay at San Francisco's museum of anthropology. The anthropologists who took him in were T. T. Waterman and Alfred L. Kroeber. Kroeber's wife, Theodora Kroeber, later wrote Ishi in Two Worlds, based on Alfred's notes (she hadn't met Ishi).

Now, Alfred and Theodora Kroeber were, of course, the parents of Ursula Kroeber Le Guin. It is interesting to speculate on the impact the Kroebers' anthropological work had on her fiction. Always Coming Home and "Buffalo Gals Won't You Come Home Tonight" certainly draw heavily on American Indian culture. "Ishi" actually means "man" in the Yana language - he refused to reveal his true name. The notion of secret, powerful "true names" is, of course, central to the Earthsea books. Ged, as described in her novels, might have looked something like Ishi. And the trope of the solitary carrier of information is present in works such as The Tombs of Atuan, "The Stars Below," and The Dispossessed.

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