Ishi: The father of modern bowhunting

Ishi: The father of modern bowhunting

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When we consider the tools that helped propel mankind to the top of the food chain, there is perhaps none more influential than the bow and arrow. The bow enabled our neolithic ancestors to hunt from a distance, outside the reach of claws and teeth. It instilled confidence, providing a tool to defend against whatever might lurk in the darkness, just beyond the light of their fires. Over time, bowhunting has continued to evolve. Today it has become the ultimate hunting challenge and among the most popular hunting methods. To reach this point, millions of dollars’ worth of technological research has been invested in the creation of the modern bow. Every year, new advancements are made in bowhunting and dozens of hunting companies have been built around the sport as it exists today. Yet none of this would have been possible without one man. A man whose hunting prowess and skill with a bow made him a legend and influenced every bowhunter who came after him. His name was Ishi.

Back in 1911, when a group of butchers stumbled upon a starving and filthy man scrounging for bits of meat at a local slaughterhouse, they had no idea what they had discovered. They brought him to the local sheriff, who delivered him to the jail in Oroville, California. The man’s discovery became the talk of the town, further enhanced when it was discovered that the starving and desperate vagrant was the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe, a tribe of Native Americans thought to have been wiped out in the Three Knolls Massacre of 1865. Ishi’s survival intrigued the public and much attention was given the man now known as “Ishi,” which simply means “man” in the Yahi language.

Saxton T. Pope, an anthropologist, surgeon, and medical instructor at Cal Berkeley, was particularly intrigued by how Ishi could have possibly survived for so many decades alone in the harsh environment of Northern California. Pope was already enamored with the Yana and Yahi people, and wishing to learn more about Ishi and his story, traveled to Oroville to meet him and offer him a home at the Berkeley campus. Ishi accepted, and thus began a friendship that would change the face of hunting forever.

Once at the museum, Ishi became a living exhibit. He would demonstrate to adoring crowds how to build fires, butcher meat, and make clothing from animal skins. But Ishi’s most popular presentations were those he performed with a bow. He would make and string bows for the crowd. He would chip arrowheads from obsidian and explain their use before giving them away to visitors. And of course he would demonstrate his shooting prowess, too. Ishi’s skills impressed many, and Pope, who was an avid hunter, recognized the value of his skill and wilderness experience. Pope also recognized the exhausting effect that the constant attention and confinement in the museum was having upon his friend. So he began taking Ishi on hunting expeditions into the mountains, where he would learn from him the true art of bowhunting.

Ishi showed Pope that, despite the popularity of firearms, the bow and arrow was an incredibly effective and efficient hunting weapon when paired with the requisite amount of skill. Ishi taught Pope not only how to shoot the bow properly, but also how to call and to stalk game. Ishi revealed to Pope the way to read the forest and understand what the animals were doing within it. Ishi hunted wearing only a loincloth so as not to catch his clothing on any stick or twig. He refused to smoke or eat fish before the hunt so that game could not smell him. He hunted wearing only light moccasins so he could feel the ground beneath his feet. Ishi’s bow and arrows were prized possessions that he treated with care and reverence. He practiced with them every day. Pope absorbed it all, learning as much as he could while taking trophies such as deer, sheep, mountain lions, and bear using Ishi’s techniques. Their hunts were so successful that the pair began to gain fame throughout the hunting community, with Ishi’s hunting techniques garnering much interest.

In 1915, an archery instructor named William Chief Compton and a young newspaperman named Arthur Young, who often frequented the museum to study the Japanese archery exhibit, struck up a friendship with Ishi and Saxton Pope. All of the men were avid hunters and after many evenings in front of Pope’s fire, sharing hunting stories, the group decided to go on hunting trips together. With Ishi as their guide and instructor, the group began going on hunting expeditions around the Pacific Northwest, as well as to North Carolina, where they all took several trophy animals with a bow. Ishi’s teachings led the group of men to become some of the most formidable and famous bowhunters in the world, and they took every word the Yahi said to heart. With his guidance they planned on taking every big-game animal in North America and Africa—until their plans were tragically cut short.

In 1916, Ishi began to feel breathless and weak. He was experiencing back pain and feeling listless, soon developing an uncontrollable cough. Pope, fearing the worst for his friend, began to examine Ishi almost daily, eventually discovering the terrible ailment afflicting his friend: tuberculosis. Though he tried everything he could, Pope could do nothing to stop the progression of the disease. On March 25, 1916, Ishi—the last Yahi and perhaps greatest bowhunter in history—passed away with Pope by his side.

Ishi’s legacy did not die with him, however. In honor of their friend, Pope and Arthur Young both left their jobs and exclusively concentrated on bowhunting. In 1920 they traveled to Yellowstone, killing five grizzlies with bow and arrow—a feat unheard of at the time. Between 1922 and 1923, Pope and Young traveled to Alaska to hunt. In 1925, they traveled to Africa, becoming the first white men to take African lions with bows and arrows. The weapons had been made for them by Ishi, and they used the hunting techniques he had taught them.

Pope and Young didn’t keep their successes a secret. After returning from each expedition, Pope wrote about their adventures and learned techniques for several publications while Young toured the nation giving lectures on the trials and romance of bowhunting. By 1958 the two men had become the most famous bowhunters in the world, influencing hunters such as Fred Bear and Howard Hill. Eventually a bowhunting records program, the Pope & Young Club, was formed in their name. Yet, despite their fame and fortune, neither man ever forgot who showed them the way: the small Yahi tribesman, the last of his kind, who showed the world that bowhunting was an art form.

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