Friday Poem

Author’s note: This poem refers to Ishi, the last Native American who lived as Native Americans lived before the arrival of Europeans. Ishi was a member of the Yahi, a tribe of the Yana nation. After gold was discovered in California and the gold rush begun, the entire Yana nation of 9,000 people was systematically exterminated in the span of one year. Ishi, and about a dozen Yahi, managed to hide and survive for about forty years on what remained of their mountainous land. After everyone died he continued to live in solitude for three years. He was found, nearly starved to death, on a farm in Oroville, California in 1911, where he had wandered from what appeared to be sheer loneliness. Ishi was placed in a jail cell for two weeks because they did not know what to do with him. A professor of anthropology took him under his care. He was placed in a museum of anthropology as a living artifact, where he lived for four and a half years until his death from tuberculosis.


just a quick note, Ishi

I took my son to the Museum of Natural History
we looked for your long black hair
in the black encasements of mothballed worlds
we listened for the clacking speech of your bones
among the fossils of grandfather-whales
who still sing their ancient songs
into the awestruck eyes of children

we did not find you amid the white
tan-painted mannequins dressed
like powwow tourists in sacred clothes

nor where you one of the Melanesians
Africans or Aboriginals standing stiffly
and dusty like taxidermic trophies

there were no Vikings or Druids
making human sacrifices . . . pillaging
the corners of a yet undying world
which leads me to wonder
who would exclude themselves . . . Ishi

we did not find weaving
baskets or chipping arrowheads
stored among silk plants and crowds
too noisy to hear the wind
caressing the mountains of your Yana tomb
so we left saddened

because even here . . . among the trophy cases
the strand of web that wove your people
was cut from the fabric of this torn world
secretly . . . we were glad not to find you
frozen there . . . still weaving and carving
looking like Spider Woman cocooned
in her own web

by Edgar Silex
from Poetry Like Bread
Curbstone Press, 1994