Nov 272017
 

Today is the birthday (1940) of Li Jun-fan (李振藩)known professionally as Bruce Lee, an enormously influential actor, film director, martial artist, martial arts instructor, and founder of the Jeet Kune Do style of wushu or kungfu. He is widely considered by commentators, critics, media, and other martial artists to be one of the most important martial artists of all time, and a pop culture icon of the 20th century. He is also credited with helping to change the way Asians were presented in Hollywood films.

Lee was born on November 27, 1940, at the Chinese Hospital, in San Francisco’s Chinatown. According to the Chinese zodiac, Lee was born in both the hour and the year of the Dragon, which according to tradition is a strong and fortuitous omen. Lee and his parents returned to Hong Kong when he was three months old. Bruce’s father, Lee Hoi-chuen, (李海泉) was Han Chinese, and his mother, Grace Ho (何愛瑜), was of Eurasian ancestry. Grace Ho was the adopted daughter of Ho Kom-tong (何甘棠) and the half-niece of Sir Robert Ho-tung, both notable Hong Kong businessmen and philanthropists. Bruce was the fourth child of five: Phoebe Lee (李秋源), Agnes Lee (李秋鳳), Peter Lee (李忠琛), and Robert Lee (李振輝). Grace’s biological parentage remains unclear, but a common belief is that she had a German father and a Chinese mother.

In Chinese naming customs, the family name comes first, and the given name is second. Given names are typically unique, given by parents for some personal reason, and may be homophonically ambiguous. In Cantonese Jun-fan sounds like “return again” and was given to Lee by his mother, who hoped he would return to the United States when he came of age. The English name Bruce is thought to have been given him by the hospital attending physician, Dr. Mary Glover. Lee had three other Chinese names: Li Yuanxin (李源鑫), a family/clan name; Li Yuanjian (李元鑒), which he used as a student name while he was attending La Salle College, and his Chinese screen name Li Xiaolong (李小龍; Xiaolong means “little dragon”). Lee’s given name Jun-fan was originally written in Chinese as 震藩, however, the Jun (震) Chinese character was identical to part of his grandfather’s name, Lee Jun-biu (李震彪). In consequence, the Chinese character for Jun in Lee’s name was changed to the homonym 振 instead, to avoid a naming taboo in Chinese tradition. The character 李 in his name can be transcribed as Lee or Li using the Roman alphabet; the pinyin is Lǐ, which can mean “plum.”

Lee’s father, was one of the leading Cantonese opera and film actors of his day, and was embarking on a year-long opera tour with his family on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. He had been touring the United States for many years and performing in numerous Chinese communities there. Although many of his peers decided to stay in the US, Lee’s father returned to Hong Kong after Bruce’s birth. Within months, Hong Kong was invaded and the Lees lived for almost 4 years under Japanese occupation. Lee’s mother was from one of the wealthiest and most powerful clans in Hong Kong, the Ho-tungs. As such, the young Bruce Lee grew up in an affluent and privileged environment. Despite the advantage of his family’s status, the neighborhood in which Lee grew up became overcrowded, dangerous, and full of gang rivalries due to an influx of refugees fleeing communist China for Hong Kong, which at that time was a British Crown colony. After Lee was involved in several street fights, his parents decided that he needed to be trained in the martial arts. Lee’s first introduction to martial arts was through his father, from whom he learned the fundamentals of Wu-style t’ai chi ch’uan.

The greatest influence on Lee’s martial arts development was his study of Wing Chun. Lee began training in Wing Chun when he was 16 years old under the Wing Chun teacher Yip Man in 1957, after losing several fights with rival gang members. Yip’s regular classes generally consisted of practicing forms, chi sao (sticking hands) drills, wooden dummy techniques, and free-sparring. There was no set pattern to the classes; Yip tried to keep his students from fighting in the street gangs of Hong Kong by encouraging them to fight in organized competitions.

After a year into his Wing Chun training, most of Yip Man’s other students refused to train with Lee after they learned of his mixed ancestry, because the Chinese were generally against teaching their martial arts techniques to non-Asians. Lee continued to train privately with Yip Man and Wong Shun Leung in 1955.

In the spring of 1959, Lee got into another street fight and the police were called. Until his late teens, Lee’s street fights became more frequent and included beating the son of a feared triad family. Eventually, Lee’s father decided his son should leave Hong Kong to pursue a safer and healthier life in the United States. His parents confirmed the police’s fear that this time Lee’s opponent had an organized crime background, and there was the possibility that a contract was out for his life. In April 1959, Lee’s parents sent him to the United States to stay with his older sister, Agnes Lee (李秋鳳), who was already living with family friends in San Francisco. After living in San Francisco for several months, he moved to Seattle in 1959, to continue his high school education, where he also worked for Ruby Chow as a live-in waiter at her restaurant. In December 1960, Lee completed his high school education and received his diploma from Edison Technical School (now Seattle Central Community College, located on Capitol Hill in Seattle). In March 1961, Lee enrolled at the University of Washington, majoring in drama, but also studying philosophy, psychology, and various other subjects.It was at the University of Washington that he met his future wife Linda Emery, a fellow student studying to become a teacher. They were married in 1964.

Lee began teaching martial arts in the United States in 1959. He called what he taught Jun Fan Gung Fu. It was basically his approach to Wing Chun. Lee taught friends he met in Seattle, starting with Judo practitioner Jesse Glove, and opened the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, in Seattle. Lee dropped out of college in the spring of 1964 and moved to Oakland to live with James Yimm Lee (嚴鏡海), a well known Chinese martial artist in the area. Together, they founded the second Jun Fan martial art studio in Oakland. James Lee was also responsible for introducing Bruce Lee to Ed Parker, organizer of the Long Beach International Karate Championships at which Bruce Lee was later “discovered” by Hollywood.

At the invitation of Ed Parker, Lee appeared in the 1964 Long Beach International Karate Championships and performed repetitions of two-finger push-ups (using the thumb and the index finger of one hand) with feet at approximately a shoulder-width apart. In the same Long Beach event he also performed the “One inch punch.” Lee could stood upright, his right foot forward with knees bent slightly, in front of a standing, stationary partner with right fist approximately one inch (2.5 cm) away from the partner’s chest, and, without retracting his right arm, deliver a punch to his partner that would send him sprawling to the floor. His first volunteer was Bob Baker of Stockton, California who recalled, “When he punched me that last time, I had to stay home from work because the pain in my chest was unbearable.”

Lee appeared at the 1967 Long Beach International Karate Championships and performed various demonstrations, including his famous “unstoppable punch” against USKA world Karate champion Vic Moore. Here, as with many other of Lee’s competitive bouts, Lee’s version of events and his opponent’s version differ significantly. Lee claims he threw 8 straight punches to Moore’s face (stopping before contact), and Moore failed to block any of them because Lee was too quick. Moore denies this, claiming he blocked every punch.

In Oakland, California in 1964 in Chinatown, Lee had a controversial private match with Wong Jack Man, a student of Ma Kin Fung known for his mastery of Xingyiquan, Northern Shaolin, and T’ai chi ch’uan. According to Lee, the Chinese community issued an ultimatum to him to stop teaching non-Chinese. When he refused to comply, he was challenged to a combat match with Wong. The arrangement was that if Lee lost, he would have to shut down his school; while if he won, then Lee would be free to teach Caucasians or anyone else. Wong denied this, stating that he requested to fight Lee after Lee boasted during one of his demonstrations at a Chinatown theatre that he could beat anyone in San Francisco, and that Wong himself did not discriminate against Caucasians or other non-Chinese. Individuals known to have witnessed the match include Cadwell, James Lee (Bruce Lee’s associate, no relation), and William Chen, a teacher of T’ai chi ch’uan. Wong and William Chen stated that the fight lasted an unusually long 20–25 minutes. Wong claims that he had originally expected a serious but polite bout; however, Lee attacked him very aggressively with intent to kill, straight from the beginning of the bout when he had replied to Wong’s traditional handshake offer by pretending to accept the handshake, but instead turning that hand into a spear aimed at Wong’s eyes. Forced to defend his life, he had nonetheless refrained from striking Lee with killing force when the opportunity presented itself because it would land him in prison. Wong claims the fight ended due to Lee’s “unusually winded” condition, as opposed to a decisive blow by either fighter. According to Bruce Lee, Linda Lee Cadwell, and James Yimm Lee, however, the fight lasted a mere 3 minutes with a decisive victory for Lee. In Cadwell’s account, “The fight ensued, it was a no-holds-barred fight, it took three minutes. Bruce got this guy down to the ground and said ‘Do you give up?’ and the man said he gave up.” The bout is famous, and accounts vary enormously. The part I tend to believe is that Lee got over-emotional in the fight and friends broke it up. From there it seems likely to me that both sides evolved a story flattering to themselves to avoid losing face. Losing face is a BIG DEAL among Chinese.

After filming one season of The Green Hornet in 1967 Lee was out of work and opened The Jun Fan Institute of Gung Fu. The controversial match with Wong Jack Man changed Lee’s philosophy of martial arts. Lee concluded that the fight had lasted too long and that he had failed to live up to his potential using his Wing Chun techniques. He took the view that traditional martial arts techniques were too rigid and formalistic to be practical in street fighting. He decided to develop a system with an emphasis on “practicality, flexibility, speed, and efficiency”. He started to use different methods of training such as weight training for strength, running for endurance, stretching for flexibility, and many others which he constantly adapted, including fencing and basic boxing techniques.

Lee emphasized what he called “the style of no style”. This consisted of getting rid of the formalized approach of traditional styles. His system of Jun Fan Gung Fu was even too restrictive, and eventually evolved into a philosophy and martial art he came to call Jeet Kune Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist), a term he later regret, because it implied a certain style whereas the idea of his martial art was to exist outside of parameters and limitations.

Lee was introduced into films at a very young age and appeared in several films as a child because of his father’s fame as a Chinese opera star. He had his first role as a baby who was carried on to the stage in the film Golden Gate Girl. By the time he was 18, he had appeared in twenty films. While in the United States from 1959 to 1964, Lee abandoned thoughts of a film career in favor of pursuing martial arts, but his martial arts exhibition on Long Beach in 1964 eventually led to the invitation by William Dozier for an audition for a role in the pilot for “Number One Son”. The show never aired, but Lee was invited for the role of the sidekick Kato alongside the title character played by Van Williams in the TV series, The Green Hornet. The show lasted only one season of 26 episodes, from September 1966 to March 1967. Lee and Williams also appeared as their respective characters in three crossover episodes of Batman, another William Dozier produced television series. This was followed by guest appearances in three television series: Ironside (1967), Here Come the Brides (1969), and Blondie (1969).

According to statements made by Lee, and also by Linda Lee Cadwell after Lee’s death, in 1971 Lee pitched a television series of his own tentatively titled The Warrior, discussions which were also confirmed by Warner Bros. During a December 9, 1971 television interview on The Pierre Berton Show, Lee stated that both Paramount and Warner Brothers wanted him “to be in a modernized type of a thing, and that they think the Western idea is out, whereas I want to do the Western.” According to Cadwell, Lee’s concept was retooled and renamed Kung Fu, but Warner Brothers gave Lee no credit and rejected him for the role of Kwai Chang Caine, Kung Fu master, in favor of US-born David Carradine, who had no martial arts experience at the time, but had the benefit of being the son of a famous actor, John Carradine. Hollywood had, and still has, a bad habit of casting WASP actors as non-WASP characters. How many Arabs played leads in Lawrence of Arabia?

Producer Fred Weintraub advised Lee to return to Hong Kong and make a feature film which he could showcase to executives in Hollywood. Lee returned to Hong Kong, unaware that The Green Hornet was very successful there and generally referred to as “The Kato Show.” After negotiating with both Shaw Brothers Studio and Golden Harvest, Lee signed a film contract to star in two films produced by Golden Harvest.

Lee played his first leading role in The Big Boss (1971) which proved to be an enormous box office success across Asia and catapulted him to stardom. I suppose you could say, “The rest is history.” I’ll say simply that you can study his subsequent movie career on your own.

On July 20, 1973, Lee was in Hong Kong, to have dinner with actor George Lazenby, with whom he intended to make a film. According to Lee’s wife Linda, Lee met producer Raymond Chow at 2 p.m. at home to discuss the making of the film Game of Death. They worked until 4 p.m. and then drove together to the home of Lee’s colleague Betty Ting Pei, a Taiwanese actress. The three went over the script at Ting’s home, and then Chow left to attend a dinner meeting. Later Lee complained of a headache, and Ting gave him an analgesic, Equagesic, which contained both aspirin and the tranquilizer meprobamate. Around 7:30 p.m., he went to lie down for a nap. When Lee did not come for dinner, producer Raymond Chow went to the apartment, but was unable to wake him. A doctor was summoned, who spent ten minutes attempting to revive Lee before sending him by ambulance to Queen Elizabeth Hospital. By the time the ambulance reached the hospital he was dead. He was 32 years old. The autopsy revealed that he had had an allergic reaction to the meprobamate, and that his brain had swollen fatally.

Lee’s stringent physical regimen had an important nutritional component which has been widely publicized. Key elements are:

  1. Little and often: Lee ate 4 or 5 small meals a day and snacked on fresh fruit.
  2. Avoid empty calories: Lee avoided pastries, breads and sweets.
  3. Dietary supplements: Vitamin C, Lecithin granules, bee pollen, Shilajit, Vitamin E, rose hips (liquid form), wheat germ oil, Acerola – C and B-Folia, and brewer’s yeast.
  4. Daily tea: Lee drank Lipton tea with honey or a Chinese tea called Li-Cha with milk and sugar.
  5. Balance: Lee’s diet was a healthy combination of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.

Lee’s favorite dish was beef in oyster sauce, a mainstay of Chinese-American restaurants. The Westernized version is easy enough to make if you have a wok and a hot enough gas burner. The key is finding good-quality, tender beef. Choice of vegetables in the dish is up to you. You’ll usually find broccoli, carrots, cauliflower or pea pods in restaurants across the US. I’m happy with bean sprouts or mushrooms (if I can get Asian mushrooms).

Beef in Oyster Sauce

1 lb. tender beef steak
1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger (chopped)
1 cup Asian mushrooms (sliced)
1 cup bean sprouts (or pea pods)
2 ½ tbsp oyster sauce
1 tsp soft brown sugar
¼ cup chicken broth
vegetable oil (for frying)

Marinade

1 ½ tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp Chinese rice wine
2 tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tbsp water
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Instructions

Cut the beef across the grain into thin slices.

Combine the marinade ingredients in a large bowl and marinate the beef for at least 15 minutes.

In a small bowl, mix the chicken broth, sugar, and oyster sauce together and set aside.

Heat the wok on the highest heat possible until it is as hot as you can get it. Add a little vegetable oil, swirl, and add the ginger. Drain the beef. As soon as you smell the fragrance of the ginger, add the beef and stir fry (in batches if necessary) until it is lightly browned. Transfer the beef to a dish and clean out the wok.

Repeat the heating of the wok over the highest heat and add a little vegetable oil. Add your choice of vegetables and stir fry briefly. Push the vegetables to one side and add the oyster sauce mixture to the center. Bring it to a boil and add the beef back to the wok. Stir fry everything together for a minute or less, until everything is hot and the sauce is thick. Serve with plain boiled rice.

Jun 292014
 

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On this date in 1776 Mission San Francisco de Asís, or Mission Dolores, the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco and the sixth religious settlement established as part of the California chain of missions, was founded by Lieutenant José Joaquin Moraga and Father Francisco Palóu, both members of the de Anza Expedition, which had been charged with bringing Spanish settlers to Alta (upper) California, and evangelizing the indigenous Ohlone. The settlement was named for St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, but was also commonly known as “Mission Dolores” because of a nearby creek named Arroyo de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (“Our Lady of Sorrows Creek”).

The original Mission consisted of a log and thatch structure. It was located near what is today the intersection of Camp and Albion Streets (according to most sources), very close to the surviving adobe Mission building, and on the shores of a lake (supposedly long since filled) called Laguna de los Dolores. An historical marker at that location depicts this lake, but whether it ever actually existed is a matter of some dispute. Creek geologists (yes, it is a profession), Janet Sowers and Christopher Richard propose that the legendary lake is the result of misunderstandings of Juan Bautista de Anza’s 1776 writings. According to their 2011 hydrological map, there were no lakes in the area, only creeks.

The present Mission church, near what is now the intersection of Dolores and 16th streets, was dedicated in 1791. At the time of dedication a mural painted by indigenous artists adorned the focal wall of the chapel. The Mission was constructed of adobe and was part of a complex of buildings used for housing, agricultural, and manufacturing enterprises. Though most of the Mission complex, including the quadrangle and convento, has either been altered or demolished outright during the intervening years, the façade of the Mission chapel has remained relatively unchanged since its construction in 1782–1791.

According to Mission historian Brother Guire Cleary, the early 19th century saw the greatest period of activity at San Francisco de Asís:

 At its peak in 1810–1820, the average Indian population at Pueblo Dolores was about 1,100 persons. The California missions were not only houses of worship. They were farming communities, manufacturers of all sorts of products, hotels, ranches, hospitals, schools, and the centers of the largest communities in the state. In 1810 the Mission owned 11,000 sheep, 11,000 cows, and thousands of horses, goats, pigs, and mules. Its ranching and farming operations extended as far south as San Mateo and east to Alameda. Horses were corralled on Potrero Hill, and the milking sheds for the cows were located along Dolores Creek at what is today Mission High School. Twenty looms were kept in operation to process wool into cloth. The circumference of the mission’s holdings were said to have been about 125 miles.

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The Mission chapel, along with “Father Serra’s Church” at Mission San Juan Capistrano, is one of only two surviving buildings where Father Junípero Serra is known to have officiated (although “Dolores” was still under construction at the time of Serra’s visit). In 1817, Mission San Rafael Arcángel was established as an asistencia to act as a hospital for the Mission, though it would later be granted full mission status in 1822. The Mexican War of Independence (1810–1821) strained relations between the Mexican government and the California missions. Supplies were scant, and the Indians who worked at the missions continued to suffer terrible losses from disease and cultural disruption (more than 5,000 Indians are thought to have been buried in the cemetery adjacent to the Mission). In 1834, the Mexican government enacted secularization laws whereby most church property was sold or granted to private owners. In practical terms, this meant that the missions would hold title only to the churches, the residences of the priests and a small amount of land surrounding the church for use as gardens. In the period that followed, Mission Dolores fell on very hard times. By 1842 there were only 8 residents.

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The California Gold Rush brought renewed activity to the Mission Dolores area. In the 1850s, two plank roads were constructed from what is today downtown San Francisco to the Mission, and the entire area became a popular resort and entertainment district.[14] Some of the Mission properties were sold or leased for use as saloons and gambling halls. Racetracks were constructed, and fights between bulls and bears were staged for crowds. The Mission complex also underwent alterations. Part of the convento was converted to a two-story wooden wing for use as a seminary and priests’ quarters, while another section became the “Mansion House,” a popular tavern and way station for travelers.[15] By 1876, the Mansion House portion of the convento had been razed and replaced with a large Gothic Revival brick church, designed to serve the growing population of immigrants who were now making the Mission area their home.

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During this period, wood clapboard siding was applied to the original adobe chapel walls as both a cosmetic and a protective measure; the veneer was later removed when the Mission was restored. During the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the adjacent brick church was destroyed. By contrast, the original adobe Mission, though damaged, remained in relatively good condition. However, the ensuing fire touched off by the earthquake reached almost to the Mission’s doorstep. To prevent the spread of flames, the Convent and School of Notre Dame across the street was dynamited by firefighters; nevertheless, nearly all the blocks east of Dolores Street and north of 20th street were consumed by flames. In 1913, construction began on a new church (now known as the Mission Dolores Basilica) adjacent to the Mission, which was completed in 1918. This structure was further remodeled in 1926 with churrigueresque ornamentation inspired by the Panama-California Exposition held in San Diego’s Balboa Park. A sensitive restoration of the original adobe Mission was undertaken in 1917 by noted architect Willis Polk. In 1952, San Francisco Archbishop John J. Mitty, announced that Pope Pius XII had elevated Mission Dolores to the status of a Minor Basilica. This was the first designation of a basilica west of the Mississippi and the fifth basilica named in the United States. Today, the larger, newer church is called “Mission Dolores Basilica” while the original adobe structure retains the name of Mission Dolores.

The San Francisco de Asís cemetery, which adjoins the property on the south side, was originally much larger than its present boundaries, running west almost to Church Street and north into what is today 16th Street. It was reduced in various stages, starting with the extension of 16th Street through the former Mission grounds in 1889, and later by the construction of the Mission Dolores Basilica Center and the Chancery Building of the Archdiocese of San Francisco in the 1950s. Some remains were reburied on-site in a mass grave, while others were relocated to various Bay Area cemeteries. Today, most of the former cemetery grounds are covered by a paved playground behind the Mission Dolores School. The cemetery that currently remains underwent a careful restoration in the mid-1990s. The Mission is still an active church in San Francisco. Many people attend services in the Mission church and even more attend mass in the adjacent basilica. The Mission is open to visitors, and is located on Dolores Street near its intersection with 16th Street. The San Francisco neighborhood closely surrounding the historic Mission is known as Mission Dolores, and the much larger Mission District is named for it as well.

Present day San Francisco is foodie paradise. It is one of the few cities in the USA with a claim to serving real food of local origin (New Orleans is another). My faithful readers will know that I have a healthy disdain for “those who know” in the U.S. mocking British food. Homegrown U.S. “cuisine” is, in general, nothing to write home about. Who wants to regale me with tales about the best hamburger ever? Or superb hot dogs? But I have no trouble admitting that there are regional cuisines of exceptional interest in the U.S. I once took a road trip from Santa Fe to Indiana, sampling the local barbecue everywhere I could. My cue from the highway was a thick galvanized chimney belching smoke, and a load of firewood stacked by the door. Such an amazing adventure – Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois – each with local barbecue traditions. Indiana, not so much.

Rice-a-roni is NOT the San Francisco treat. But there are so many dishes to wax lyrical over. When you are in SF (not “San Fran” or “Frisco”) you are a fool to miss the Ferry Building Marketplace. I left there 2 kilos heavier when I visited. I cannot resist Recchiuti chocolates (you have to sample them one at a time, and the grapefruit and rosemary dark choc is exquisite), Far West Fungi specializing in wild mushrooms hand picked, Acme Bread Company making the best SF sourdough bread ever . . . and so much more.

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For now I will go with the mission burrito, a treat that has spread over much of the U.S. My favorite food writer, Calvin Trillin, said that the mission burrito “has been refined and embellished in much the same way that the pizza has been refined and embellished in Chicago.” You might want to be careful in New York or Naples with remarks like that Calvin. But he is right about the mission burrito. Cook’s choice here. Start with a large flour tortilla, Spanish rice, and refried beans. Then you have a choice of ingredients – stewed or grilled chicken (pollo or pollo asado), grilled beef steak (carne asada), barbecued pork (al pastor) and braised shredded pork (carnitas). Or you can try pork stewed in green chile sauce (chile verde – my absolute fav), beef stewed in red chile sauce (chile colorado), Mexican sausage (chorizo), beef tongue (lengua), stewed and shredded beef (machaca), stewed beef head (cabeza), beef brain (sesos), beef eyeball (ojo), and shrimp (camarones). Or why not try birria (goat meat), camarones diablos (extra-spicy shrimp), carne deshebrada (shredded beef with red chile sauce), carne molida (ground beef), chicharrónes (fried pork rinds, stewed), barbacoa (marinated lamb), pescado (fish, usually fried or grilled tilapia and sometimes salmon), picadillo (ground beef with chopped chiles and tomatoes), mole (chicken stewed in a chile and chocolate sauce), nopales (prickly pear cactus), and tripas (beef tripe). You get your choice of salsa too. I’d go with pico de gallo, heavy on the chiles. OK – now I am hungry.

 

Aug 292013
 

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On this date in 1911 Ishi (c. 1860 – March 25, 1916) — supposedly the last full-blooded member of the indigenous Yahi — emerged from his ancestral homeland, in present-day Tehama County, near the foothills of Lassen Peak, and known to Ishi as Wa ganu p’a. He was about 49 years old, and had lived all of his life to that point with a dwindling band of Yahi (and related peoples).  With the deaths of his mother and sister he was completely alone and ultimately could not survive by himself.

Ishi means “man” in the Yana language. The anthropologist Alfred Kroeber gave this name to him because it was rude to ask a Yahi his name. Ishi is quoted as saying, “I have [no name], because there were no people to name me.” I am given to doubt this.  Naming among most indigenous peoples of North and South America is a very serious business.  Kroeber’s wife, Theodora, wrote, “A California Indian almost never speaks his own name, using it but rarely with those who already know it, and he would never tell it in reply to a direct question.” So it is more likely that Ishi knew his name but would not reveal it. The only people who could speak his name were dead.  But this is not the only mystery about Ishi by any means.

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Prior to the California Gold Rush of 1848–1855, the Yahi population numbered approximately 400 in California, but the total Yana (of which the Yahi were a sub-group) numbered about 3,000. The gold rush brought tens of thousands of miners and settlers to northern California, putting pressure on native populations. Gold mining damaged water supplies and killed fish; the deer left or were overhunted by miners. In addition the settlers brought diseases, such as smallpox and measles, which the Yana had no immunity to. The northern Yana were wiped out completely, and the central and southern groups including the Yahi were drastically reduced in numbers.  While searching for food, they came into conflict with settlers, leading to outright massacres, or bounties on the native peoples by the settlers. A settler could get up to $5 per head he produced. This practice was by no means confined to California, and is a deplorable chapter in the history of North and South America that rarely makes it to the history books.

Ishi is estimated to have been born between 1860 and 1862. In 1865, when he was a young boy, Ishi and his family were attacked in the Three Knolls Massacre, in which 40 Yahi were killed. Approximately 30 survived to escape, but shortly afterwards, cattlemen killed about half of the survivors. The last survivors, including Ishi and his family, went into hiding for the next 40 years, and the Yahi were believed to be extinct. From 1859 to 1911, Ishi’s remote band became more of a mix of neighboring groups such as the Wintun, Nomlaki, and Pit River as the populations of all these groups dwindled to the point where they could not sustain themselves as distinct entities.

In late 1908, a group of surveyors came across a camp they reported as inhabited by a man, a young girl, and an elderly native woman (and possibly one other person).  This was Ishi, his younger sister, and his elderly mother, respectively. The former two fled while the latter hid herself in blankets to avoid detection, because she was sick and unable to flee. The surveyors ransacked the camp and took everything. University of California anthropologists tried to find the camp, but were unsuccessful. Ishi’s mother and sister died shortly afterwards.

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Ishi lived three years beyond the raid in complete isolation. Finally, starving and with nowhere to go, at the age of about 49 on August 29, 1911, he was found by butchers outside a slaughterhouse near Oroville, and was presumed to be trying to steal meat. Initially, he was jailed by the Butte County sheriff, but U.C. Berkeley anthropologists, Alfred Kroeber and Thomas Talbot Waterman, took him to San Francisco and gave him housing at Berkeley Museum of Anthropology where he lived for the remainder of his life.

Waterman and Kroeber  worked with Ishi closely over the years and interviewed him at length to help them reconstruct Yahi culture. He described family units, naming patterns, and the ceremonies that he knew, but much of the tradition had been lost because there were few older survivors in the group in which he was raised. He identified material items and showed the techniques by which they were made. Ishi provided valuable information on his native dialect of Yana, which was recorded and studied by the linguist Edward Sapir, who had previously done work on the northern dialects.

Ishi's quiver and arrows

Ishi’s quiver and arrows

Ishi, having come to live in San Francisco, and having no immunity to Western diseases, was often ill. He was treated by a Professor of Medicine at UCSF, Saxton T. Pope. Pope became close friends with Ishi, and learned from him how to make bows and arrows in traditional fashion. He and Ishi often hunted together. Ishi died of tuberculosis, then an incurable disease, on March 25, 1916. His friends at the university initially had tried to prevent an autopsy on Ishi’s body since the body was to be kept intact according to Yahi tradition. But the doctors at the University of California medical school performed one before Waterman was able to stop it. Ishi’s brain was preserved and the body cremated. Included alongside his remains were “one of his bows, five arrows, a basket of acorn meal, a boxful of shell bead money, a purse full of tobacco, three rings, and some obsidian flakes.” Ishi’s remains were interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Colma, near San Francisco, but his brain was put in a deerskin-wrapped Pueblo pottery jar and sent to the Smithsonian Institution by Kroeber in 1917. It remained there until August 10, 2000, when it was sent to members of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River nations in accord with both the letter and the spirit of the National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989, that requires the repatriation of human remains to suitable host groups.

There is now considerable controversy concerning Ishi’s background. I believe that there is little doubt that he was the last of the indigenous peoples of North America to have lived the bulk of his life without contact with Westerners. The question has more to do with whether he was distinctly Yahi/Yana or of a more multi-ethnic heritage.  The flint arrow points he produced, for example, do not resemble Yana examples from archeological assemblages, but look more like those produced by the Nomlaki or Wintu, who were living with the Yana around the time of Ishi’s childhood.  It has even been speculated that one of his parents was not Yahi.  He spoke Yahi, but possibly his descriptions of Yahi culture are more of a blend of cultures he grew up with.  I can’t say I am overly concerned about this given that every culture borrows from others.  Whatever his origins, Ishi provided early twentieth century anthropologists with a treasure trove of knowledge.

As is evidenced by Ishi’s grave goods, acorn flour was an important component of the Yahi diet (as it was throughout northern California), so a recipe involving acorn flour is in order.  The purists among you might consider making it yourselves. It is a major project, however.  The big issue is that acorns are very high in tannins so they have to be leached out before the acorn flour is edible.  Tannins are not only bitter, they can cause stomach upset if consumed in large quantities.  The basic process is as follows:

1. Store the acorns several months in a dry place (up to a year). This process can be reduced to a month if they are stored by a fire.
2. Remove the outer skin.
3. Use a grinder or food processor to reduce the acorns to a meal. Depending on usage this can be coarse (for acorn mush), or fine (baked goods).
4. Place the ground acorns in a bag, such as a flour sack, that will allow the passage of water, but not allow the flour to seep out.
5. Put the bag in gently flowing water for 7 to 8 hours (a river is great). A slow trickle from a tap is all right, but the process may take up to 24 hours. Taste the rinse water periodically to see that the bitterness has been removed. The time also depends on the fineness of the flour: the coarser, the longer.
6. Spread the leached flour out on trays in the sun to dry.

If you do not want to go to all this trouble it is possible to get acorn flour in some health food stores, or online. Click here for a good source.

Here’s the thing.  Prepared acorn flour comes from the genus Quercus – the classic oaks – but the peoples of northern California used acorns from the tanoak or tanbark-oak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus), and, to the best of my knowledge, flour from these acorns is not commercially available.  It is richer and more flavorful than flour from regular oak acorns, and is what Ishi ate.

Tanoak acorns

Tanoak acorns

The simplest recipe is for mush, for which coarser flour is best. Place a quantity of acorn meal in a non reactive pot (do not use aluminum) with double the quantity of water.  Simmer slowly for 1 to 2 hours. The mush should resemble oatmeal or cream of wheat.  It can then be used to accompany meat dishes such as hearty stews.  Northern California peoples also made acorn pancakes by taking a very thick mush and using it like a batter, baking it on hot flat stones in a fire.  You could do the same with a heavy iron skillet.  My efforts in this regard have not been highly successful. The pancakes tended to fall apart and were not especially appealing.  What works best is a 50-50 acorn flour and regular flour mix made into a batter with eggs and griddled as you would regular US-style pancakes.

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