A. L. Kroeber was a fascinating and brilliant man, completely devoted to his field. During the earthquake of April, 1906, he pulled himself out of the rubble in his downtown home, shook off the dust, and walked many miles up hill to check on his Museum, which was located where the U. C. Medical Center now stands, at the top of Parnassus. He was into everything. He was the first person to bring anthropology to the West Coast and almost everyone who met him considered themselves friends of his. He also wrote what was probably the most lucid and all-encompassing general text of anthropology, a huge 1948 tome, which is now considered out of date because of its content (we now know a lot more) and its approach (culture as determined by history and styles rather than materialism). The progressives dislike him for this and for the fact that his benefactress was Phoebe Hearst.
And yet, he was devilishly smart, able to outline some social problems that we are only now trying to cope with, like globalization, which he called "the universal pattern." What happens when the whole world depends on an oil-based industry -- and then we run out of oil? I won't go on about him except to say that he loved his first wife -- Ann Archer in this movie -- that his second wife, Theodora, wrote a graceful biography of Kroeber, subtitled, I think, "A Personal Configuration." Also, the "K." in Ursula K. LeGuinn stands for "Kroeber," since she was his daughter.
The movie itself sometimes lapses into clichés but there are blessedly few of them. It's been years since I read "Ishi: The Last Yahi," but as I remember it he was consistently polite and cooperative. The movie yields to the temptation to make him a bit of a mystic, listening to the song of the earth (which Kroeber is unable to hear). But I don't know if such beliefs are so alien to the spirit of the Indians of California. There are other conjectural episodes added to spice up what the writers might otherwise have thought a too-pedestrian story. Ishi gets deflowered. The next morning we see him humming happily to himself, hard at work polishing the glass cases in the museum.
The movie also turns Kroeber into a kind of stereotypical scientist. "You have Ishi here?" Ishi asks Kroeber, tapping Kroeber's notebook. "In the book? Yes." "But not here," says Ishi, tapping Kroeber's chest.
But, well, okay, so it's poetic license. (I think actual documentaries of Ishi's life with the white folks are available.) The performances are outstanding. If the film creaks at the joints while straining to make the characters look human, the performers take it over the finish line. God, John Voight can be a good actor when he gets his teeth into a role. Here he does a splendid job as a man who puts as much distance as he can between himself and human emotions. Voight expertly conveys the discomfort and helplessness Kroeber feels when faced with unpleasantness. It makes his final breakdown, when he sings abjectly over Ishi's death mask, almost unbearably moving. Without the delicate touches provided by the actors, what we would otherwise have is the story of a man "getting in touch with his feelings," whatever that means.
Being an Indian in California wasn't all bad, at least until the white folks came along. (Stereotypical incidents -- two of them -- of hairy white men shooting down helpless Yahi. Not to say that it didn't happen in early California, because it did.) The Chumash lived in what is now Santa Barbara, for instance. They left huge piles of garbage behind. If you were to dig in one of OUR old garbage dumps, you'd find that the deeper you dig, the more "primitive" the tools become. There may be disposable ballpoint pens at the top, but under that would be a layer of ballpoints made to last, and under that a layer of fountain pens, and under that ink pens with long wooden handles, then quill pens, and so on. But if you dig into a Chumash garbage dump, you can dig down through three thousand years of their history and find virtually no change in their artifacts. Why should they invent new stuff? They didn't need it. They had it made.
Of course, tragically, the Chumash have now gone the way of the Yahi and the various tribes that were incorporated into the 21 California missions, most of whom died of disease. Next time you visit Mission San Juan Bautista, consider the fact that just over the low stone wall there are roughly 3,000 unmarked Indian graves. Ishi has a lot of company.