Native American Heritage Month: Retired teacher writes children's book, shares Ishi story

Bill Choy
Siskiyou Daily News
Cindy Biggs-Weiss teaches kids in Michelle Jackson's third- through fifth-grade class at Delphic Elementary School in the Montague area about the life of Ishi from her book, "A Man Named Ishi: A Picture and Coloring Book."

A retired Siskiyou County school teacher is returning to the classroom in November to help students celebrate Native American Heritage Month

Cindy Biggs-Weiss wanted to write a book that gives elementary-aged school children an opportunity to delve into the remarkable life story of Ishi — the last known member of the Native American Yahi people.

Now with her self-published book in hand, she has been guest teaching in Michelle Jackson's third-fifth grade class at Delphic Elementary School in the Montague area.

"A Man Named Ishi: A Picture and Coloring Book" is part of Jackson's curriculum for three Thursdays, Nov. 11, Nov. 18, and Dec. 1.

"I'm so happy I'm able to share this story with them," said Biggs-Weiss, who taught for more than 30 years at Delphic and Montague Elementary. 

It's vital to teach kids Native American history and culture and have them better understand those native to the area, she said. For her, it is essential to show them "that we're all equal." 

Acorns and acorn flour, which is being used as part of a lesson on the life of Ishi, is seen in this photo from November 2021.

Ishi was widely considered the "last wild Indian" in America. He lived most of his life isolated until 1911 when he was 50, and emerged at a barn and corral two miles from downtown Oroville. Ishi was taken in by anthropologists at the University of California, Berkeley. They studied him and hired him as a janitor. He lived most of his remaining five years in a university building in San Francisco, dying of tuberculous in 1916. 

For years she taught students about Native American tribes from the North State, including Ishi, Biggs-Weiss said. Teaching about Native Americans is required learning for third-graders in the state.

To Biggs-Weiss, the life of Ishi is an important story to share with students and ask some tough questions about the treatment of Native Americans over the years and make the students think and be aware of this history of a man who lived only a few hours away from them.  

Book a labor of love

Biggs-Weiss hopes the book will serve as a learning tool for students beyond Jackson's classroom. 

She self-published the book in 2019, but when COVID hit, she didn't have much time to promote it to schools, she said

This month is her first time being able to go to a class and teach from her book. 

Delphic student Arianna Sales said she had learned much about Ishi and Native American culture through Biggs-Weiss and her book. "I think that it is cool how she found all the information about Ishi, and then she turned it into her own words," she said.  

Student Delila Longmore said Biggs-Weiss does a great job making this history come alive for the class. "She is really kind, and it is a lot of fun to have her teach us about Ishi and how to turn acorns into flour. Ishi lived how his ancestors did, making what they could from nature." 

Biggs-Weiss teaches piano in the after school programs at Delphic and Willow Creek Elementary. 

Delphic Principal Jami Thomas said that Biggs-Weiss is a wonderful resource. "The kids just love Cindy. She engages them with her knowledge and enthusiasm, and the kids feed off that."  

Learning about Ishi has fascinated and engaged her students, who asked many questions of Biggs-Weiss, Jackson said.

The first day of class on Nov. 12,  students made flour out of acorns using a process Native American Tribes used for generations.

They will make cookies from the flour by the end of the final class. 

Ishi, "was very willing to learn and to share," Biggs-Weiss said, and wanted to tell the story of his people. He was kind, very polite, and fun-loving,  she said. Biggs-Weiss said he taught people a lot about his culture and language as he adjusted to life in a totally different culture he was unaccustomed to. He eventually wore white men's clothing and was fond of pockets where he liked to keep his tools and tobacco in.

The Ishi Wilderness Area is located on the Lassen National Forest, about 20 miles from Red Bluff. It's believed to be the ancestral grounds of his tribe and is named in his honor, according to the Lassen National Forest website.

"A Man Named Ishi: A Picture and Coloring Book" is available for purchase on Amazon and at the Siskiyou County Museum at 910 S. Main St. in Yreka.

Bill Choy covers sports and general news for the Siskiyou Daily News/Mount Shasta Herald/USA Today Network. Follow him on Twitter at@SDNBillChoy. Email Bill at bchoy@siskiyoudaily.com. Support local journalism by subscribing today.