In Search of the Real Woman Who Lived on the Island of the Blue Dolphins (2023)

Some have called her “Karana.” Others “Juana Maria.” Still others, simply, “The Lone Woman.” Yet her true name remains unknown. She is one of the nameless, faceless women of history, and she belongs to the California of my youth.

Many versions of her story exist. Scott O’Dell immortalized her in the children’s book Island of the Blue Dolphins. He based the story on the legend of a 19th-century Native American woman who lived alone for 18years on remote San Nicolas Island, off the coast of California. In 2012, retired Navy archeologist Steven Schwartz and Cal State LA professor Rene Vellanoweth unearthed a cave believed to be the Lone Woman’s home. Sparked by that discovery, I decided to return home to the California, to sort fact from fiction.

I read Island of the Blue Dolphins at the age of 12or 13, when it’s normal to feel alone and misunderstood, to identify with a heroine like the Lone Woman. O’Dell’s book tells the Robinson Crusoe-like tale of Karana, left behind on the Island of the Blue Dolphins when her tribe migrates to the mainland. Against a tribal taboo prohibiting women from making weapons, Karana makes spears, arrows, even a harpoon. For friendship, she tames a wild dog. She pilots a canoe, weaves baskets, and fashions a lustrous cape of black cormorant feathers.

I admired Karana. When I felt snubbed by the mean girls at school, or when there was trouble at home, I would climb the pine tree in our yard, disappearing into its large, sturdy branches where the sticky sap inevitably stained my jeans. I would lean against the tree, alone, imagining myself to be self-sufficient, empowered, free like the Lone Woman. Back then, it never occurred to me that I might get lonely up there in that tree. The idea of being away from all the entanglements of human society sounded like bliss. Of course, when hunger struck, I had the option of descending.

As an adult, I can still relate to the Lone Woman. Like Karana, I live on an island, though my island (Manhattan) bears little resemblance to hers. I live and work from home, alone in my studio apartment in Northern Manhattan. Amid the throngs of Manhattanites, it is possible to feel like a cast away. We are, each of us, alone in these bodies we inhabit.

* * * *

These days San Nicolas Island is a US Navy missile tracking site, off limits to civilians. Since 2012, when Vellanoweth and Schwartz discovered the Lone Woman’s cave, excavations have completely stopped. Although the Navy hasgiven various explanations, they have not allowed work to continue.

“It was heartbreaking,” Vellanoweth confided to me when I visited his Cal State LA archeology lab, where graduate students painstakingly sifted through dirt and sand looking for pottery shards, arrowheads, minute remnants of forgotten tribes. “School children have written letters,” he added, “We need to continue. This is a shared cultural heritage about people we owe a lot to historically. This encapsulates all of us and we need to share it together.“

Vellanoweth has been excavating on the wild, windswept Channel Islands for over 20years. The Lone Woman’s Cave is just one example of the islands’ secrets. Some of the earliest human remains ever found in the Americas, dating back 13,000 years, have been unearthed there. Vellanoweth worries for the future of the cave, now open and exposed to the elements. In the harsh winds of San Nicolas, the site could deteriorate rapidly.

“The Lone Woman’s cave was filled with sediments and locked in time when we found it,” he explained, “We excavated 20feet down, to the layer just above the time when the Lone Woman would have lived there.”

As they dug, they realized that the cave could be a treasure trove of Native American history.

“We think this cave is so big, so important, that not only does it document the Lone Woman’s story, if she lived there,” he enthused, “But also the whole history of the island, going back thousands of years.”

Thissends me on a road trip in search of the Lone Woman’s legacy. As the sun dances on the Pacific, I drive north along Highway 101 to Santa Barbara, where the Lone Woman ended her story.

* * * *

Mission Santa Barbara lies amid hills turned ashy gray by the current drought, the worst in recent memory. In the mission’s souvenir shop I discover a thin pamphlet: “Juana Maria, The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.” In 1853 George Nidever and Tom Jeffries “rescued” her and brought her to Mission Santa Barbara, the pamphlet says. She seemed happy to rejoin human society, it continues, often singing and dancing.

But was she actually happy? No one could speak her language. By that time, the rest of her tribe had died or disappeared, taking their distinct language with them. I wonder, would she have felt more alone amongst people with whom she could not communicate?

I imagine the Lone Woman’s face. Would she have had dancing eyes, a melodious voice? How could an entire tribe have slipped away so quickly?

Just seven weeks after arriving in Santa Barbara, the Lone Woman died. No one knows the cause of her death, though it is thought to be due to a common blight of humanity: dysentery. Likewise, no one knew her Native American name, so the priests christened her Juana Maria and buried her in an unmarked grave at Mission Santa Barbara.

“Juana Maria was one of the world’s most valiant and resourceful women,” the pamphlet reads, “The memory of her shall never pass away.”

In 1928, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a bronze plaque in remembrance of her in the mission cemetery.

“The plaque is symbolic,” says the cashier at the entrance to the mission, and shrugs disaffectedly, “Nobody knows the exact location of her grave.”

Dome-roofed stone coffins and slanted gravestones populate the cemetery. Roughly 4,000 native Chumash lie here, but they don’t have markers either. The Lone Woman’s memorial plaque hangs on a wall at the back of the cemetery. It is simple, straightforward. It reads:

Juan Maria: Indian woman abandoned on San Nicolas Island eighteen years, and brought to Santa Barbara by Capt. George Nidever in 1853. Santa Barbara Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution 1928.

Most tourists overlook the plaque and head straight to the adobe church, where a skull and crossbones mark the entrance. The last time I entered this church I was three years old. Back then, according to my mother’s stories, I parked myself in the front pew and refused to leave. Nearly 40years later, I sit again in the front pew. Greco-Roman columns rise stolidly behind the altar. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Mexican artists decorated most of the church, and their artwork adds unexpected color to the earthly struggles depicted.

I try to imagine the Lone Woman’s presence in the church. Would these images of suffering have scared her, as they still scare me? Would it have been better to remain alone, away from the knowledge of such things?

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History lies behind the mission, and has an exhibit dedicated to the Lone Woman. There is an old-fashioned speaker and a sign that reads “Toki Toki: Song of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.” I push a white button and a gravelly voice emerges, singing:

I live contented because I will live to see the day when I will get off this island.

Recorded in 1913, it is sung in Gabrieliño, a tribal language spoken by Native Americans who lived in the Los Angeles area. Like the Lone Woman’s language, Gabrieliño has died out. The last native speakers probably lived around the turn of the 19thcentury.

The exhibit displays faded photos of George Nidever and his wife Sinforosa Sanchez Nidever. It has a photo of the Lone Woman’s death record, dated October 19, 1853. A fish hook and an arrowhead take pride of place at the front of the display case. They are quite possibly the Lone Woman’s last remaining possessions.

What happened to her other belongings? No record exists of the glorious cormorant cape, rumored to have been sent to the Vatican. The rest of her belongings were sent to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, where they perished in the great earthquake of 1906.

* * * *

The museum leaves me with more questions than answers. I want to know about the Lone Woman’s home on the island. What did her cave look like? How did she decorate it? So I head to Chumash Painted Cave located near San Marcos Pass along Highway 154 from Solvang. As I drive, I pass freeway signs reading “Warning: Serious Drought.” Yet it’s February, the rainy season. “When summer comes,” I think, “Will the signs read ‘Warning: Land of Spontaneous Combustion?”

I turn onto Painted Cave Road, which zigzags uphill through hairpin turns. The road drops off precipitously to the right side, and the views stretch to Santa Barbara and beyond, to the ocean sparkling like diamonds in the sunshine.

A weathered sign beside the road marks the cave’s location atop rough-hewn stone steps. I am the lone visitor. There is no entrance fee because there is no entrance, just a cave behind a black grate that protects it from vandalism. I thrill with the sense of discovery, but then a telemarketer calls on my iPhone and breaks the spell. The place isn’t so remote after all.

The Chumash rock art in the cave dates from the 1600s, but the colors are so vibrant they look newly painted. Blood-red circles with spokes and treads like mountain bike tires dot the ceiling. Crosses, arrows, and a mysterious creature with knees bent backwards decorate the walls. No one really knows the cave’s purpose, but it could have been used for Chumash religious ceremonies.

I wonder ifart like this decorated the Lone Woman’s cave. Would she have populated it with human figures to keep her company on long, dark nights? The Chumash inhabited the Northern Channel Islands, whose culture and artwork may have been different from tribes on Southern Channel Islands like San Nicolas. The Lone Woman would have belonged to the Nicoleño tribe, whose origins are unclear.

She may have also been part Native Alaskan. In 1814 a tragedy occurred on San Nicolas Island. At that time, a Russian-American company had engaged Native Alaskans to hunt seal and otter around San Nicolas. Their quest for riches sparked conflict, resulting in the massacre of almost all the Nicoleño men. Afterwards, the women were forced to live with the invaders. The Lone Woman was born around that time, so it is possible that she was a product of this catastrophe.

These events may have also provided the impetus for the tribe to migrate off the island. In 1835, the ship Peor es Nada (bleak translation: “Better Than Nothing”) brought the Nicoleños to the mainland.

I wonder if the collective memory of these misfortunes influenced the Lone Woman’s psyche or affected her ability to trust strangers from off the island.

* * * *

I want to visit the Lone Woman’s ancestral home, but the military owns San Nicolas and it’s off-limits. So I compromise and take a day-trip to Santa Cruz, a northern Channel Island one hour by boat from Ventura. Like all the other Channel Islands, Santa Cruz is undeveloped. There are no roads, no electricity, and no concessions. Visitors must tote in all their supplies, including water.

On the voyage out, I stand at the boat’s helm, bracing against the rocky waves with joy. As we near the island, a Risso’s dolphin escorts our boat into Scorpion Bay. Seals turn on their sides, waving hello with their flippers. A volunteer with the Channel Island Naturalist Corps meets us at the dock and offers a free guided hike that winds through hillsides draped with endemic Island Morning Glories, their white blossoms greeting a bright blue sky. The guide identifies other endemic species: Santa Cruz buckwheat, asters, wild cherry trees, and lemonade berry trees. The native plants look healthy, while encroaching foreign grasses have withered.

“Native plants withstand the drought,” the guide explains, “When the island was covered with them this place would have looked like the Garden of Eden.”

The hike weaves uphill into scrubland, ending on a cliff high above pounding surf. I separate from the group, and hike alone atop the soaring cliffs. The sagey scent of grasses hangs on the air. At Potato Harbor, I rest atop a precipitous cliff, and admire views of white-capped waves caressing a U-shaped bay. Layer upon layer of majestic, craggy cliffs dotted with sea caves stretch into the distance.

The Lone Woman was found on a headland like this. Perhaps the majesty of the views drew her to it, or perhaps it offered the best vantage point to look for passing ships. Did she want to be found?

The story of the Lone Woman celebratesthe spirit of survival, recovery, and perhaps even rebirth. She lived alone during a time when most women couldn’t be alone, much less fend for themselves. Yet the stigma of that solitude persists. Our culture still has trouble comprehending lone women, still defines us based on our relationships with men and children, still dampens the courage it takes for a woman’s self-determination. The Lone Woman’s legend provides inspiration for carrying aloneness with dignity, confidence, and even pride.

On the boat back to Ventura, I look to the horizon. Near the end of O’Dell’s book, when Karana leaves the island forever, dolphins rise out of the sea and escort her to the mainland.

“Dolphins are animals of good omen,” Karana says.

Suddenly, as if summoned, hundreds of dolphins swarm the boat. I lean over the rails, filled with wonder as they leap and frolic. Their streamlined bodies slice clean through the waves or magically ride their frothy crests.

Chumash myth says that long ago the Channel Islands became overpopulated. So the Earth Mother created a rainbow bridge for islanders to cross to the mainland. “Don’t look down,” the Earth Mother warned, “Because you will fall and die.” Inevitably, some islanders looked down. So the Earth Mother, unable to bear the death of her children, turned them into dolphins. Which is why the Chumash say that humans and dolphins are related.

Are these dolphins the spirits of the Lone Woman and the ancient Channel Islanders? I would like to think so. I would like to think that they are not lost to history. I would like to think that they are still among us, and that the Lone Woman has finally rejoined her tribe.

Californiachildren's booksIndigenous languagesIndigenous peoplesIsland of the Blue DolphinsJuana MariaKaranaNative AmericansSan Nicolas IslandScott O'DellThe ChumashThe Lone WomanVeronica HackethalYA

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