OTW:: The Island: Who Decides?

(6 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

On? or Off? the Island. Who decides?


San Nicolas Island, off the coast of California

“According to an 1850 report by the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey, San Nicolas Island “is slightly the farthest from the mainland, and is the driest and most sterile. It is 890 feet high, with bold, precipitous sides of coarse sandstone on 3 sides … Two thirds of the surface of the island is covered with sand and the remainder with coarse grass.” The report also said it was nicknamed “Otter Island” due to the large numbers of sea otters on its beaches, and the “Indian name was said to be Ghaiashat.” An 1899 L.A. Times article says San Nicolas Island is a flat island, “almost as bare as a floor,” with 500 foot jagged rock canyons leading down to its beaches, which are covered with sea lions and seals. The article goes on to say the island is approximately 8 miles long, and 4 miles wide, it sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles, CA, and the island is known for its heavy winds, “surrounded on all sides by ocean waves, sometimes 30 feet high,” so powerful they shake the ground. source

Juana MariaIt was her island. Her home. This woman.

She had a name.

A name given to her in youth by her family, a mother and father who loved her, surely.

It was not “Juana Maria”. They decided to call her that … because they couldn’t pronounce hers. They. They decided.


She is also know in some circles as “the lone woman of San Nicolas Island”.

It is in this harsh environment, that we begin the story of the “lone woman of San Nicolas Island.” Her saga starts with the men of San Nicolas Island being slaughtered by Kodiak otter hunters. According to Daily’s book, “sea otter hunting on San Nicolas Island was particularly heavy in 1811 and again in 1815, when the Russian hunter Boris Tarasov was arrested on the island by Spaniards for hunting in Spanish waters. Tasarov and his Aleut companions had taken almost 1000 sea otters in 11 months…” She goes on to write that “as many as 1000 Indians may have lived on San Nicolas Island at one time.” Daily writes in 1811 a sea otter hunting ship owned by a Boston firm, was brought from Sitka, Alaska, to San Nicolas Island, loaded with Kodiak otter hunters. “These well-armed Kodiaks, when left upon the island, found the island women to their liking, and killed the men who tried to defend them. By the time the otters were nearly exterminated, so too were the Nicolenos.”

source: anderberg

It’s a compelling story. Very nicely written here  but most famously fictionalized in the book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, an American children’s novel written by Scott O’Dell. The novel was published in 1960, winning the Newbery Medal in 1961, and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis and William Allen White Children’s Book Award in 1963

I loved that book when I first read it as a fifth grader. I had no idea there was any truth behind it at all.

Who was she?

The Lone Woman’s ancestors left the shells here at what is now one of the richest archeological sites in the U.S. They are reminders of 8,000 years of indigenous settlement on Ghalas-at, as the inhabitants called their island. An arid plateau ringed by cliffs and thick tangles of kelp, the island was protected from invaders through the years by its lack of safe harbors.

Then, in the early 19th century, the world’s lust for otter coats led Russian fur traders to drop off armed native Alaskan hunters. They were supposed to stay for a few weeks, but the outing turned into a year. The stir-crazed Alaskans are said to have gone on a rampage, wiping out most of the local men. By 1835 a population that once numbered 300 had shrunk to just seven.

Though the Nicoleños had been self-sufficient since Europeans were scratching on cave walls, the Santa Barbara Mission decided to sponsor a rescue operation – or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. Schwartz notes that the missions had a high fatality rate among their Indian workers, who had no immunity to European diseases. The padres may have wanted to replenish their labor force.

A schooner under the helm of Capt. Charles Hubbard sailed for the island, arriving off its rugged northern tip. The crew set out across the dunes, rounded up six of the natives and took them back to the ship. But, as the vessel bucked offshore in a swelling storm, one woman remained unaccounted for.

Some sources say the woman was “away in the mountains,” while the most popular explanation would become the defining, mythic tale. In this version, the woman boards the ship but then, as it heads for open waters, realizes that her child has been left behind. Desperate, she plunges over the rail into roiling waves to save her daughter.

Schwartz has scoured the literature, artifacts and museums to separate the facts from embroidery. “The story of her jumping overboard does not show up until the 1880s,” he says. “By then the Victorian era is well underway, and literature takes on a flowery, even romantic flavor.”

The more likely scenario: With the storm threatening to slam the schooner onto the rocks and the Indians probably wracked by their abduction, the crew panicked and turned the rudder back toward the mainland without doing much of a head count. “The earliest firsthand accounts simply state that she was mistakenly left behind,” says Schwartz.  


So, in 1853 they rescued her.

She had survived alone in isolation on her island for 18 years.

And then they rescued her.

And then she died. Within weeks.

“News of the rescue raced through the small town of Santa Barbara. Residents flocked to see her at Nidever’s home. But no local Indian could decipher her dialect. Some scholars would later contend that this proved she was a descendant of the Alaskan otter hunters. At Schwartz’s suggestion, however, a UCLA linguistics professor recently investigated, focusing on four words the woman spoke to one of her rescuers. The linguist’s study suggests that the woman’s language was similar to those of natives closer to San Diego and the southern Channel Islands – Gabrieleño or Luiseño – evidence that the woman was a native Nicoleño. The last of a once-thriving culture.

Language gap aside, the woman was gregarious and clearly enjoyed the attention, singing and dancing for her audiences. She marveled at horses, ox carts, clothes and mostly the food, gorging on fresh fruit.

But in a twist out of Greek tragedy, the woman whom the mission named Juana Maria came down with dysentery and within two weeks of leaving the island, she died.

“She lasted 18 years on an island by herself but only two weeks when she got back to ‘civilization,’ “ says John Johnson, archeology curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and an expert on local Native American cultures. “There’s a lesson there.”  source

(note: some reports say two weeks, some seven~LL)

Reports say she died of dysentery, but I suspect it’s more likely she died of a broken heart.

She died in 1853 only six or seven weeks after her “rescue”. A priest from the mission baptized her conditionally on her deathbed and gave her the name Juana Maria. Scott O’Dell named her Karana, although her real name was never learned. She was buried at the Mission Santa Barbara, in an unmarked group grave used for Indians at the time. Her burial is recorded in the book of burials of Santa Barbara Mission by Father Gonzales Rubio, as entry # 1183. It reads:

“On October 19, 1853 I gave ecclesiastical burial in the cemetery to the remains of Juana Maria, the Indian woman brought from San Nicolas Island and, since there was no one who could understand her language, she was baptized conditionally by Fr. Sanchez.”

In 1928 the DAR placed a plaque in her honor in the courtyard at the Santa Barbara Mission. It is the last thing you see, as you leave the mission’s cemetary.  source

In recent days, Arizona has passed a law to enact a police state, some call it, rightly, an ethnic cleansing.

Who decides that another human being is illegal?

In Oklahoma, they just enacted a new law, through a convoluted twisting of our democratic process, to rescue poor ignorant women from themselves by requiring all women to undergo an ultrasound and listen to a detailed description of the fetus before getting an abortion.

Who decides these rescues?

Hattip to clarknt67 doing a bang up job at GOS and Lt. Dan Choi {EDIT: see link for info about tonight from Cambridge} for their advocacy re DADT Repeal and other gay/human rights and that current battle.

Who decides who is worthy to fight and die “to defend his or her country”? And how, by what criteria?

How many more will die in the name of rescuing the chosen few, the privileged ones, the favored ones, the supposedly moral righteous ones … Who decides this?

Seems to me we are worse than lost.  We are marooned. What kind of a democracy is this where all the power is held by the wealthy and immoral few? Its no wonder we, the people, feel stranded, isolated, adrift. Powerless.

However will we greet the coming waves of climate refugees?

In 2005, they were already saying:   This is a disaster in the making.

Environmental degradation around the world is creating a new category of people known as “environmental refugees,” a United Nations group says.

What’s more, the refugees’ ranks are growing rapidly.

There are at least 20 million environmental refugees worldwide, the group says-more than those displaced by war and political repression combined.

“More and more people live in more and more vulnerable circumstances,” said Anthony Oliver-Smith, a University of Florida anthropologist who is a member of the UN group. “When disaster hits, their ability to rebuild will be minimal, and they are forced to leave.”

Oliver-Smith is with the Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), a group of experts affiliated with the United Nations University in Bonn, Germany, that is studying the issue.

By 2010 the number of environmental refugees could grow to 50 million, the UNU-EHS predicts. According to other estimates, there could be as many as 150 million by 2050.

That’s why nations and aid groups urgently need to recognize and help this new category of refugee, UNU-EHS says.

But helping them first requires a clear definition of what exactly constitutes an environmental refugee.

How you define somebody can be an issue of life and death for them,” Oliver-Smith said.

Who will decide?

“We have to recognize the complexity of this issue,” said Oliver-Smith. “We can’t simply draw a line and say, You’re an economic migrant and you’re a political refugee. This is what we’ve done, and I think it’s created a great injustice.”

Once this new class of refugee is defined, the UN experts say, work can begin on providing them with aid.

Who decides who gets booted off the island of humanity?

Me? You? Or … Them?

crossposted at Wild Wild Left

OTW = Off The Wall, my Thursday series, the launch of which is here and will be updated soon with links to all the subsequent issues (I promise!)

a few ed. notes:

~ hattip to Shaharazade for the spark.

~ Yes, I did study with Oliver-Smith at UF, one course in the late 70’s, and it was just serendipidity that I google-stumbled on to that piece that quotes him. I believe he recently retired actually.

~ for a another photo of a woman who may possibly resemble “Karana” might have looked like on her island, see here.

~ a few additional sources… coming.

EDIT: Here is the link for the Santa Barbara Museum of Nat’l History, The Anthropology Department is a foremost center for Chumash studies.

From UCal APY Journal: An Account of the Discovery of a Whale-Bone House on San Nicolas Island Author: Ron Morgan,Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 1979.

The Real Story of Karana (a teacher’s assist)

Kirsten Anderberg Channel Islands

~ bonus CSN video in which they talk a lot about music and life.


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  1. Photobucket

  2. those first six who were “rescued” in 1835? hmmm

  3. Darling, you tied in everything to its true nature core.

    I stand in awe of you.

  4. note to self, so I dont forget! lol

    link here

  5. event into great focus as you weave it into questions of the most profound nature. These questions that so naturally follow Native American tragedies are those that I grapple with all the time. I am presently immersed in the

    effort to put myself in the mindset and skin of those who lived lives that were never understood by cruel adventurers and murderers.

    There was a long lived civilization that spanned many thousands of years in islands off California. The Chumash and Gabrielenos were master seafarers, and there was regular communication and trading for eons. In fact, the northern channel islands (off Santa Barbara) at one point about 8,000 years ago was one big attached island only a few miles off shore. The Santa Barbara natural history museum has a nice presentation regarding the Chumash.

    The most incredible thing about California Natives is that they spoke over 100 distinct languages, and lived is small tribelets. Their total population at the time of contact (around Cabrillo) is generally estimated around 300,000.

    Sadly, you can take the story of Juana Maria and multiply it by numbers I shudder to think about. The tragedies are heartbreaking.

    I currently am amassing as much original source material as I can, but the original Californians had more of a botanical culture, and of course the coastal inhabitants did considerable fishing. But not a heck of a lot has survived. The problem with original Spanish descriptions of native and mission life is that the perspective is obviously one sided. I’m reading Bancroft’s book on early California now (Cal’s library is named after him), but I can’t wait to finish. Every other word is savage, gentile, heathen etc. And of course I’m reading an 1880 copy, as I feel more into the period, but that’s another story.

    I also collect as many original engravings and lithographs of native californians that I can. They are precious and you can feel their presence. There are considerable anthropological studies in the 19th century that deal with many native cultures, and many with beautiful chromolithographs. I am obsessed with understanding and feeling their past, thus I need to be as close as possible to them. My hobby is very unusual, but I must continue as I have no choice.

    I look at history as empty unless the factual outlines can be expanded by giving breath to the actual inhabitants themselves. History, Anthropology, Archaelology, Ethnobotany, Language, Art etc. are all needed to capture but a glimpse of their world. Anyhow, I’m going on too much, so I’ll stop. But before I go, however, I must say that I’m always looking for artifacts from the Island people, and I’m lucky enough to have found a couple on the beach: One hand tool and an anchor.

  6. Lady Libertine,

    As I gaze out over the ocean here in Southern California, I often wonder about her many years alone on the islands I see.

    I`ve read many different accounts of her over the past thirty years.

    I`ve overflown the Channel Islands a half dozen times but only landed on one, Catalina, which does have a small tourist/resident population, but most of the

    island beyond that & one other small community, are restricted without a guide.

    There is a reconstruction of a Chumash village up the coast from here by a few miles. It is only open for special functions & educational tours, though I`m figuring how to get in to check it out.

    They just had a big Chumash celebration here two weeks ago.

    The Chumash were all over Malibu before they went the way of so many of the coastal natives, not to mention most of the continent`s natives.

    Many artifacts are still found here.

    There are also many petroglyphs in the local mountains here.


  7. Great essay.  Wonderful.  It reminds me of this essay from about 2 years ago.    

  8. Here`s a nice link to a lot of info.

    Teri`s “Aunt”, an elderly witch, lives on Painted Cave Road, above Santa Barbara.

    The next time we go up to see her, I  promise to take shots of the artwork.

    I also include an image of the  cave painting.

    I`ve been right up to this painting.


     PAINTED CAVE (image by Mark Arnold)

  9. Last update on my Chumash info.

    Earlier today I found out that one of my friend`s was killed last night.

    Now I just found out he was with another friend, who survived the crash, caused by a rock slide.

    They were on the way to the Chumash Casino up in Santa Inez, where they would have passed the painted cave area.

    I`m piecing the details together through one of our mutual friends on Facebook, Alex Orbison.

    We all know each other here in Malibu.

    It`s like a continuation of the tribe.

  10. Here`s a bit of scale to show you how isolated this lady was from the outside world for 18 years.

    The first image is taken from the hills in my area.

    Catalina is more prominent & to the right is Santa Barbara Island.

    As an aside, I spent months at anchor on the other side of Catalina or cruising the waters of the islands & down to San Diego. I was on the MV ROGUE, a 180′ steel hull. (Don`t ask)

    The next image shows the overview of all the islands.

    The yellow dot on the coast is where I live.


    (Click image to embiggen)


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