The young adult heroine you never knew was a real woman

Growing up, I always picked books about strong women for my book reports. I devoured stories about Queen Elizabeth, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Nancy Drew, but can’t remember any young adult books on my school reading lists that were about women of color – except one.

Island of the Blue Dolphins tells the story of Karana, an indigenous girl living on an island off the coast of California in the early 1800’s. Through a series of encounters with Russian and Aleut traders she and her small community are persuaded to leave the island, but Karana accidentally gets left behind. The book follows her life as the only human on the island, how she builds a shelter for herself, hunts and gathers, and lives in quiet solitude with her dog.

Reading her story as a young preteen I found Karana inspiring, though I felt bad for her being abandoned and alone for so long. What I didn’t know is that Karana was closely based on a real woman who lived alone on San Nicolas Island for 18 years.

Image of the cover of Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Image Credit: GoodReads

The woman was Tongva and part of a tribe that historians refer to as Nicoleños (based off of the name the Spanish gave to the island she lived on, San Nicolas). In the early 1800s the Nicoleños were dwindling in numbers after having suffered attacks from Aleuts and Russian traders and by 1830 only about 20 people remained on the island. The Santa Barbara Mission sent out a ship to bring the small group back to the mainland but somehow the woman did not make it back with the group. She boarded the ship but then realized that her brother or son (accounts vary) had been left behind, and went to find him. By some accounts, she jumped off the ship and swam back to shore. Either way, the ship left without both of them and the young boy was tragically killed by wild dogs soon after.

For the next 18 years, she lived alone on the island, living most off of seal fat and abalone. She built a house out of whale bones, wove baskets, sewed clothing for herself, and sang the songs she had learned before her family left the island.

Of course, historical accounts of the woman from San Nicolas Island follow the same racist narratives we’ve heard before in accounts of indigenous people in the Americas or studies of women of color by Europeans (see Saartjie Baartman). In 1853, the Santa Barbara Mission sent another envoy of sailors to the island who “discovered” her living there and “rescued” her, taking her back to the coast. They called her the “wild woman” and gave her the Spanish name of Juana Maria, which historians use when writing about her.

By the time she arrived at the Mission all of her Tongva relatives had died of disease, and none of the other indigenous people in Santa Barbara understood her language. Because she was unable to speak a language they understood, European observers said she had “lost the power of speech” and described her as almost child-like, singing songs to herself all day.

Within weeks of arriving on the mainland the woman from San Nicolas died of disease. Yet somehow historians don’t generally question the narrative that she was “rescued” from her island home. Though life on San Nicolas was undoubtably harsh, I think it’s worth considering what a decolonized and feminist take on her story would look like: “Woman escapes European ship and lives peacefully alone for 18 years before Europeans find her again and abduct her, forcing her to work in a mission and ultimately causing her to die of dysentery.”

We’ll never know this woman’s real name was, or what it was like for her to live alone with no humans for company. All I know is that I might have chosen to live off seal fat for the rest of my life too if it meant living a free woman, away from colonizers and disease.

Header Image Credit

Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Campaigner at Change.org, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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