Many young readers (or readers who were once young) are familiar with San Nicolas Island, located off the coast of California, as the home of Karana, protagonist of Scott O’Dell’s 1960 Newbery Award-winning novel Island of the Blue Dolphins.
Karana was based on a real and very mysterious person—a Native woman who lived on the island, totally alone, for 18 years after her people were evacuated. Last week, the U.S. Navy published its findings that Indigenous people who lived on San Nicolas Island, including the famous “Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island,” share a “group identity” with the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians.
The Navy’s findings have very practical consequences for the Pechanga Band. Over the years, the remains of at least 469 individuals and 436 funerary objects have been unearthed on San Nicolas Island. Some are in a facility on the island, but the bulk of them are scattered among six different museums in the state of California. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the Pechanga Band now has rights to those remains and items.
Was this the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island? The caption accompanying the image at Wikimedia Commons reads 'A photograph of a Native American woman, believed to be Juana Maria, who was the last surviving member of her tribe, the Nicoleño. This photograph was found alongside a picture of Maria Sinforosa Ramona Sanchez, wife of George Nidever, with whom Maria had lived while at the Santa Barbara Mission.'
The island was formerly home to the Nicoleño people, who were nearly wiped out in a massacre by otter hunters in 1814. By 1835, there were less than 20 Nicoleños left, and the Santa Barbara Mission sent a boat to rescue them. For whatever reason—accounts differ—one woman, true name unknown but christened “Juana Maria,” was left behind. She survived on her own for 18 years, but her people weren’t so fortunate. When the Lone Woman was brought back to Santa Barbara Mission in 1853, she was the last surviving member of her tribe. Nobody spoke her language—Chumash and Tongva Indians brought in to speak with her were mystified. She died from dysentery just seven weeks after arriving in Santa Barbara.
Before her passing, unidentified people recorded four of the Lone Woman’s words: “tocah” (animal hide), “nache” (man), “toygwah” (sky) and “puoochay” (body). The Navy’s determination hinges on a linguist’s finding that these words connect the Nicoleño language with that of the Luiseño Indians.
“What (this) decision means is that nearly 500 human remains, and hundreds of burial and sacred items will finally be afforded the respect and dignity they have long deserved under federal law,” said Pechanga Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro, in a statement released Friday, according to a UT-San Diego story.
Not everyone is happy about the news. In 2012, a crew of archaeologists were “inches away from relics that would flesh out the real-life story” of the Lone Woman, according to the Los Angeles Times, when the Navy ordered them to halt their exploration, citing NAGPRA concerns. The shutdown was to some extent a victory for Tom Holm, a graduate student, Island of the Blue Dolphins fan, and filmmaker who had gotten the Pechanga Band involved in the first place. He had formerly been a member of the archaeological team, led by Naval archaeologist Steve Schwartz and Holm’s Cal State-Los Angeles professor Rene Vellanoweth.
Archaeologist Rene Vellanoweth kneels in the cave that might have been the dwelling of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. Image source: U.S. Navy.
The team was working on what they believed to be the Lone Woman’s cave, a site from which they are now barred indefinitely. “It’s a heartbreak. A travesty,” Schwartz told the L.A. Times. “We may never learn what archaeological riches that cave is guarding.” Schwartz has retired over the incident.
(Editor’s note: The two substantial articles published on this story in recent days reflect different, even opposite, perspectives. The UT-San Diego account is quite obviously based on Holm’s view of the situation, while the L.A. Times report is sympathetic to the archaeology team. ICTMN will be investigating.)
The Pechanga Band has not decided what to do with the remains and artifacts that have been found to date. The Tribe does not have control over the cave, but the Navy’s finding of “shared group identity” means that the Tribe may get a say in who gets to dig where. It will be up to the Navy to referee the likely dispute among interested parties—that is, as long as the Navy’s conclusions hold up.
Prior to the Navy’s announcement, John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, told the L.A. Times, “I don’t believe [designation of shared group identity] would survive a legal challenge. The four words do not indicate some sort of cultural connection.” For Holm, the suspension of excavation puts his film on indefinite hold—but he thinks that the Navy has made the right decision.
San Nicolas Island is part of Ventura County, California, and is the most remote of California’s Channel Islands, being 61 miles from the mainland (Laguna Point). Twenty-two square miles in area, it is officially uninhabited, and used by the Navy for weapons testing, but due to Naval operations there is a presence of around 200 people at any given time.
The remains of the 469 (or more) individuals and 436 associated funerary objects, controlled by the U.S. Navy, currently reside in seven separate locations: The Fowler Museum at UCLA, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Naval Base Ventura County (NBVC) San Nicolas Island Curation Facility, the San Diego Museum of Man, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Southwest Museum of the Autry National Center of the American West, and the U.C. Berkeley Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.