July 01, 2006

Civilization killed Dolphins woman

For many people, Island of the Dolphins (the book or the movie) was one of their first exposures to Native history. As most people know, it was based on a true story.

As the LA Times reported (6/15/04), a Chumash woman was left on San Nicholas Island, off the coast of California, when a Russian whaler picked up her fellow Indians. People knew she was marooned there, but they couldn't or wouldn't rescue her. As the Times explained:Most accounts blame a lack of available ships in the mid-1830s for the failure of anyone to step in and make the crossing.

But one critic doesn't buy it:

"There were plenty of boats big enough to get out here," [archeaologist Steven Schwartz] says. "It didn't take a huge boat. It's just: Was there really reason enough to go back for one Indian?"

She remained stranded there 18 years, a hardship that's difficult for us to imagine:

If he'd been stranded here, Schwartz is sure that "the hardest part would have been the loneliness, the wondering if someone were coming back for me, or if I was left for good ... after some time you probably have to give up hope. That day [was] probably the worst of all."

Finally, an expedition searching the island for gull eggs and sea otters found her footprints and a basket. Missionaries pressed the captain to return and rescue her, which he did. Then comes the capper to the story:

"The old woman was of medium height, but rather thick," he reported. "She must have been about 50 years old, but she was still strong and active. Her face was pleasing as she was continually smiling. Her teeth were entire but worn to the gums."

Making friends easily, she joined in with chores around the camp, as the men spent three weeks hunting otter. When it came time to leave, she gathered every scrap of her possessions--a necklace, fish hooks, a bone needle, awl, stone mortar, rope and all available food, including a rotting seal's head with brains spilling out. And then the winds that had swirled through millennia of hut-building and fishing parties snapped the sails of the schooner and swept the last native of the Channel Islands to the world beyond the horizon. She clapped and danced without a trace of self-consciousness--one benefit of isolation--as the mainland drew near.

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."
Indeed there is. Woman survives 18 years in a natural habitat, then dies two weeks after reaching "civilization." Classic.

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