village island teachers finish

Karana's indelible spirit captivated my ten-year-old daughters and me when I first read Island of the Blue Dolphins with them years ago. Her bravery, ingenuity, and independence were inspiring. Her ability to survive was incredible.

Researching the real Juana Maria in Santa Barbara was quite a different experience.


Standing on the pier in the harbor of Santa Barbara, gazing out toward the Channel Islands, which I had spotted flying into the airport, gave me a flash of insight. I could not see any land, only sea. How far away and isolated it must have been on that island in the 1850's.

At the Santa Barbara Mission, one could imagine her walking through the halls and courtyards. Did she gaze out to sea, as I did now, searching for her abandoned home? There is a photo of the mission from 1856, much plainer than the present day one.

No beautiful palms, or bougainvillea surround the building. It looks more like an oasis in the dirt, as it must have seemed. Seeking her gravesite in the cemetery, one finds only a marker placed by the DAR.

The most chilling moment for me occurred next door at the Museum of Natural History.


After searching for details of her story, there, on a display panel was a photo of Juana Maria. It was hard to contain my excitement as she stared back at me.

I felt a connection, person to person, with this ghost woman, whose image I had been chasing for weeks. She was not a girl of twelve. She was not anglicized as many book jackets had portrayed her. She appeared a native Indian, not smiling, staring back at me. I read the inscription. It said, "Purported to be Juana Maria." Even at this moment, she remained elusive.

I came away with a new respect for the story of Juana Maria and what she went through. Her "rescue" and sudden demise hint at what life must have been like for native Indians during this time. I still find myself inspired by her story, and in awe of her ability to survive. But I also feel sadness for what she went through, and all the people of her island.