“I had never seen a Russian before, but my father had told me about them, and I wondered, seeing the way he stood with his feet set apart and his fists on his hips and looked at the little harbor as though it already belonged to him, if he were one of those men from the north whom our people feared.”
The tribe's interactions with Captain Orlov are just one example of many incidents in American history where Native Americans conflicted with white settlers. One reason for this is that there are major differences between Western cultures and many Native American ones. Karana's tribe does its best to make a small impact on the land. They hunt otter sparingly, and seem to respect animals even though they sometimes eat them as food. In contrast, Captain Orlov seems to view the land with a sense of greed and entitlement. Although he has just arrived, he already believes he has a right to exterminate the island's otter population. These cultural differences help account for the tension between Karana's people and the Aleuts when the ship first arrives. Eventually, Orlov will also show that he feels entitled to destroy the tribe itself.
“There will be none left. The hunters will kill them all. This morning they hunt on the south. Next week they move to another place.”
Even as a young girl, Karana is unusually aware of the impact that humans have on the natural world. Although others in her tribe are happy to get jewelry and tools from the Aleuts, Karana notices that overhunting the otter will have long-term consequences, for both the animals and for her people. Her comments about the otter foreshadow her friendships with animals later in the book. Although she hunts animals for food, she tries to avoid killing them unnecessarily because she recognizes that they have thoughts and feelings just like people do.
“I am the son of Chowig. I am his son and since he is dead I have taken his place. I am now Chief of Ghalas-at. All of my wishes must be obeyed.”
Although Ramo is joking in this passage, his comments foreshadow the increased responsibility that Karana must shoulder after being abandoned. When Ramo sees that he and his sister are alone on the island, he immediately realizes that they must adopt adult responsibilities if they are to survive. At first, he makes fun of the situation and uses his newfound authority as 'chief' to give orders to his sister. However, there is a grain of truth in his observation that this life-or-death situation is forcing the children to grow up faster than they would otherwise. It is also telling that he expects to be chief because he is male, even though he is younger and more helpless than Karana is. After Ramo's death, Karana must become not only chief of the island in a sense, but must also overcome her society's prejudices against women in order to survive.
“As I lay there I wondered what would happen to me if I went against the law of our tribe which forbade the making of weapons by women—if I did not think of it at all and made those things which I must have to protect myself.”
Karana's decision to flout the laws of her tribe and make weapons for herself is an important moment in her character development. When she is first abandoned, Karana does her best to stick to the lifestyle she had when she lived with her tribe. She sleeps in the village and does not make weapons for herself because women are not allowed to do so in her culture. However, she eventually realizes that surviving on her own will require her to forget certain parts of her old life. The restriction on making weapons is one example of this. Later in the novel, Karana decides not to hunt otter and cormorants anymore because she does not believe in killing animals unnecessarily. She freely admits that others in her tribe would laugh at this decision; however, she has by that point developed into an independent thinker and is comfortable making her own choices.
“I could have shot them, for they were within reach of my bow, or driven off the pack, yet I stood in the brush and watched. This was a battle between them and Rontu. If I stopped it, they would surely fight again, perhaps at some other place less favorable to him.”
Here, Karana explains why she chooses not to intervene when Rontu is attacked by the other wild dogs. By this point in the novel, Rontu has become her best friend on the island. In many ways, he serves as a replacement for the human friends and family she lost when she was abandoned. Moreover, he serves as something of a symbol for her, since he is also a self-reliant creature who is otherwise alone. As her attitude towards nature changes, and she accepts that she is a part of its ebb and flow, she makes decisions like this one, allowing nature to take its course without interfering too deliberately. In other words, she gives herself less power to change the course of nature.
“Together we would walk along the cliff looking at the sea, and though the white men’s ship did not return that spring, it was a happy time. The air smelled of flowers and birds sang everywhere.”
Here, Karana describes walking with Rontu and appreciating her life. It reflects a marked change in her attitude, a new awareness that one can find fulfillment in simply living one's life. When she is first marooned on the island, Karana is deeply pessimistic about her situation. She is miserable living by herself, surrounded by reminders of Ramo's death and her tribe's tragic battle with the Aleuts. Her only source of hope is the prospect of leaving the island, either by rescue or by escaping in a canoe. Eventually, she comes to accept that she will not be rescued, and is too weak to row off the island alone. It is only then that she begins to see the positive aspects of life there, and accepts a hope for survival as sufficient. Although she must work hard to survive and is in constant danger, she manages to find joy in her animal friends and in projects such as sewing the cormorant skirt. By accepting her situation and trying to see the positive side of life, Karana manages to survive and thrive.
“‘Won-a-pa-lei,’ I answered, which as I have said, means The Girl with the Long Black Hair. I did not tell her my secret name.”
This moment reflects a conflict Karana constantly faces - whether to trust or suspect other people. Despite Karana's loneliness, she is still deeply distrustful of newcomers to the island, since her only significant experience with foreigners led to her tribe's disastrous battle with the Aleuts. Now that they have returned, Karana has resolved to keep herself safe from them, even after carefully deciding that Tutok is not a threat. Her choice not to tell Tutok her secret name is a reminder of the moment, early in the novel, when Chief Chowig uses his own secret name with Captain Orlov. According to Karana, this weakened her father and made him unable to effectively fight the Aleuts. By choosing not to use her secret name, Karana is exercising caution and showing a sustained connection with her culture. It is also an example of her growing independence, since she makes the decision using her own thinking and judgments, rather than simply doing what her father would have done.
“If only I had not wondered about my sister Ulape, where she was, and if the marks she had drawn upon her cheeks had proved magical. If they had, she was now married to Nanko and was the mother of many children. She would have smiled to see all of mine, which were so different from the ones I always wished to have.”
Despite the odds, Karana manages to create a relatively happy, fulfilling life for herself on the island. Although she lacks human company, she has many animal friends, and she keeps herself busy with many small and large projects. However, this passage shows that she remains nevertheless lonely for human companionship, and that she will never be truly fulfilled until she can rejoin human civilization. This moment is also important because it reminds the reader how much time has passed since Karana has been abandoned. It is easy to forget that Karana has been marooned for years by this point in the novel, but her thoughts remind us that she has become an adult. Finally, these thoughts foreshadow Karana's decision at the end of the novel to leave the island behind and go to Santa Barbara with the white sailors.
“After that summer, after being friends with Won-a-nee and her young, I never killed another otter. ... Nor did I ever kill another cormorant for its beautiful feathers, though they have long, thin necks and make ugly sounds when they talk to each other. Nor did I kill seals for their sinews, using instead kelp to bind the things that needed it. Nor did I kill another wild dog, nor did I try to spear another sea elephant.”
Karana's decision to avoid killing animals is a very important moment in her growth from child to adult. Elsewhere in the text, she mentions that others in her tribe would laugh at her for making this decision, but she has learned to trust her own values over her society's. This reflects her independence, showing how her time on the island has molded her perspective on life. After being abandoned, Karana becomes even more dependent on animals and nature than she was when she lived with her tribe. This seems to have given her an elevated respect for animals, whom she begins to see as human. Finally, this attitude reflects her new understanding of herself as part of nature, rather than as superior to it.
“I came to the mound where my ancestors had sometimes camped in the summer. I thought of them and of the happy times spent in my house on the headland, of my canoe lying unfinished beside the trail. I thought of many things, but stronger was the wish to be where people lived, to hear their voices and their laughter.”
Although Karana is devastated when she is first left on the island, she builds a fulfilling life for herself over the years. Nevertheless, her desire for human companionship remains paramount. In this passage, she admits both that desire and her belief that her time on the island was meaningful nevertheless. She recalls her affection for her pets and the island's natural beauty. By leaving all this behind, she is not only venturing into the unknown, but also giving up many parts of her identity, such as her own personal history and that of her ancestors. And yet O'Dell clearly believes that we are driven most of all by our desire to be part of society.
Island of the Blue Dolphins Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Island of the Blue Dolphins is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The story's climax occurs when Karana leaves the island in her canoe, only to return because it is leaking. This is the point at which Karana realizes the island has truly become her home. The Island of the Blue Dolphins.