The novel is narrated by Karana, a twelve-year-old Native American girl who lives with her tribe on the island of Ghalas-at, off the coast of California.
One day, Karana and her six-year-old brother Ramo are gathering roots when Karana spots a ship on the horizon. Karana does not point out the ship to Ramo because she knows he will get excited and leave her to finish gathering. He spots it anyway. Karana tries to convince him that the ship is a whale, but he dismisses her lie and runs off to alert the villagers. Though frightened of what this ship might bring, Karana keeps gathering roots alone, watching as the ship sends some rowboats toward the island.
Soon afterwards, she sneaks closer to shore to see the captain - Captain Orlov - meeting with her father, Chief Chowig. Though she has never seen a Russian before, she recognizes Orlov's heritage based on descriptions her father has given. (The Russians are also accompanied by Aleuts, a people from islands off Alaska.)
She is surprised that her father gives his secret name (Chief Chowig) to the Captain. She explains that all of her people have two names - a secret name that they do not use very often for fear of diluting its power, and a common name used in daily life. Karana is the narrator's secret name; her common name is Won-a-pa-lei, which means "The Girl with the Long Black Hair." As Karana watches from afar, her father, the tribal chief, greets the visitors. He introduces himself as Chief Chowig, and she wonders why he used his secret name with a stranger.
In their conversation, Captain Orlov explains to the Chief that he and his crew wish to camp on the island and hunt sea otter; as payment for letting them stay, Orlov offers Chowig one-third of what they collect. Chief Chowig insists on half. After some deliberation, Orlov agrees.
Karana describes the island, called the Island of the Blue Dolphins. It is shaped like a dolphin, and is always very windy. Because of these strong winds, the hills are smooth and the island’s plants are small and twisted.
The Aleuts have set up their camp on the beach, and Chief Chowig warns the tribe not to befriend them, since these men caused trouble when they last came to the island. However, the children of the village spy on the Aleuts. It is through this spying that Karana’s older sister, Ulape, discovers that the Aleuts have a woman in their party.
One day, a school of large, white sea bass washes up on the beach near Ghalas-at. Ulape finds them and alerts the village women, who quickly drag the huge fish to the village for a feast. When the Aleuts learn of the tribe’s good fortune, they demand that Chief Chowig give them some of the fish. He refuses, on the grounds that the Aleuts are hunters and can collect their own meat.
As the days pass, Karana notices that fewer and fewer otters remain in the cove. They are playful and beautiful creatures, so she is upset that the Aleuts are killing the entire population. However, Chief Chowig reassures her that many otters have simply hidden on other parts of the island until the hunters leave. He adds that the Aleuts will pay for their access to the island by providing the tribe with supplies it desperately needs.
Each night, a few men from Ghalas-at sleep near the Aleut camp to ensure they do not escape without providing the promised pelts. The tribe is ready to fight if that happens, and Karana notices that Chief Chowig begins to sharpen his spear each night in case.
One morning, the tribe notices the Aleuts packing up their tents and collected pelts.
Karana watched from an overhang as the tribe rushes to the beach, and Chief Chowig demands the promised payment. He knows that the Aleuts have caught 105 bales of otter, but Captain Orlov offers him only one trunk of beads and iron spearheads. Negotiating, the chief demands three more trunks, and Captain Orlov promises to bring them from the ship after packing up the pelts.
To protect the tribe from being cheated, Chowig insists that they leave behind half the pelts until they have paid in full. The demand leads to a brawl between Chowig and a hunter, which quickly turns into a full-scale battle between the Aleuts and the tribe.
Although the tribe initially seems to have the advantage, the Aleuts use a cannon from their ship to kill many of the warriors. Finally, the tribe retreats and the Aleuts escape, bombarding the island with their cannon as they leave. Chief Chowig’s lifeless body lies on the beach.
In the first four chapters of Island of the Blue Dolphins, Scott O’Dell gives readers a great deal of information about the main character, Karana. Karana loves her brother and sister, Ramo and Ulape respectively, and she feels a strong sense of responsibility for their safety. This is especially true for Ramo, who is only six.
We also learn implicitly that Karana is a quiet, introspective girl. She is certainly more subdued than her siblings, but she also shows a penchant for thinking. Whereas the siblings enjoy watching the Aleuts, Karana remains wary of them. She has heard stories of trouble they caused last time they visited the island, and she is worried that they will do the same thing this time.
Further, Karana has a special sensitivity towards both the island and the animals there. For instance, she seems to be the only person in the tribe who is upset by the dwindling otter population. All of these thoughtful qualities establish her personality, her ability to step back and see the 'big picture.' These are all qualities that will serve her well when she is marooned on the island later in the novel.
However, Karana's thoughtful qualities also allow O'Dell to more deeply explore the tragic situation that Karana ends up in. Karana is based on a real woman who survived alone for nearly twenty years on San Nicolas Island. However, her personality in the book is largely fictional and created by O’Dell. Not much is known about the real Karana. When she was finally rescued from the island as a middle-aged woman, there was no one left who could speak her language. We do not know her Native American name, although her rescuers called her Juana Maria. In other words, O'Dell has quite aptly chosen to craft a thoughtful protagonist so he can better imagine and consider what living alone for so long must have felt like.
Another change O'Dell makes to reality is in Karana's age. The real Juana Maria was an adult when she was left on the island. Most people believe she was about 24 at the time. O’Dell compressed the events of Juana Maria’s life, making Karana much younger, possibly to make her story more appealing to young readers, but possibly so that he could explore the situation for a more innocent perspective.
O’Dell uses foreshadowing heavily in these opening chapters. Foreshadowing is when the author of a story hints at what will happen next. Foreshadowing can be very obvious, but it can also be quite subtle. An example of obvious foreshadowing comes when Karana states outright that the sea bass would later cause trouble with the Aleuts. At the end of Chapter 3, she says: “But little did we know, as we ate and sang and the older men told stories around the fire, that our good fortune would soon bring trouble to Ghalas-at” (14).
However, O’Dell sometimes foreshadows more subtly. In Chapter 1, Karana describes Captain Orlov as having long, sharp teeth. Although this does not necessarily mean he is evil, it does hint at Orlov’s predatory personality. Like a fearsome wild animal, Captain Orlov seeks to hurt Karana’s tribe for his own gain. Readers who do not know the story’s plot might not notice this kind of foreshadowing. However, it might be more obvious to those who reread the book or already know Karana’s story from other sources. Either way, it illustrates that Karana is perceptive.
One of O'Dell's other goals is to give a voice to people who otherwise have little voice in our culture. He takes great pains to exhibit the beauty and unique culture of Karan's tribe. We learn that they rely on hunting and gathering, as opposed to agriculture. This is probably because the island’s extremely windy weather makes it difficult to grow crops. Even young children like Karana and Ramo are expected to help gather food. Although Karana’s tribe is mostly isolated from the world outside the Island of the Blue Dolphins, they do occasionally trade with outsiders for luxuries like beads and necessities like iron spearheads.
Perhaps most interesting of all is how connected to nature the tribe is. We see much more of this quality in Karana herself after she is left behind, but we even here can see how they respect their surroundings. In a way, the tribe is necessarily connected to the island, since it provides their only sustenance. They have no manufacturing or industry, so they would perish if they killed or disrespected the animal populations there. The Aleuts, on the other hand, see only profit in those animals. They have little reason to respect nature, but instead believe they own it, hunting a surplus of otter pelts in order to trade for money elsewhere. One aspect of Karana's character growth is her increasing respect for animals, which in many ways allows O'Dell to suggest that we too often in our culture do not consider how tied to nature we actually are.
Like is the case with Juana Maria herself, not much is known about the tribe that once populated San Nicolas Island. Today they are called the Nicoleño, although they were given this name by outsiders– not themselves. Although most of the tribe eventually moved to the mainland, many of them died shortly thereafter because they were very vulnerable to disease. Most of what we know about the Nicoleño is based on archeological evidence found on the island. This means that O’Dell likely took some creative liberties when describing Nicoleño culture. For example, there is no evidence that the Nicoleño used ‘secret names’ like the ones Karana describes in Chapter 1. However, this custom was used by other Native American tribes (“Native American Names”). Overall, though, O'Dell writes not from a place of cavalier unconcern, but rather from a place of empathy. He wants us to imagine these people not as a historical idea, but as unique and respectable human beings.