CSUSM lecturer tracks ‘Lone Woman’ legend

CSUSM anthropology lecturer Tom Holm is pictured on San Nicolas Island, where the indigenous woman who inspired the children's classic "Island of the Blue Dolphins" lived alone for 18 years in the 19th century./John Lewis

Like millions of parents over the last half-century, Tom Holm read “Island of the Blue Dolphins” to his daughter when she was in elementary school. The classic 1960 children’s novel by Scott O’Dell chronicles the tale of a 12-year-old girl named Karana who’s stranded alone for years on an island off the coast of Southern California.  

Holm’s daughter, Jacqueline, enjoyed the book so much that they read it again.

Then, yet again.

“It was her favorite book by far,” Holm said. “Like a lot of young women, she became inspired by this book.”

Her father became even more inspired. Holm learned that “Island of the Blue Dolphins” is based on the true story of an American Indian woman who was left alone for 18 years during the 19th century on San Nicolas Island, the most remote of the Channel Islands, about 60 miles south of mainland Ventura County. That struck a personal chord with Holm, who grew up in that county, attended Channel Islands High School, and whose father worked at Naval Air Station Point Mugu right on the coast.

When Jacqueline was in the fourth grade, Holm served as a chaperone on a school field trip to Carpinteria that taught students about the parallels between O’Dell’s novel and real-life events. With three readings of the book fresh in his mind, he peppered the guide with questions, one of them as simple as: What was the real name of the Indian woman, who has been branded in popular culture as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island? The guide said her name was unknown. It was the first of many answers that didn’t satisfy Holm.

“I just had a lot of questions,” he said, “and those questions brewed in my mind.”

That was more than a decade ago. Then, Holm was the star and producer of a television show called “Adventure Highway with Tom Holm” on the Outdoor Life Network, making scant use of his undergraduate degree in journalism. Now, he holds a master’s degree in marine biodiversity, a Ph.D. in marine archaeology, and recently completed his first semester as a lecturer in the anthropology department at Cal State San Marcos.

Last month, he published a book that was eight years in the making, and inspired by that novel he read – and re-read twice – with his daughter and those brewing questions in his mind. “Shrouded Heritage: Island of the Blue Dolphins” (available on Amazon) is Holm’s captivating account of his long, all-encompassing quest to discover the truth behind the Lone Woman’s identity, her life on San Nicolas Island, and her link between local indigenous tribes as well as those tribes’ historical connection to the island.

Along the way, he abruptly dropped a successful career in TV to enter the foreign world of academia, spent months on the beautiful but inhospitable island as part of an archaeological mission, made friends and developed adversaries in his new field, and forged a close but fragile relationship with the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians that helped lead to thousands of lost souls being repatriated to their original place of burial on the island.

“In the simplest and most sincere way, my daughter and I saw a young woman who didn’t have a name,” Holm said. “It was unclear who her family was, and her voice was taken from her. So, in the purest sense, we did what we could to reconnect a lonely soul to all of the people who care about her, especially those who wanted to help her reclaim her voice.”


‘Something deeper’

In trying to translate his intense curiosity about the Lone Woman into action, Holm started with what he knew best at the time – the entertainment industry. He decided to make a documentary about the person and place that spawned O’Dell’s book, and used his connections to solicit the interest of a high-end production company that had done the 3D work on the blockbuster movie “Avatar.”

Before filming could begin in earnest, however, Holm had to do his homework. Because of his father, he knew that San Nicolas Island is owned by the U.S. Navy, which uses it as a weapons testing and training facility. Access to the island is strictly regulated.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no access. One way on to the island is through its archaeological field school program, which was a collaboration between the Navy and Cal State Los Angeles that gives students opportunities to address anthropological questions regarding California’s history and prehistory.

So even though he was a thriving professional with three children, Holm was so committed to his fledgling project – and the mysteries behind it – that he took the unorthodox step of going back to school.

“ ‘Adventure Highway’ was a really fun, feel-good type of adventure travel TV show,” Holm said. “But I wanted something deeper. If I was going to do a story about the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, I wanted to know what tribe she belonged to and I wanted evidence of that connection.”

The Lone Woman was the last island-dwelling member of the Nicoleño tribe, which lived and thrived on San Nicolas Island for thousands of years. Her family and fellow tribe members were massacred by otter hunters, and those who weren’t killed were transported to the mainland in 1835. But she somehow got left behind, and remarkably survived on her own for nearly two decades. In 1853, she was discovered and taken to the Spanish mission in Santa Barbara, where she died just seven weeks later.

The Spanish assigned her the name Juana Maria, but even though members of tribes from Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties were brought to her, no one was able to communicate with her during her short time on the mainland. She left behind a record of only four words and two songs.

As Holm began traveling to San Nicolas Island to do fieldwork with his new Cal State LA classmates, he also dug into scholarly research about the Lone Woman. During his first semester, he came across a paper by renowned UCLA linguist Pamela Munro concluding that the language of the Lone Woman – despite the small sample size – was likely Luiseño or Juaneño. (Both tribes are named after the Spanish missions to which they were assigned, with the Luiseño to Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside and the Juaneño to Mission San Juan Capistrano.)

Munro’s research conflicted with the long-held belief that the only tribe that could claim descendancy from the Nicoleño, and thus the Lone Woman, was the Gabrieleño, who historically inhabited the Los Angeles Basin and Santa Catalina Island.

Holm wanted to pursue this thread and find out whether Munro was right. There was just one problem: He’d had no exposure at all to native peoples.

“I didn’t have any idea where to even start,” he said.

Pechanga connection

Holm was riddled with self-doubt as he stood before a roomful of tribal elders and other members at the Pechanga Cultural Center in Temecula. After he had tried without success to connect with tribes throughout Southern California, Pechanga hesitantly had agreed to a meeting.

Now it was time for Holm to present his findings, and the hostile stares of some in the audience was a sign of the chilly reception. After all, he thought, who was he – as a white outsider – to try to convince the tribe of its ties to a legendary island and woman?

Holm pressed on, and after dealing with significant pushback at the outset, he slowly swayed opinions with the power of his research, which included Munro’s paper as well as photos of some of the artifacts that had been uncovered during fieldwork on the island.

“Most of the tribal members at that meeting had little knowledge of their connection to San Nicolas Island or the Lone Woman,” Holm said. “But once I started presenting my research and showing them pictures, it was like this explosion of genetic memory.”

He found a particular ally in Raymond Basquez Sr., Pechanga’s cultural leader, whom Holm bonded with after overcoming initial mistrust. It was Basquez who helped Holm come up with an indigenous name for the Lone Woman – ‘Ahiichumay – that he uses throughout his book, based on the similarity of her story to that of a young woman memorialized in a prayer chiseled into a giant granite slab on the Pechanga reservation.

While his friendship with Basquez and other Pechanga members gradually deepened, Holm was spending a lot of time on San Nicolas Island, collecting video footage and participating in archaeological research. During that period, archaeologists working with the Navy repeatedly tried and failed to obtain permission to excavate a cave that they claimed was the home of the Lone Woman. Knowing that Holm had worked successfully with the Chief of Naval Operations’ office in the Pentagon on prior conservation programs, they asked for his help. Holm secured the permission that had eluded them and also supplied funding for the project from his own savings.

Reaching the interior of the cave, theoretically, could have been an archaeological gold mine, and a boon to Holm’s documentary. But Holm wasn’t the same person who had set out on his mission to solve a mystery. He had become committed to the practice of including indigenous peoples in any archaeological project that affected them or their ancestors. And armed with what he considered strong evidence linking the Lone Woman and her tribe to the modern-day Luiseño, in 2012 he invited Basquez and two more Pechanga delegates to visit the cave dig.

His choice, which was pre-approved by the Navy, proved to be controversial, and consequential. At the cave site, the Pechanga representatives witnessed what they considered to be violations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a 1990 federal law that established the rights of tribes and their descendants to control what happens to human remains and other sacred objects. On the day they returned to the island, they sent a letter to the Navy demanding that the dig be shut down. The Navy complied.

Archaeologists from the Navy and Cal State LA, who had searched for the purported cave of the Lost Woman for years but were now being accused of violating NAGPRA, were outraged, and blamed Holm for his role in bringing to the island a tribe that they began alleging didn’t have a claim to it. For Holm’s part, he knew that his film – which he already had poured $100,000 of his own money into – had transformed overnight into something altogether different.

“There was a fork in the road,” he said. “I could have taken the easy route, helped dig up the cave, and made the good money. We likely would have found amazing things, but I believe that in doing so, I would have been haunted for the rest of my natural life and maybe into the next. Instead, I chose the harder route, the deeper route, and hopefully the more meaningful route. And that was to respect the indigenous people we, as anthropologists, are claiming to study and I, as a human being, was claiming to be helping.

“I would have been wealthier if I had gone the other way. But I doubt that I would be as enriched as I am right now.”

A sacred reburial

In 2015, Holm’s controversial research, and the demands of Pechanga, were vindicated when the Navy ruled that the tribe was culturally affiliated with San Nicolas Island. According to the tenets of NAGPRA, that meant that hundreds of human remains and burial objects removed from the island had to be returned to the tribe, along with three other federally recognized tribes – the Pauma and Rincon bands of Luiseño and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash – that also stepped forward to claim affiliation.

“What today’s 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,” Pechanga Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro said after the ruling was announced. “The staggering amount of remains and sacred items involved stands as a testament to the need for stronger laws that respect Native heritage throughout the United States.”

Over the ensuing four years, the Navy worked painstakingly with Pechanga and the other tribes to identify and locate the relevant human remains and burial objects. Their final tally was 548 remains and more than 1,000 objects, taken from the island between the late 1800s and just a decade ago and stored in eight locations throughout the state, including the San Diego Museum of Man.

Concurrently, Holm left Cal State LA – where he could sense he was no longer welcome – completed his master’s studies at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, entered a Ph.D. program at UCSD and, in the process, became the lead scuba diver for the Scripps Center for Marine Archaeology’s inaugural expedition in Greece.

During the same time, he expanded the search for Nicoleño artifacts, locating a total of 15,000 human remains and sacred funerary items that were removed from San Nicolas Island over the past 150 years (the institutions housing those items and the size of their reported collections are listed in Holm’s book). He also developed a passion for stand-up paddleboarding, fueled by his desire to prove that long-ago native peoples could indeed paddle in canoes from the mainland to San Nicolas Island. He made a few trips from Ventura and Santa Barbara counties to various Channel Islands, covering distances of at least 17 miles each time.

So it was that on the day this spring that the hundreds of human remains were reburied on San Nicolas Island, Holm wasn’t present on the island itself – much to his disappointment, the Pechanga tribe didn’t invite him to attend. Rather, after anchoring a motorboat, he was on his paddleboard, covering the daunting 26-mile circumference of the island.

From his vantage point, he couldn’t see the actual reburial ceremony. But after the sun had set, with the stars shimmering on the ocean and his body and mind at the breaking point, he could feel the Lone Woman’s presence around him.

“I believe that I’ve earned a certain connection to that woman and her people,” Holm said. “So I celebrated the reburial of the Nicoleño in my own way. There would be no closure to this saga for me if I hadn’t done that paddle to honor the ancient mariners who navigated those waters for thousands of years.”

‘Get it right’

Bonnie Bade has known Holm for five years and had been trying to hire him at CSUSM for almost as long. Bade, the chair of the anthropology department she started for 10 years before stepping down in 2017, wanted someone who could teach marine archaeology and thought that Holm would make a fine candidate.

Because of Holm’s intensive book project, though, the timing was never right until the recently concluded spring semester, when he came aboard and taught a class titled Marine Archaeology and Preservation.

“It was a new class, and Tom was new to teaching,” Bade said. “So there’s a learning curve, but he did a great job. The students really loved him.”

As Holm’s book neared publication during the spring, Bade was simultaneously excited and nervous.

“I knew it was going to be controversial,” she said. “He’s an outsider, and as an outsider in the 21st century working with tribal communities that are perfectly up to speed with regard to the curation and management of their own cultural knowledge, it can be a really tricky business.

“Everybody would like to claim the Lone Woman, and the fact that he was able to connect her back to the Luiseño is exciting but also scary because we know there’s going to be a lot of intratribal conflict. There already is, and this will probably contribute to that.”

Holm is apprehensive as well. Having already angered former academic colleagues because of his role in the cave dig being halted, he’s worried that the book’s release might upset some indigenous peoples – similar to how he wasn’t exactly greeted with open arms when he first appeared at Pechanga years ago. He admits that the subject matter is polarizing.

In the end, however, he hopes that he has done justice to a timeless story. He hopes that he has fulfilled his final vow to Basquez, who urged Holm on his death-bed a few years ago to tell his tribe’s story and to “get it right.”

This much he knows: The simple act of reading a novel to his daughter turned into a transformative journey, one he never could have imagined.

“When people ask who the Lone Woman belongs to, I say she belongs to all of us who care about her,” he said. “Her people didn’t live in isolation. They were part of a complex network that included all the tribes of Southern California and beyond. And today she is responsible for bringing together multiple tribes, as well as the Navy, to protect the cultural and natural resources of the Channel Islands. Her examples of conservation, perseverance, empowerment and unity are now celebrated globally.

“Therefore she belongs to all of us, and we should use her examples to live, as she did, on our own fragile island called Earth.”


Brian Hiro, CSUSM communications specialist prepared this report that was used by permission. For more, contact: bhiro@csusm.edu | Office: 760-750-7306.

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