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With island dig halted, Lone Woman still a stinging mystery

For months they worked together to reveal details of the cave where the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island may have lived, painstakingly removing bucket after bucket of sand — 40,000 in all.

Navy archaeologist Steve Schwartz, who was helping lead the project, was impressed by one of the Cal State L.A. students taking part in the high-profile dig: Tom Holm, a filmmaker who was eager to weave the team's archaeology lessons into a documentary based on the work.

And Holm felt blessed to work shoulder-to-shoulder with experts, marveling at their knowledge of the 19th century Native American woman who survived on the Channel island for 18 years, abandoned and alone.

In April 2012, they were inches away from relics that would flesh out the real-life story of the woman who inspired the novel "Island of the Blue Dolphins," one of the 20th century's most popular novels for young readers and required reading in many California schools.

But commanders at the naval base on the island about 65 miles southwest of Point Mugu ordered Schwartz to halt the dig.

The archaeologist was especially dismayed by a terse question embedded in the order: "Is the work you're doing out there legal?"

But something else stung. The shutdown grew out of allegations by none other than Holm, who had brought members of the Pechanga tribe to the island amid concerns that work in and around the cave was possibly out of compliance with federal laws enacted to protect cultural resources.

The closure interrupted research on one of the most significant historical finds in California history — and led Schwartz, 57, to retire early in anger and frustration.

"It's a heartbreak. A travesty," Schwartz said on a recent weekday. "We may never learn what archaeological riches that cave is guarding."

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Very little is known about the Nicoleno Indians, who in the early 1800s suffered catastrophic losses in repeated fights with Russian fur traders and Alaskan sea otter hunters over pelts and native women.

The Nicoleno population of about 300 dropped sharply to a few dozen after a particularly brutal battle in 1814.

In 1835, a ship was dispatched by Franciscan fathers to bring to San Pedro the few who remained. All but one made the trip aboard the Peor es Nada, loosely translated as "better than nothing."

According to legend, the woman jumped overboard and swam for shore after realizing that her baby had been left behind. A sudden storm forced the ship's captain to shove off without her.

Legend has it that as she was running back home, the baby was eaten by wild dogs.

"What actually happened to her remains a mystery," Schwartz said.

He was determined to find out.

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Schwartz had already spent more than 20 years searching for the cave when, in 2012, its precise location was confirmed in the field notes and compass bearings of a 19th century government surveyor. One of his field stations on the island, the surveyor wrote, was "100 yards eastward of the large cave formerly inhabited by a wild Indian woman who lived there alone for 18 years."

Schwartz discovered the cave — 20 feet high, 75 feet long and packed with sand — under a rock overhang. Digging out the sand, Schwartz and his team uncovered two sets of initials and a date etched near the cave's arching mouth: "September 11, 1911." They also found two glass pepper sauce bottles, remnants of late 19th century seamen.

At first, Holm was excited to be taking part in the dig, led by Schwartz and Rene Vellanoweth, Holm's archaeology professor at Cal State L.A.

But Holm's views began to change after meetings with Pechanga elders who questioned his instructors' explanations of artifacts unearthed on the island. Holm also fumed over T-shirts worn by Vellanoweth and his team members that said "San Nicolas Cave Archaeology," because, as he put it, "we did not have permission to do anything other than remove sand."

Later, teams of archaeology students were stunned by heated exchanges between Holm and Schwartz and Vellanoweth in the cave and elsewhere on the island.

After stewing over the perceived violations for months, Holm invited three members of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians to accompany him on a tour of the cave. A few weeks later, the tribe, best known for its lucrative casino near the Riverside County city of Temecula, fired off letters demanding that the Navy stop archaeological research in the cave and at 549 other sites across the island.

Now, the cave is closed indefinitely while its fate is being negotiated between the Navy and the Pechanga tribe, which is claiming cultural affiliation with the island's mysterious ancient people, who for 8,000 years scratched out a living eating mostly shellfish, sea lions, small fish and roots.

"We're only trying to do what's right by our ancestors," Mark Macarro, the tribe's chairman, said in an interview. "We must ensure that all applicable federal laws are followed."

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As a rule, when it comes to digging up artifacts, the Pechanga's preference is avoidance.

Federal agencies are required to consult with a federally recognized tribe before undertaking a proposal that may adversely affect cultural resources it is affiliated with. The Pechanga aims to assume that role.

The tribe hinges its claim on its interpretation of the only four words uttered by the Lone Woman that were written down, and two songs she reportedly sang, after she was finally brought from the island to Santa Barbara.

No one understood a word of the Lone Woman's language beyond that she called a hide "tocah," a man "nache," the sky "toygwah" and the body "puoochay," according to badly spelled transcriptions made under unknown conditions by unidentified non-linguists. Her songs are mostly "vocables," or nonsense syllables.

Many archaeologists who are knowledgeable about the earliest inhabitants of the Channel Islands say a preponderance of skeletal and DNA data affiliates the island with Gabrielino Tongva Indians, who occupied the greater Los Angeles Basin and the southern three islands: Santa Catalina, San Clemente and San Nicolas.

Among them is John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. "Granting cultural affiliation with Pechanga would be a big mistake," he said. "I don't believe it would survive a legal challenge. The four words do not indicate some sort of cultural connection."

Last week, however, the Navy announced it had determined that the Pechanga were culturally affiliated with the remains of 469 people and 436 objects that have been removed from San Nicolas Island and are now stored in museum and university collections throughout the state.

The designation, which does not specifically apply to the cave, is expected to give the tribe a greater role in determining the extent of future archaeological research on the island. The tribe says it has not yet decided what to do with the artifacts.

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Among the losers in the dig shutdown is Holm himself, who says he invested $100,000 in a film project that may never be completed.

Holm, 53, said he didn't know that bringing Pechanga tribal members to San Nicolas would stir up a "wasps' nest." But he says he believes the Navy made the right decision.

As for his role in the end of Schwartz's 25-year career as a Navy archaeologist, Holm said: "He should be happy because he got to discover the cave. At some point in every man's life, he must hand over his work to the next generation."

"That's ridiculous," Schwartz said, shaking his head in disappointment. "If the Navy hadn't stopped us, I'd still be out there continuing the research."

For now, at least, the mystery of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island will remain unsolved.

In the years after she was left behind, fishermen occasionally reported seeing a figure running along the deserted island's wind-raked beaches.

In 1853, the woman — strong, of medium height and about 50 years old — was skinning a seal and living in a nearby cave when she was found by Santa Barbara fur traders.

She sailed to Santa Barbara on their vessel. She died seven weeks later of dysentery. On her deathbed, she was baptized and named Juana Maria.

She is buried at the Santa Barbara Mission. One hundred and sixty-two years after her death, she remains as alone and mysterious as ever.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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