Holly Goldberg Sloan, author of COUNTING BY 7s

Alone on the Island of the Blue Dolphins is a beautiful, short film that captures the essence of the tale dramatized by Scott O'Dell in his Newbery Award winning novel. A perfect compliment for classroom reading, the film explores the story from an anthropological point of view, combining science, history and photographic recreation. This is an amazing educational tool and a thought provoking visual addition for teachers and libraries to share with students.

The Library Review RECOMMENDED the film in the August, 2018 volume of the journal.

The Library Review RECOMMENDED the film in the August, 2018 volume of the journal.


‘The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island’

Wednesday, September 27, 2017


The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, the real-life figure behind Scott O’Dell’s beloved 1960 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins, is a fixture of local history. She lived alone for 18 years on the most remote and arguably least hospitable of the Channel Islands until the sailor and otter hunter George Nidever brought her to Santa Barbara. Little is known about her life on the island, but she has continued to fascinate readers and researchers alike. And on Monday, October 2, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History will premiere a new documentary by filmmaker Paul Goldsmith about the Lone Woman.

Goldsmith has had a long career in Hollywood, working on documentaries, music videos, and commercials. Then, he said, “I got old and I started making my own films. One plus is that you get to do exactly what you want.” Goldsmith discovered his interest in California’s Native American stories while working as the director of photography on the PBS series We Shall Remain, which documents Native Americans’ experience of U.S. history.

The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island is the final installment of Goldsmith’s three-part series on Native Americans in California. The first, 6 Generations, narrates the family story of Ernestine De Soto, a Chumash elder. “It’s a story of how women are really the chain in a culture of survival,” he said. The second film, Talking Stone: Rock Art of the Cosos, explores the petroglyphs at China Lake, currently the site of the Naval Air Weapons Station. The rock paintings are “the oldest art in California,” Goldsmith explained. For his new film, Goldsmith visited San Nicolas Island, filming what was then the Lone Woman’s newly discovered cave. He interviewed archaeologists and researchers, filmed extant artifacts, and used the details of the natural environment—along with some reenactment—to bring the Lone Woman’s story to life.

The Santa Barbara Independent caught up with Goldsmith to talk about the project.

How did you get interested in the Lone Woman? California has sort of ignored its history in many ways. I come from the East Coast, where we take our history much more seriously. For one thing, California is all about coming out here and starting a new life. That’s what it has been traditionally, right back to the gold rush. People often don’t even know the history, let alone value it.

There was this Lone Woman story, and I thought, you know, [it’s] amazing that they haven’t made a [documentary] film on it. It’s extraordinary, based on a true story, but no one’s done a documentary.

All of the films that I’ve done, since these are projects I’ve generated on my own, are films that I thought it would be fun to make. I wanted to go to San Nicolas Island.

How did you decide to approach the topic? I’ve made a short version for kids, and my goal, aside from the PBS film, is to get the short version, which is 20 minutes, designed for 4th grade, to every 4th grader in California — to every 4th grade teacher, 4th grade student, every parent of a 4th grader. And one of the ideas is, this is the first, in 4th grade, this [Island of the Blue Dolphins] is the book they read as their first chapter book. I don’t remember what mine was, but I do remember the shock of turning the pages, and each page, there were no pictures, there was just print.

But rather than being too specific, what I want to celebrate in the film is how extraordinary that this story about a woman — not a man — a Native American, not some white general, a person whose name we don’t know, whose language we never learned, who we don’t even have a picture of, has survived over all these years and means a lot. People connect to her. She was extraordinary — there was something, not only in her story but in her person, that transcended time and left a message and a story that we’re still talking about now. And whether you come at it from the book, or whether you come at it [as] the archaeologist trying to dig up her artifacts, or you come at it [as] the person trying to research in baptismal records — whatever your approach, it’s honoring this extraordinary person, and that’s essentially what I want people to carry away from the film. 

What were some of the challenges of making the film?The biggest challenge, of course, is my star. I have no pictures of my star, I have no recordings of my star. Movies are about people. How do you bring her to the audience? So I did a tiny number of reenactments; the island itself stands in for her a little, with all of its animals. But certainly that was the hardest thing. But one thing that you’ll see in the film that is kind of miraculous is when she got on the boat heading back to Santa Barbara and a huge storm came up. She started a chant — they call it a song, but I think it was a prayer — that she sang, again and again and again, until the winds relented. Well, that chant/song/prayer was remembered by one of the Chumash crew members, and when he was an old man, he sang it, and another Chumash who was young, Fernando Librado, heard it and remembered it, and when Fernando was an old man, he sang it for [anthropologist] John Peabody Harrington, who had the very earliest recording device — an Edison recorder that recorded on a wax cylinder. That song you can hear at the Santa Barbara Museum [of Natural History], and I have it in the film. And in a sense, realistically, it’s a distant echo of her voice.


Filmmaker Paul Goldsmith hosts a screening of 'The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island' in Los Olivos

BY Rebecca Rose

She spent 18 years alone on an island just 60 miles away from the California coast, and her life inspired a famous children's book, years of anthropological research, and now a documentary film.


Paul Goldsmith’s film The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island features the story of Juana Maria and the decades-long fascination surrounding her story. Numerous anthropologists, archaeologists, and other scientists have come to the island to search for clues about her life in solitude.

Filmmaker Paul Goldsmith's documentary The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island seeks to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding the life of that woman, who many know as Juana Maria. She was made famous by Scott O'Dell's 1960 children's book, The Island of the Blue Dolphins, which is how Goldsmith first learned of her.

"I thought it was an extraordinary story," he said. "When I heard it was based on a true story, it just seemed obvious that this should be a film about that."

Goldsmith, an accomplished filmmaker and cinematographer, is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers and has produced several documentaries. His credits include Two Days in October and Don't Say Goodbye. He was also the cinematographer on the Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings. He has worked on two other films about Native American history, which were screened on local PBS stations. For his third he focused on the captivating story of Juana Maria.

Juana Maria was the last surviving member of the Nicoleño tribe. According to the California Missions Resource Center, the inhabitants of the Channel Islands were evacuated due to dwindling populations and resources in the 1830s. There were stories that Juana Maria had begged to stay back to find her lost son, but Goldsmith said the exact circumstances are unclear.

"There was a report that she was left behind, but it wasn't clear why," Goldsmith said. "About 20 years later, the story started to emerge that she had left her child behind and she had leapt off the boat and swam ashore. That sort of seems unlikely, because who leaves their child behind? But who knows."


Paul Goldsmith said he was inspired to make his documentary film after reading 'Island of the Blue Dolphins,' the book that told the story of a Chumash woman surviving on her own among the island wildlife.

Goldsmith said the crew of the ship that went to San Nicolas planned to go back and pick up the young woman but first had to make a trip to San Francisco for lumber. While there, it sank. Since there was no other available ship big enough to make the difficult trip to San Nicolas Island, she remained there, with many assuming she had died.

"The story became almost a myth," Goldsmith said. "It would have pretty much disappeared if it hadn't been for this children's book. That made the story famous, but it also got anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians interested and they started to investigate."

Goldsmith backpacked through the terrain of San Nicolas island, seeking to follow in Juana Maria's footsteps and explore that world for his film. She eventually left the island with explorer and sailor George Nidever and journeyed to Santa Barbara. Goldsmith said she was treated well by the community during an unwelcoming time when there was a bounty on Native Americans.

Sadly, she died less than seven weeks after leaving the island. Goldsmith said it's hard to pinpoint what her cause of death was, but it was likely had to do with her longtime isolation and sudden exposure to a number of environmental and other conditions.

Explore her world

Santa Ynez Valley Natural History Society and the Los Olivos Library will host filmmaker Paul Goldsmith, who will introduce and screen his newest documentary 'The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island' on Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m. The screening is free and will take place at the Santa Ynez Valley Grange, 2374 Alamo Pintado Ave., Los Olivos.

Goldsmith said one of his goals was to ensure that school children in California have an opportunity to see the film, especially fourth graders who read O'Dell's book. He said during his research, he met numerous women who told him they became anthropologists after reading the book as a child.

Kristina Foss, Mission Santa Barbara Museum director, is featured in the documentary. Foss said not much has changed on the island since the days when Juana Maria lived there alone.

"The remarkable isolation of San Nicolas Island means that Juana Maria's world is still there," Foss said, "untouched and unchanged."


"Veteran filmmaker Paul Goldsmith covers the anthropological and historical information available to discern what life would likely have been like for the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. In addition to the story of the girl whose given name is unknown, Goldsmith highlights the passion, dedication, and utter tenacity of those who study the island, and seek every bit of information about the Lone Woman's life and her island home. I see 'special features' on a documentary film disc as integral to the story, rather than separate and distinct. This aptly applies to Goldsmith's film." 


"If you're one of the 10 million readers who enjoyed Scott O'Dell's award-winning book, you'll appreciate this doc which illuminates the real story behind the best-seller. As it turns out, the true story of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas, as she was dubbed, is even more extraordinary than the fictional retelling."