Scott O'Dell's "Island of the Blue Dolphins" tells the story of a Native American woman living alone with only a wild dog for companionship. O'Dell's book is based on a true story about a woman who lived on San Nicolas, one of the Channel Islands of California, in the mid-1800s. Although the dog, named Rontu, is described in detail by the main character narrating the story, no mention of the breed or type of dog is given. Archaeologists have unearthed actual dog skeletons on the islands and estimated them to be about 6,000 years old; yet they know very little about what breed of dogs lived on these islands and how exactly they arrived from the mainland.
Protagonist's Description of Rontu
After much of her tribe is killed or relocated, Karana, the story's protagonist, survives on the island and befriends a wild dog who is the leader of a pack of dogs roaming the Island of the Blue Dolphins. Although Karana at first intends to kill all the dogs after they take the life of her younger brother, she wounds the lead dog, names it Rontu and cares for it. She eventually keeps it with her as a companion. In first person narration, she tells the reader, "He was a much larger dog than any of ours, which besides have short hair and brown eyes. I was sure that he was an Aleut dog." Karana explains in the story that the Rontu means "Fox Eyes" in her native language.
Dogs on the Channel Islands
Holocene Native Americans came to the Channel Islands with small, short-faced dogs for hunting, companionship and protection, according to anthropologist Torben Rick. However, Rontu does not fit the description of those dogs. On the other hand, the Aleut dogs were malamutes and huskies, native to Alaska. The eyes of the Alaskan malamute can have a "wolf-like" appearance, which may be why Karana named Rontu "Fox Eyes."
Russian or Aleutian Islands Origins
Rontu may have been left behind by Russian fur traders or Aleutian Islanders who hunted sea otters off the coast of California in the early 1800s. Some historical accounts support this theory. George Nidever, an early explorer of the island, described the wild dogs as about the size of a coyote and resembling it in appearance except for its black and white coloring. Over time, the population of dogs increased on the islands, and they killed off or drove away much of the marine mammal wildlife and bird populations.
Rontu's Loyalty Indicates Domestication
Historians and scientists continue to explore the question of whether the wild dogs that roamed the island were descendants of a breed originally introduced from Asia via the Bering Straits in pre-Columbian time, or whether they were brought by the European explorers in the 16th century. Because Karana befriends Rontu and quickly wins his loyalty, it may be likely that this dog, unlike other wild dogs, had been a domesticated breed used by the native Aleutians.
- Smithsonian Institute: Department of Anthropology: The Holocene
- The New York Times: A History of Dogs in the Early Americas
- National Park Service: Channel Islands: Native Inhabitants
- The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History; Jan Timbrook
- Dog Breed Selector: Animal Planet
- Photo Credit sigiuz/iStock/Getty Images