Karana, a 12-year-old indigenous girl, gathers roots for food in a canyon on her island home. Nearby, Karana's six-year-old brother, Ramo, watches the sea as a large ship sails toward the island. Neither of the children has seen a large ship before. The vessel—a "red ship with two red sails"—brings a Russian, Captain Orlov, and Aleut hunters.
While Karana, Ramo, and their entire community look on, Captain Orlov is rowed to shore. The Russian tells Chief Chowig, Karana and Ramo's father, that he has 40 men and they wish to hunt sea otters. After a discussion, Karana's father allows the hunt to take place but insists on an equal share of the profit.
Karana and the indigenous people on the island live in a village called Ghalas-at. Their island is twenty leagues from Santa Barbara (California, USA).