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Living and Writing in the Natural World

John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans? Part One: Sierra Nevada 1869

The young John Muir

"Did you know that John Muir was a racist against Native Americans?" 

The question took my old college roommate by surprise, at the end of a human development class he was teaching at Tufts University, in which Muir had been mentioned.  It certainly caught me by surprise when he relayed the incident.  I had read the biographies of Muir, as well as his books and journal entries, for my 2016 book about him—without encountering such a charge. 

 

Then I discovered a 2017 NY Times article which detailed genocide of California Native Americans in the Sierra Nevada.  "Muir's view of Indians is depressing and painfully devoid of empathy," the article claimed.  "The Indians he saw on trails struck him as filthy."  Somehow, it seemed to suggest, Muir was sympathetic to, possibly a contributor to the mistreatment of the Native Americans. 

 

 Soon I had first-hand experience of the notion.  While donating a copy of my book (Earth Wisdom: John Muir, accidental Taoist, charts humanity's only future on a changing planet) to the Yosemite archival library, the Native-American receptionist looked up from the book in her hands, with Muir's photo on its cover.  "He said we were an ugly people," she solemnly pronounced.  As I stood gaping at her, she rose and led me to a nearby table, where two books on the California genocide were prominently displayed.  And nodded knowingly to me. 

 

Puzzled, I soon returned to the original sources to investigate the charges.  Here's what I found. We'll consider a letter from an acquaintance of Muir's in which his attitude to Native Americans—and actions expressing that attitude—are plainly described.  And we'll look at Muir's intimate, spontaneous thoughts expressed in his journals as he encounters Native Americans: in the Sierra Nevada in 1869 and in Alaska in 1879.  Then you can decide for yourself whether John Muir was a racist against Native Americans.

 

First, the letter.  Several months after his return from his first trip to Alaska in 1879, Muir was at a dinner party in the San Francisco home of John and Mary Swett, one of several guests.  John Swett was the state Superintendent of Schools, and Muir had stayed in the family's attic rooms during several winters, "scribbling" about his year's outdoor adventures (and becoming a great favorite of the Swett children).  Among that April, 1880 night's guests was an officer involved in the U.S. Army's "Indian extermination" campaign then occurring.  The letter quoted here was written a few days after by Mary Swett, to her friend Louie Strentzel, who would marry Muir soon.

 

"He (Muir) not only excels in argument, but always takes the highest ground—is always on the right side. He told Colonel Boyce the other night that Boyce's position was that of a champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was with regard to Indian extermination, and that Boyce would be ashamed to carry it…Further, Muir is so truthful that he not only will never embellish sketch or word-picture by any imaginary addition, but even retains every unsightly feature lest his picture should not be true."

 

This revealing letter not only points to Muir's championing of Native Americans and his bold, in-your-face opposition to their mistreatment, but also hints at how the misperception of Muir's racism might arise.  Critical to a proper understanding of what Muir saw and unflinchingly described in the Sierra Nevada of 1869 is an awareness that the Native Americans he encountered were experiencing the first generation of a holocaust that had destroyed their traditional culture and way of life. 

 

The Spanish had begun the holocaust along the California Coast in the 1700s with the establishment of their Missions and their subjugation of the coastal Native Americans to serfdom on the newly appropriated Mission lands.  The foothill and mountain tribes, though, were largely spared the theft of their homelands and the destruction of their way of life.  Then gold was discovered in 1848, and as the Anglo-american and Chinese prospectors swarmed over the foothills, conflict arose with the Native Americans in those lands, who quite understandably resisted the theft of their homelands and the murder of those who protested. 

 

The Mariposa Battalion, a band of armed vigilante Indian-hunters, rode into Yosemite Valley in the late winter of 1851, burning the homes and food stocks of the Native Americans there, and murdering the males they could find.  In the decade and a half until the young Muir arrived in California, these scenes were repeated throughout the Sierra Nevada.  The Native Americans were brutally expelled from their homelands, and relegated by the usurping Anglo-americans to marginalized areas unwanted by the new conquerors.  The hunting and foraging resources that formerly sustained them were denied to them, or grudgingly tolerated if no Anglo-americans wanted the areas. 

 

The Native Americans had no standing in the "laws" of the invaders.  Murder of the males and rape of the women, as well as kidnapping of the youths for servants, was widespread and without recourse to the victims.

 

So when the young Muir drives a herd of sheep into Tuolumne Meadow in the summer of 1869, the Native Americans he encounters are in the very midst of a holocaust that has utterly destroyed their way of life and banished them from their homes and hunting-gathering lands. 

 

Is it to be wondered that Muir, who in Mary Swett's testimony "is so truthful that he not only will never embellish sketch or word-picture by any imaginary addition, but even retains every unsightly feature lest his picture should not be true," paints a "depressing" picture of the Native Americans he encounters there?  Is there any way he could truthfully describe a happy, handsome people full of vitality and enjoying their lives? 

 

The exceptional thing about Muir's depiction of the Sierra Nevada Native Americans he encounters in 1869 is how often he insists on crediting them with admirable traits, how persistently he compares their culture favorably above those of his fellow Anglo-americans, how often he reminds himself (and his future readers) that these struggling people are still "fellow beings" of Muir and his kind, how they in fact are, still, their "brothers."

 

And most importantly, John Muir was perhaps the only Anglo-american at this time to actually see the Native Americans of California, to look closely at them, to honestly observe and describe them, and to wonder what was going on with them.  Considering that the Native Americans of California's Sierra Nevada were experiencing the first generation of a holocaust that had destroyed a way of life thousands of years old, it is not remarkable that what Muir saw was often jarring, unsightly, depressing, and sad.  He saw it and described it, always accepting and declaring that these were human beings he was observing, and that there were aspects of their culture he found admirable. Their humanity was never in doubt—in his eyes, at least.

 

Let's listen to excerpts from his 1869 journals (later published as My First Summer in the Sierra; pages indicated are from the Modern Library 2003 edition). These excerpts will be uncomfortable to all of us, in places.  But please note how he admires much about the Native Americans and insists on their humanity, even as he observes their—to him—puzzling sadness and dishevelment.

 

 "One of the Indians from Brown's Flat got right into the middle of the camp this morning, unobserved. I was seated on a stone, looking over my notes and sketches, and happened to look up, was startled to see him standing grim and silent within a few steps of me, as motionless and weather-stained as an old tree stump that had stood there for centuries. All Indians seem to have learned this wonderful way of walking unseen, making themselves invisible…

"How many centuries Indians have roamed these woods nobody knows, probably a great many, extending far beyond the time that Columbus touched our shores, and it seems strange that heavier marks have not been made. Indians walk softly and hurt the landscape hardly more than the birds and squirrels…their more enduring monuments, excepting those wrought on the forests by the fires they made to improve their hunting grounds, vanish in a few centuries.

"How different are most of those (affects) of the white man, especially on the lower gold region…These are the white man's marks made in a few feverish years, to say nothing of mills, fields, villages, scattered hundreds of miles along the flank of the (Sierra Nevada) Range. Long will it be ere these marks are effaced…."  (p. 71, 73f)

 

 "We had another visitor from Brown's Flat today, an old Indian woman with a basket on her back. Like our first caller from the village, she got fairly into camp and was standing in plain view when discovered…Her dress was calico rags, far from clean. In every way she seemed sadly unlike Nature's neat well-dressed animals, though living like them on the bounty of the wilderness. Strange that mankind alone is dirty…  (p. 78)

 

Later, lamenting his reliance on bread in his diet, Muir again admires a Native American trait and laments its lack in Anglo Americans:  "Like the Indians, we ought to know how to get the starch out of fern and saxifrage stalks, lily bulbs, pine bark, etc. Our (white folks') education has been sadly neglected." (104, 06)

 

"Soon after my return to camp we received a visit from an Indian…come to hunt deer. One that he had killed a short distance from here he was carrying on his back, its legs tied together in an ornamental bunch on his forehead. Throwing down his burden, he gazed stolidly for a few minutes in silent Indian fashion, then cut off eight or ten pounds of venison for us, and begged a little of everything he saw or could think of—flour, bread, sugar, tobacco, whiskey, needles. We gave a fair price for the meat in flour and sugar and added a few needles.  A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness—starvation and abundance, deathlike calm, indolence, and admirable, indefatigable action succeeding each other in stormy rhythm like winter and summer. (p. 277f).

 

Approaching Mono Pass: "I found the blue arctic daisy and purple-flowered bryanthus, the mountain's own darlings, gentle mountaineers face to face with the sky, kept safe and warm by a thousand miracles, seeming always the finer and purer the wilder and stormier their homes… In this fine company sauntering enchanted, taking no need of time, I at length entered the gate of the pass…

 

"Just then I was startled by a lot of queer, hairy, muffled creatures coming shuffling, shambling, wallowing toward me as if they had no bones in their bodies…What a picture they made contrasted with the others (flowers, birds, snowy banks) I had just been admiring. When I came up to them, I found that they were only a band of Indians from Mono on their way to Yosemite for a load of acorns. They were wrapped in blankets made of the skins of sage-rabbits. The dirt on some of the faces seemed almost old enough and thick enough to have a geological significance…I tried to pass them without stopping, but they wouldn't let me; forming a dismal circle about me, I was closely besieged while they begged whiskey or tobacco, and it was hard to convince them that I hadn't any. How glad I was to get away from the gray, grim crowd and see them vanish down the trail! Yet it seems sad to feel such desperate repulsion from one's fellow beings…To prefer the society of squirrels and woodchucks to that of our species must surely be unnatural….I must wish them Godspeed, and try to pray and sing with (the poet) Burns, 'It's coming yet, for all that, that man to man, the world over, shall brothers be for all that.'" (293ff)

 

Muir descends to the foot of the canyon and observes the women of the band gathering wild rye grain.  "A fine squirrelish employment this wild grain gathering seems, and the women were evidently enjoying it, laughing and chattering." 

"Perhaps if I knew them better I should like them better." (303f) (Barnett boldface)

 

So—the first phase of the development of Muir's views of Native Americans: the Sierra Nevada, 1869.  Sharp, clear, true, honest. But realizing he was missing something.  "Perhaps if I knew them better, I should like them better."  Are these the views of a racist?  We see Muir admiring them often, even as he contrasts and criticizes his fellow Anglo-Americans.  We see Muir presenting honest descriptions of Native Americans in the midst of a holocaust, and upon occasion expressing distaste for their appearance and actions.  Does this make Muir a racist? I think not, when the full picture of his 1869 summer in the Sierra Nevada is considered.  But of course you can make up your own mind, based on the evidence here. 

 

If we can fault Muir for anything in 1869, it was for not realizing, or caring to understand, the historical circumstances that had led to what he observed and recorded.  How we yearn to hear Muir say, "A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness—starvation and abundance, deathlike calm, indolence, and admirable, indefatigable action succeeding each other in stormy rhythm like winter and summer.  But of course, these are a once-proud and happy people now in the midst of a shattering holocaust brought on by our brutal Anglo-american theft of their ancient land and murder of their people.  Could we survive such a catastrophe?"

 

But no; Muir does not attain this perspective, at least not in 1869.  He was young, and had spent his first months in California as a solitary shepherd in the valley below.  That is to say, he was incredibly ignorant of the history of California and the tragic drama still playing out between its Native Americans and his fellow Anglo-americans. 

 

But the Sierra Nevada in 1869 is not whole picture, for Muir.  Our judgment as to his purported racism has more to be considered. Much will change when he travels to Alaska in 1879.  He is a decade older, and no longer so blithely ignorant.  And the Native-American culture he encounters there is pre-holocaust.  He spends more time with them, and experiences their culture before it is shattered.  In our next blog, we will follow the mature Muir in Alaska, as he travels by canoe up the uncharted coastline, in pursuit of the true passion of his life: glaciers!

 

Next.  John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans? Part Two: Alaska 1879

 

 

 

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