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Living and Writing in the Natural World

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

The mature John Muir

In Part One of this series, we saw that when the young John Muir encountered the Native Americans of the Sierra Nevada in 1869, that culture was in the midst of a holocaust, brought on by the brutal usurpation of their homes and traditional hunting-gathering lands by the onslaught of Anglo-americans after the discovery of gold in 1848.  In shock and undergoing terrible suffering, the Native Americans were honestly and accurately described by Muir in his journals.  Yet in recording their distressing, disheveled appearances and manners, he yet persisted in affirming the positive aspects of their culture, and insisted that they were his "fellow beings" and "brothers."  And he wondered:  "Perhaps if I knew them better I should like then better."

 

A decade later he got that opportunity.  A mere dozen years after America's purchase of Alaska from Russia, Muir made the first of five trips to that raw, young land, in quest of the passion of his life: glaciers!  He took a commercial steamer from Seattle as far up the Alaska coast as it went (the rough village of Wrangel), hired a Tlingkit canoe and four paddlers (from different tribes, all), and explored the remote coast north for 400 miles, until the winter storms beat him back.  With him was a Presbyterian minister, S. Hall Young, who stopped at dozens of Native American villages to preach and offer education to their youths.  Muir came to know his paddlers very well, and the people of the villages at which they stopped. 

 

Just as his experiences with the Native Americans of the Sierra Nevada were profoundly influenced by the status of their culture—shattered, in that instance—so his experiences with Alaska's Native Americans were critically influenced by the status of their culture.  While the early Russian fur traders had brought diseases of "civilization" to the tribes, with resulting epidemics, and while there were some early gold seekers and missionaries there in 1879, by and large Alaska's Native Americans had not yet experienced the holocaust that had afflicted the Sierra Nevada tribes. (That would come, with the Klondike gold rush of 1896.) Their villages were still extant, for the most part, with the populations pursuing their ancient social economies.  Pre-holocaust, then, giving Muir the opportunity to observe and record a Native American culture reasonably similar to what it had been for thousands of years.

 

Let's listen to what he says of them in his journals (later published in Travels in Alaska; pages refer to the 2002 Modern Library edition). 

 

"The (Indian) women, seated on the steps and platform of the traders' shops (in Wrangell village), could hardly be called loafers, for they had berries to sell, basketfuls of huckleberries, large yellow salmon-berries, and bog raspberries that looked wondrous fresh and clean…After patiently waiting for purchasers until hungry, they ate what they could not sell, and went away to gather more.

 

"As the day advances, a fleet of canoes may be seen along the shore, all fashioned alike, high and long beak-like prows and sterns, with lines as fine as those of the breast of a duck. What the mustang is to the Mexican vaquero, the canoe is to these coast Indians. They skim along the shores to fish and hunt and trade, or merely to visit their neighbors, for they are sociable, and have family pride remarkably well developed, meeting often to inquire after each other's health, attend potlaches and dances, and gossip concerning coming marriages, births, deaths, etc. Others seem to sail for the pure pleasure of the thing, their canoes decorated with handfuls of the tall purple epilobium…"

 

"A little excursion to one of the best huckleberry-fields adjacent to Wrangell…In the afternoon, when the baskets were full, all started back to the camp-ground…I was the first to arrive at camp. The rest of the party came in shortly afterwards, singing and humming like heavy-laden bees. It was interesting to note how kindly they held out handfuls of the best berries to the little girl (remaining at camp), who welcomed them all in succession with smiles and merry words that I did not understand. But there was no mistaking the kindliness and serene good nature."  (24-27)

 

Muir visited a "deserted Stickeen village" up the coast from Wrangell, quite possibly a settlement that had been wiped out by disease (brought by Russians or Americans) some years before.  "The magnitude of the ruins and the excellence of the workmanship manifest in them was astonishing as belonging to Indians. For example, the first dwelling we visited was about forty feet square, with walls built of planks two feet wide and six inches thick. The ridgepole of yellow cypress was two feet in diameter, forty feet long, and as round and true as if it had been turned in a lathe…The nibble marks of the stone adze were still visible...Each of the wall planks had evidently been hewn out of a whole log, and must have required sturdy deliberation as well as skill. Their geometrical truthfulness was admirable. With the same tools not one in a thousand of our skilled mechanics could do as good work. Compared with it, the bravest work of civilized backwoodsmen is feeble and bungling. The completeness of form, finish, and proportion of these timbers suggested skill of a wild and positive kind."(56) ("Wild" is always a compliment for Muir.)

 

As in the Sierra Nevada in 1869, Muir contrasts the admirable Native American ways with that of his Anglo-american colleagues, in this case early gold-seekers: "The (miners') taverns along the Cassiar gold trail were the worst I had ever seen, rough shacks with dirt floors, dirt roofs and rough meals. (Note that Muir still finds "dirt" distasteful, whether associated with Anglo-americans or Native Americans.) The meals are all alike—a potato, a slice of something like bacon, some gray stuff called bread, and a cup of muddy, semi-liquid coffee like that which the California miners call 'slickens' or 'slumgullion.'  The bread was terrible and sinful. How the Lord's good wheat could be made into stuff so mysteriously bad is past finding out. The very devil, it would seem, in wicked anger and ingenuity, had been the baker." (68f)

 

At the end of this lengthy walking tour of the gold mine region:  "We arrived at Telegraph Creek, the end of my two-hundred mile walk, about noon. After luncheon I went on down the river to Glenora in a fine canoe owned and manned by Kitty, a stout, intelligent-looking Indian woman, who charged her passengers a dollar for the fifteen-mile trip. Her crew was four Indian paddlers. In the rapids she also plied the paddle, with stout, telling strokes, and a keen-eyed old man, probably her husband, sat high in the stern and steered. All seemed exhilarated as we shot down through the narrow gorge on the rushing, roaring, throttled river, paddling all the more vigorously the faster the speed of the stream, to hold good steering way. The canoe danced lightly amid gray surges and spray as if alive and enthusiastically enjoying the adventure…In unskillful hands the frail dugout would surely have been wrecked or upset." (69f)

 

 

Back on the coast after another several hundred miles by canoe with their Stickeen, Chilcat, and Sitka Native-American paddlers, Muir records this gathering in his journal: "I greatly enjoyed the Indians' camp-fire talk this evening on their ancient customs, how they were taught by their parents ere the whites came among them, their religion, ideas connected with the next world, the stars, plants, the behavior and language of animals under different circumstances, manner of getting a living, etc. When our talk was interrupted by the howling of a wolf on the opposite side of the strait, Kadachan (one of his paddlers) puzzled the minister (Young) with the question 'Have wolves souls?' The Indians believe that they have, giving as foundation for their belief that they are wise creatures who know how to catch seals and salmon by swimming slyly upon them with their heads hidden in a mouthful of grass."(94)

 

The chieftains of the Native-American groups Muir and Young encountered were almost always highly impressive, in Muir's estimation. Here is his description of remarks by a Chilcat chief following a sermon by Rev. Young offering to educate the tribe's children: "At the last meeting an old white-haired shaman of grave and venerable aspect, with a high wrinkled forehead, big, strong Roman nose and light-colored skin, slowly and with great dignity arose and spoke for the first time:

 

" 'I am an old man,' he said, 'but I am glad to listen to those strange things you tell, and they may well be true, for what is more wonderful than the flight of birds in the air? I remember the first white man I ever saw. Since that long, long-ago time I have seen many, but never until now have I ever truly known and felt a white man's heart. All the white men I have heretofore met wanted to get something from us. They wanted furs and they wished to pay for them as small a price as possible. They all seemed to be seeking their own good—not our good. I might say that thorough all my long life I have never until now heard a white man speak. It has always seemed to me while trying to speak to traders and those seeking gold-mines that it was like speaking to a person across a broad stream that was running fast over stones and making so loud a noise that scarce a single word could be heard. But now, for the first time, the Indian and the white man are on the same side of the river, eye to eye, heart to heart. I have always loved my people. I have taught them and ministered to them as well as I could. Hereafter, I will keep silent and listen to the good words of the missionaries, who know God and the places we go to when we die so much better than I do.' "  (129f) ))

 

Towards the end of his trip, Muir sums up his experiences among his men and in the dozens of villages he visited:  "The most striking characteristic of these people is their serene dignity in circumstances that to us would be novel and embarrassing. Even the little children behave with natural dignity, come to the white men when called, and restrain their wonder at the strange prayers, hymn-singing, etc. This evening an old woman fell asleep in the meeting and began to snore; and though both old and young were shaking with suppressed mirth, they evidently took great pains to conceal it. It seems wonderful to me that these so-called savages can make one feel at home in their families. In good breeding, intelligence, and skill in accomplishing whatever they try to do with tools, they seem to me to rank above most of our uneducated white laborers. I have never yet seen a child ill-used, even to the extent of an angry word. Scolding, so common a curse in civilization, is not known here at all. On the contrary the young are fondly indulged without being spoiled." (104f) (boldface and italics by Barnett)

 

It is shortly after his return from this trip that Muir confronts the Colonel involved in California's "Indian Extermination" campaign at John and Mary Swett's dinner party (see Part One of this blog series), barking to his face that the soldier was engaged in a "mean and brutal policy," that he should be "ashamed to carry it."

 

This is the evidence, then.  John Muir a racist against the Native Americans of Alaska or the Sierra Nevada?  I think not.  His honesty in portraying the appearances and manners of the Sierra Nevada tribes in the midst of their holocaust might give the impression of racism to those who know little of Muir.  But when his thoughts and actions are more fully known, it is clear. 

 

John Muir was not a racist, but to the contrary an admirer and staunch defender of North America's Native Americans, all the while honestly portraying the terrible burden they endured during their Sierra Nevada holocaust, and its affect upon them.  Isolated instances in his journals or private letters when he occasionally expresses distaste for the appearances or actions of the holocaust-scarred Sierra Nevada Native Americans cannot be taken out of the much broader context of his many expressions of admiration of the Sierra Nevada and Alaska tribes; his touching enthusiasm for Alaska's Native American life, especially; his insistence that Native Americans were fully human "brothers"; and his heated in-the-face defense of California's Native Americans to a U.S. Army Colonel. 

 

His stance is all the more striking by virtue of its rarity at the time.  In 1869, he was virtually alone among public figures in his insistence of the admirable qualities of Native American culture, and of that people's right to be considered as fellow humans, "brothers" even.  In 1879, he had been joined by only one other public figure, Helen Hunt Jackson, an Easterner whose sympathy and understanding of the great injustices perpetrated on California's original inhabitants led to her 1881 book, A Century of Dishonor.  When the book, sent to every member of the U.S. Congress, was overwhelmingly ignored, Jackson recast her "message" in the form of a popular novel, 1884's Ramona, written in a frenzy by the dying Jackson. 

 

This book was a great success financially, spawning more than half a century of "Ramona Festivals" in southern California—but for all the wrong reasons.  The plight and injustices of the southern California Native Americans depicted in the novel were shrugged off by the reading public, which instead was entranced by the romance of the Californio culture of Spanish haciendas and ranches during the 1820s and 1830s (the object of the early 20th century festivals).  Considering Ramona a failure, Jackson died in San Francisco the year after the novel's publication, on the very night that Muir called upon her home there to inquire after her health.

 

Muir and Jackson were joined by only one other Anglo-american in the late 19th century who spoke up for California's Native Americans.  In 1885, the year that Jackson died, a young Harvard graduate named Charles Lummis arrived in Los Angeles (by foot, from Chicago).  He promptly founded successful magazines (Land of Sunshine, then Out West) celebrating the Southwest (a term he coined).  In both his magazines and lawsuits, Lummis sought to protect the region's Native Americans, and initiated programs to provide education and employment for their youths. Muir was a constant contributor of funds to these endeavors, and you can find Muir's signature in the visitors' book of Lummis' preserved home, El Alisal, north of today's downtown Los Angeles, in Montecito Heights. 

 

A century on, many of California's Native Americans still struggle with the legacy of the holocaust their people endured.  But many have parlayed their courage and intelligence to successfully establish themselves in the Anglo-American culture which took over their old homeland, and they have prospered.  To all of these descendants of a time of terrible injustice and tragedy, and in recognition of the too-rare admiration and understanding extended to them by John Muir, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Charles Lummis, this blog is respectfully dedicated. 

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