"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 New York 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 a 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 with one Indian in personal conflict.... 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." (Barnett boldface)
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 first 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 squirrells ... 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 unnatura... 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 Native American culture 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 disheveled appearance and puzzling behavior. 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? Could we look well-kept in such circumstances?"
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 holocaust-shattered Native Americans and his fellow Anglo-americans.
And certainly Muir would not have been thinking about how his observations on their appearances might be hurtful to these Native Americans' future descendants reading his words. So Muir was ignorant, and thoughtless of feelings, in some of these 1869 remarks. But surely that does not make him a racist, nor negate his frequent admiration of the Native American ways and his insistence on their being his fellow brothers.
Yet the Sierra Nevada in 1869 is not the 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.
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 Wrangell), 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 instanceâ€"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 amid the surrounding squalor [ie., the traders' shops]. 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 Wrangellâ€¦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 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) (Barnett boldface and italics)
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 above), 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 or what the Native Americans were experiencing. But when Muir's 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 manner 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 frequent lawsuits, Lummis sought to protect the region's Native Americans, and initiated programs to provide education and practical skills 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 respect extended to them by John Muir, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Charles Lummis, this essay is respectfully dedicated.