instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

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

 

 

 

Be the first to comment

"The Carry" into the other--older--Sierra Nevada

The half-mile saunter into Big Bear Lake

My buddy Al and I were like teenagers with a new car, though the calendar said we were well into our 70s. It was a sunny September day; two ultra-lightweight kevlar canoes shipped from the Adirondacks of New York were strapped atop my Subaru; and we were zipping up the curves of the deep Feather River Canyon in the Sierra foothills east of Chico. An hour ahead, lakes galore awaited us in the aptly-named Lakes Basin region of the northern Sierra Nevada between Graeagle and Lake Tahoe.

We’d kayaked there last summer, hitting many of the lakes with launch sites accessible by car. But this trip we determined to paddle on Big Bear Lake, a half mile from any road. That meant what in the Adirondacks was called “a carry” of our canoe and gear. Impossible with our 42-pound kayaks from last year. These kevlar vessels today, though, only weighed 12 pounds. But they were 10 feet long, awkward to heft, and the trail was rocky, windy, and choked with tree roots. I’d devised—well, jury-rigged is more descriptive—a carrying rig to mesh me and my canoe on the trail. Would it work?

It’s a strange drive, up the Feather River Canyon. At the start of the drive, coming out of the Central Valley, the rock comprising the canyon walls is granite, beautiful granite much as you see in Yosemite Valley today. But halfway up the canyon, something weird happens. Our beautiful granite disappears, and the canyon walls become a combination of greyish and bluish rocks of entirely different texture, looking very worn and almost “tortured.” What the heck was this all about?  Read More 

Post a comment

The Unknow World: Maui Beneath the Water's Surface

One of many creatures beneath Maui's waves

Every excursion that I have made in all my rambling life has been fruitful and delightful, from the smallest indefinite saunter an hour or two in length to the noblest summer’s flight…All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go.–John Muir journal entry, June 1890

Well, I agree with Muir here, of course, but must wonder if Saint John would have added a qualifying comment had he ever gone snorkeling off the coast of Hawaii. For my money, no rambling saunter or excursion ranks higher in the awe and excitement scale than 40 minutes cruising a tropical coastline’s coral reef. Tammy and I recently returned from 10 days exploring the south coast of Maui, immersing ourselves (literally! ) in five different underwater locations, and we still glow with the grandeur of the worlds we explored.

Part of the kick in snorkeling is just how odd and different your new world is. Humans don’t belong underwater; we have to return to the surface to breathe periodically or rig an upward-directed breathing tube on our face (if we’re snorkeling). But stick a mask on and dip below the surface and a breathtakingly beautiful and unexpected world blooms before your eyes. Thousands of creatures are suddenly there, darting and slithering and gliding or sitting in a fantastically-sculpted landscape.

The sheer spectacle is stunning: an entire world that is not apparent from your beach chair  Read More 

2 Comments
Post a comment

Rocky Mountain High: Encounters with the Continental Divide Trail and its Denizens

Setting off for another day on the CDT

Kids certainly complicate—and enliven—your life. Last week Tammy and I found ourselves on the overnight California Zephyr train from Sacramento to Denver. Considered America’s most beautiful train ride, our journey crossed the Sierra Nevada the first day, and the Rockies the second, following the Colorado River 238 miles through gorgeous canyons in Utah and Colorado (Ruby, Gore, Glenwood). After a night in Denver near Union Station, we set out early over the continental divide in our rental car to Steamboat Springs, where we were to meet our daughter Ashlyn near the midpoint of her 3,100-mile backpacking trek along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) from Mexico to Canada.

She had begun two months earlier at the border in southern New Mexico, hiking with a buddy she’d made two years earlier on the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail (AT). In the CDT’s first week they found themselves fording the Gila River 200 times one day and nearly as many the next, bulldozing through willow-dominated streamside vegetation that left whipmark gashes on their legs. Several weeks later they hiked through Georgia O’Keeffee’s Ghost Ranch, Read More 

1 Comments
Post a comment

A Tale of Water--or the lack thereof

Arizona Springs Beach on the Colorado River

We sloshed through the narrow canyon’s trickle of water, sheer walls rising 40 feet above us on either side. These slot canyons off the Colorado River meander endlessly, but our attention was on the water wetting our Crocs: was it getting warmer? Another curving 25 yards: yes. Distinctly warmer now. Our kayaks and gear were some quarter mile behind us, tied up to bushes along the river’s bank. Another turn, and a solid wall 20 feet tall loomed before us, with a narrow ribbon of—hot!—water snaking down its right side. On the left side: a rickety metal ladder slapped against the wall. I looked at Al: would we trust it? Pondering this, we heard noises from above, beyond the wall. I stepped gingerly onto the first rung, my mind made up. There was clearly a party going on up there!

Getting here had been a tale of almost as many twists and turns as this canyon. Back in January, Al asked if I wanted to join him in a “Geology of the Mojave Desert” course, to be held at a field station smack in the middle of that southern California desert. In February, yet (it’s a high desert, quite cold in the winter).

Desert rocks don’t fascinate me as they do Al, but I’d come along for the ride. A jaunt in Al’s new Yaris (mileage equal to a hybrid) 400 miles south to L.A., then another couple of hundred miles due east to the Mojave. While Al was rock-sleuthing, I’d camp and explore nearby Afton Canyon, Read More 

Be the first to comment

The Laggard, Part 3: to San Francisco--and back!--on sunbeams

A view from Crissy Field

Plotting our first trip out of town in our Chevy Bolt EV (electric vehicle)—and back—was approached like a military campaign. The route to oldest daughter Heather (and our precious grandkids) was as always: over to Hwy 5, south to below Williams, Hwy 505 southeast to Vacaville, then Hwy 80 into San Francisco over the Bay Bridge. A distance of 175 miles or so.

We had charged up the Bolt on the sunny afternoon before we left: somewhere between 200 and 238 miles of sunbeams hummed in the battery, depending on a variety of factors: our speed (faster gave us fewer miles), our smoothness (pronounced acceleration and deceleration ate up miles also), and how much juice we devoted to heating (seat warmers were negligible; making the interior cabin toasty decreased our miles). On the other hand, using the “regenerative braking” paddle on the steering column diverted energy of braking back to the battery. Cool.

While we were happy with the deal we got from the dealer (end of the year, 2018s due in soon), they had prepared us not at all for the task of recharging the vehicle on a trip; not a word of advice or a hint of how to proceed. We googled charging stations,  Read More 

1 Comments
Post a comment

What Would John Muir Do?

A look at Muir's adventures and worldview

“Every excursion that I have made in all my rambling life has been fruitful and delightful, from the smallest indefinite saunter an hour or two in length to the noblest summer’s flight…All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go.” –Muir journal entry June 1890
“One day’s exposure to mountains is better than cartloads of books.” –Journal entry late 1872

Recently a couple of outdoor-loving buddies have told me about opportunities they have to contribute to the education of kids about the natural world. My friend George is a child psychologist in Boston, who’s meeting with New England Aquarium folks to chat about how he might contribute to their excellent already-established youth programs. My friend Richard is the caretaker of a swatch of shortgrass prairie in Oklahoma, with a lodge nearing completion on site. What might they contribute, and how? Did I have any ideas for them?

My guiding principle in these questions has recently become to ask myself: “What would John Muir do?” This determination is a result of several decades of outdoor adventuring in conjunction with a close reading of Muir’s reflections on his own (much more impressive) “saunters”. Never have I encountered a person with a clearer vision of reality and a better understanding of what it means to be fully human than John Muir.

Muir was clear on two things, particularly. First, we are children of the universe, particularly our own planet earth, and to know ourselves we have to know our foundations. This means getting out of cities and away from smartphone screens on regular and frequent sojourns in the natural world that is our home. “Every excursion that I have made in all my rambling life has been fruitful and delightful, from the smallest indefinite saunter an hour or two in length to the noblest summer’s flight…All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go.”

Second: we get to know our foundation not through reading books about it, but by experiencing the natural world, what he called “the wild world.”  Read More 

Be the first to comment

The Laggard, Part 2: Driving on Sunbeams

Powered by sunbeams

November’s first Tuesday was mainly sunny in Northern California. The heart of our solar system showered an abundance of free energy on my roof, which was promptly captured and converted to electricity by the solar panels we put there this spring (see May 9 blog, The Laggard, Part 1). That electrified sunshine passed to my garage and via a charging port straight into our newly-purchased Chevy Bolt EV (Electric vehicle). By late afternoon, we had 238 miles of juice in the car. We’ve been driving on sunbeams for three weeks now.

And the surprising thing is how extremely enjoyable the Bolt is to drive. I never dreamed saving human civilization on the planet would be so fun. It’s been a kick, for several reasons. First: no gas stations. No standing around like sheep while we all pump explosive material (!?!) into our cars. Did I really do that?

Second: EV’s are silent and clean. No more clatter and sputtering as an engine warms up and struggles to move the vehicle. No more engine! No more oil to keep track of and maybe drip under the car. We depress the pedal, and the EV pulls away effortlessly, eagerly, smooth as silk.

Third: Remember those scenes in Star Wars when Hans Solo jumps the Millennium Falcon into hyperspace, leaving the stodgy craft of the Empire far behind? Our Bolt EV can’t do Solo’s “.5 past light speed,” but it does go from zero to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. Seriously.  Read More 

Be the first to comment

Kayaking through history: the Potomac River and Manchac Swamp

The Manchac Swamp west of New Orleans

Though my train trip from California to the east coast and back was full of pleasures (old high school and college friends; the vast American landscape; new acquaintances on the train; a roomful of Monets at Chicago’s Art Institute; a Nats-Giants game in WDC; a plethora of Georgia O’Keeffes at the National Gallery, plus several of Alfred Stieglitz’s (in)famous photos of her), I must admit that among the highlights were my two kayak trips, the first on the Potomac into Chesapeake Bay, the second into the Manchac Swamp west of New Orleans.

I had followed the Potomac River out my train window for several hours and well over a hundred miles upon awakening on the overnighter from Chicago and drawing closer to the nation’s capital. It is a placid river in its youth, flowing amongst densely wooded banks in West Virginia. At Harper’s Ferry the equally scenic Shenandoah joins it, flowing up from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on the west side of the Blue Ridge mountains. On a river packed with history, its Harper’s Ferry phase stands out.

Thomas Jefferson sat on a rock outside of town overlooking the Potomac here in October of 1783 on his way to Philadelphia with daughter Patsy. You can sit on “Jefferson’s Rock” these days and it’s still a fine view, tho hardly “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature” as Jefferson described it.

Several years later George Washington passed through,  Read More 

Be the first to comment

Heading Home: the South and Southwest by Rail

Petrochemical corridor, Louisiana ("Cancer Alley")

After a marvelous college-roommate reunion, I boarded Amtrak's Crescent route in Greenville, South Carolina (home of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, which I bicycled along the Reedy River) and headed for New Orleans in a long day of riding the rails. The Crescent here traverses the cradle of two distinctly American phenomena: folk music of gospel, jazz, blues, country; and the Civil Rights Movement, both amply represented in the small and large towns I passed through this day.

Which set me to wondering about the connection between art and tragedy. In town after town, the legacy of slavery and poverty seemed intertwined with epochal musicians. Coincidence? Or the bitter yet beautiful fruits of struggle?

In several stops we were at the curiously nondescript depot of Atlanta, Georgia, hometown of Martin Luther King, Jr., who would challenge the entire nation in his speeches and marches. The nearby village of Villa Rica was the birthplace of Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, whose Take my Hand, Precious Lord was sung at the funerals of both MLK and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

Soon we entered Alabama, the first stop of Anniston being the site where a bus packed with black and white Freedom Riders was firebombed in the summer of 1961. Then came Birmingham,  Read More 

Be the first to comment