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Living and Writing in the Natural World

John Muir a Racist?!

John Muir a Racist?!

Scholars, Sierra Club Leaders Refute Charge

(Online at http://www.raymondbarnett.com/blog/posts/37785)

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes"-Mark Twain


     On July 22, 2020, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune stunned the club by unilaterally publishing a manifesto ("Pulling Down our Monuments") accusing founder John Muir of being a racist and the Sierra Club of being complicit ever since in defending and furthering systemic racism in American and the Sierra Club itself. 

     Within hours, a chain of emails began which linked 40 or so Sierra Club members, former officers, and academic scholars who were familiar with Muir's life and writings. Prominent among the themes recurring in these emails (which are ongoing today) was the obvious ignorance of Executive Director Brune regarding John Muir.


     The first email in the chain was from former Sierra Club national president Richard Cellarius, who promptly emailed Brune that very day: "Before you further continue the cleansing of John Muir from the Sierra Club…please read and reflect on the essay by Raymond Barnett, 'John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans?' "

     That essay carefully and at length considers Muir's life and writings, and concludes that "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 involved in extirpating them."


     The preeminent Muir biographer, Dr. Donald Worster, soon published an article coming to the same conclusion:  "Muir has been dead for more than a century, but if he could speak from the grave, I can easily imagine him agreeing that systemic racism is bad and should be repudiated, for he never published a word in support of black slavery, racial segregation, the Confederacy, forced sterilization of minorities, or genocidal policies toward Native Americans."


     And the former President of The Sierra Club Foundation, civil-rights attorney Guy T. Saperstein, also corrected Brune's mis-characterization of Muir in a widely-circulated July 29 email to Brune: "I applaud your efforts to make the Sierra Club more inclusive and to reflect the diversity of America…But I am appalled at the hatchet-job attack by you and the Sierra Club Board on John Muir's legacy. Muir may have made ill-considered comments about Native Americans and blacks as a young man, but he became enlightened about both races after living with black families on his walks in the South and living with Native Americans in Alaska.  How many of his era were even open to living with different races?  He decried the unfair treatment of blacks, and he expressed understanding and appreciation for Native Americans, while denouncing how whites had abused them with alcohol…Rather than the low-life racist you and the Board portray him as, Muir was high in the ranks of enlightened men of his time. Your attack is political correctness run amuck."


     Dr. W.R. Swagerty, Director of the John Muir Center at the University of the Pacific, was also dismayed by Brune's actions.  In a widely-circulated October 27 email, he said "I am so disappointed in the Sierra Club's leadership on this…Just as we are seeing so many wonderful children and young adult illustrated books on Muir make their way into the hands of students in elementary schools and junior highs…Sierra Club officers have decided to undermine that effort…May the Club survive, but may the leadership change."


     As Muir scholar Lee Stetson (better known for three decades of live portrayal performances of Muir) has put it, "To attribute racist comments to Muir…You'd have to disregard his entire lifetime of considered thoughts and good deeds, and to turn your back on any kind of historical perspective. It's unjust and stupid, but you could do it."


     The ignorance and injustice of Brune's mis-representation of Muir outraged leaders of the British hiking community as well; quickly Rucksacks Readers founder Jacquetta Megarry published an article entitled "Should the Sierra Club Apologise for John Muir?"  "My answer to the question in the title is a resounding NO!  The anachronistic self-flagellation of the club's present leaders does nothing to serve its long-term goals. They are displaying considerable ignorance of their founder member's early life, his nuanced writings, and above all of the attitudes prevalent when he lived. They have been seduced by the modern fad for rewriting history, preferably combined with some statue-toppling and feet of clay."


     Even some members of the Sierra Club's Board of Directors were upset by Brune's wrong-headed portrayal of Muir.  From Board member Chad Hanson's essay "Who Was John Muir, Really?": "This is the John Muir who is worthy of honor and respect—the Muir who evolved beyond his upbringing and worked to protect Nature while simultaneously promoting admiration for Native American culture and speaking against racist government policies…As we join together to create a more inclusive and just environmental movement, and to bring about needed societal transformations to increase environmental protections, racial equality and social justice, defining people by the trajectory of their lives, rather than by the worst or lowest versions of themselves across the history of their experience, is going to be important. Why? Because we are going to need people to evolve, to become better, if we're going to succeed. John Muir's evolution as a person can serve as an example of this."


     In view of these thoughtful statements from a multinational group of Muir scholars, outdoors people, and Sierra Club members, officers, and former officers, it seems clearly hasty and ill-advised to expunge Muir's name from any school, park, trail, or glacier. All those quoted here agree that systemic racism exists in American society and should be corrected. But they also agree that, based on full consideration of John Muir's life and writings, "cancelling" John Muir's name is not warranted, and in fact nonsensical. Certainly, for example, the name "John Muir Elementary School" should be maintained.


    Links to complete essays, articles referenced above  (5 to 15 minutes  each):

         Worster article: https://www.californiasun.co/stories/john-muir-biographer-he-was-no-white-supremacist/ (Distinguished historian Worster's A Passion for Nature: the life of John Muir is the preeminent modern biography of Muir)

     Megarry article (includes full Stetson quote): https://www.rucsacs.com/should-the-sierra-club-apologise-for-john-muir/ (Megarry is the founder of Rucksack Readers, a successful publisher of trail-handy guides to hiking paths in Scotland, Ireland, and England). See also her short essay Four Fallacies to Avoid in Evaluating Historical Figures: http://www.raymondbarnett.com/blog/posts/38068 .

     Hanson essayhttps://johnmuirproject.org/2020/07/who-was-john-muir-really/ (Pacific Crest Trail veteran Hanson founded the John Muir Project and is a Sierra Club Board member)

     Barnett essay: http://www.raymondbarnett.com/blog/posts/37037 (Retired Biology professor at Calif. State Univ., Chico, Barnett has authored essays and a book on Muir)

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