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Sierra Club Grapples With Founder John Muir’s Racism

The organization calls out Muir’s racist statements and pledges to diversify leadership and deepen environmental justice initiatives

Theodore Roosevelt stands with naturalist John Muir on Glacier Point, above Yosemite Valley, California, USA. ( Bettmann / Contributor via Getty Images)
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In 1889, John Muir drew lines across a map of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California to propose a grand idea: enshrining what he saw as a treasure of natural beauty in the form of Yosemite National Park. Except, the “wilderness” Muir called Yosemite was already named—Ahwahnee, meaning gaping, mouth-like place—and beloved by the Ahwahneechee people who lived in the grand valley.

Muir, a lauded pioneer of the American environmental movement, spurred the conservation of the valley’s pantheon of granite faces and groves of giant sequoias through his writing and advocacy. But Muir’s desire to protect Yosemite, which led him to found the Sierra Club in 1892, was not for the benefit of the valley’s original inhabitants, or even the full palette of American diversity.

Muir described the Native Americans he encountered on his famous walk from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico as “dirty,” and referred to African Americans using an offensive racial slur, report Darryl Fears and Steven Mufson for the Washington Post.

This week, the Sierra Club’s executive director Michael Brune called out the racism of “the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history” in a post to the organization's website. The post takes its inspiration from the nationwide reckoning with America’s Confederate monuments and other public works that glorify figures associated with racism and oppression in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“It’s time to take down some of our own monuments,” Brune writes.

Speaking with Brian Melley of the Associated Press, Stanford historian Richard White says Muir’s very conception of wilderness bakes in racial bias. Muir’s “unblighted, unredeemed wilderness” in which the “galling harness of civilization drops off” was only possible through the erasure of America’s Indigenous peoples, whose villages and way of life had been destroyed. For Muir, Native Americans “seemed to have no right place in the landscape.”

“There is a dark underside here that will not be erased by just saying Muir was a racist,” White tells the AP. “I would leave Muir’s name on things but explain that, as hard as it may be to accept, it is not just Muir who was racist. The way we created the wilderness areas we now rightly prize was racist.”

Brune notes that Muir’s views appeared to “evolve later in his life” but notes that his “derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples...continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.”

The Sierra Club’s post also mentions Muir’s close friendship with Henry Fairfield Osborn who was known, not just for leading the New York Zoological Society and the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, but also for his role in founding the American Eugenics Society. Early members and leaders of the Sierra Club included other eugenicists such as Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan. Some of America’s other early champions of environmental conservation, such as Madison Grant, were also proponents of eugenics, which peddled a set of pseudo-scientific justifications for white supremacy that eventually found their way into the founding ideals of Nazi Germany.

Brune writes that in its early years the Sierra Club was “basically a mountaineering club for middle and upper-class white people who worked to preserve the wilderness they hiked through—wilderness that had begun to need protection only a few decades earlier, when white settlers violently displaced the Indigenous peoples who had lived on and taken care of the land for thousands of years.”

Brune tells Lucy Tompkins of the New York Times that his statements are the start of a series of conversations about the organization’s framing of Muir’s legacy.

“The Muir ideal of the lone white man at one with nature in the wilderness excludes all kinds of people from that relationship,” Jon Christensen, an environmental historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, tells the Times. “That ideal has caused a lot of damage.”

Brune pledged the Sierra Club to diversifying its leadership, and ensuring black, Indigenous and other people of color are in the majority on the teams making “top-level organizational decisions.” The organization also committed to investing more heavily in racial and environmental justice work.

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