The Legacy Of John Muir

First read: If you have a LA Times account, you can access the articles here:   Sierra Club Calls Out Racism of John Muir:  (Links to an external site.) Editorial: Coming to grips with the checkered history of John Muir – and the conservation movement:  (Links to an external site.) Letters to the Editor: John Muir was a racist? History will be harder on us for ruining the planet:  (Links to an external site.)   If you do not have a LA Times account, I have copied the text of all three articles below: Sierra Club calls out the racism of John Muir By SHELBY GRAD  (Links to an external site.) DEPUTY MANAGING EDITOR  JULY 22, 20207:58 AM John Muir is a towering figure in the environmental movement. He saved Yosemite Valley, helped form the National Park Service and influenced generations with his passionate calls to protect and revere nature. But on Wednesday, the Sierra Club — which Muir co-founded — acknowledged a darker part of Muir’s history. “He made derogatory comments  (Links to an external site.)  about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life,” the environmental group said in an article  (Links to an external site.)  posted on its website. “As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.” The club said it was addressing Muir’s racism in the spirit of reckoning with the past following protests over the death in police custody of George Floyd  (Links to an external site.) . In the wake of Floyd’s death, numerous Confederate monuments have been taken down, as well as some statues of Christopher Columbus  (Links to an external site.)  and Father Juniper Serra  (Links to an external site.) , another founding father of California. “It’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history,” the organization said. In addition to noting Muir’s history, the post also said that two other club founders — Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan — were white supremacists and that Jordan was a leading believer in eugenics. Muir is one of the most revered figures  (Links to an external site.)  in California history. His writings greatly influenced the environmental movement. But in recent years, there has been a growing debate about his influence and relevance. A 2014 Times article   (Links to an external site.) noted Muir’s hatred of indigenous Californians and his support for pushing Native Americans off their lands. “It is essential that we try to understand John Muir in all his complexity,” Laura Pulido, a professor in USC’s Department of American Studies and Ethnicity, told The Times in the article. “He was a man of his times, who actively worked to displace California Indians by taking their lands.” Others have noted that many of the landmark sites Muir saved were stolen from indigenous people, often by force. Before Muir arrived in Yosemite, it was home to native Californians who died in large number  (Links to an external site.) s from disease and slaughter when Europeans arrived and pushed them out. “Muir was depressingly conventional on matters of race, afflicted with a garden-variety Victorian white supremacism,” writer Daniel Duane wrote in a Times opinion article  (Links to an external site.)  in 2015. “But he was an otherwise harmless and decent man; my point is really just that Muir experienced Yosemite as God’s empty paradise only because armed men stole the land by violence 17 years before he arrived in 1868.” Some have also argued that Muir’s message missed key environmental issues the world is facing today, such as population growth, urban sprawl, demographic shifts and climate change. “Critics also see a correlation between the emotional, biblical language of Muir’s writings and the demographic makeup of national park visitors and the ranks of the largest environmental organizations — mainly aging, white Americans,” the article added. The Sierra Club outlined plans to make the group better reflect the diversity of America today. The organization has wrestled with Muir’s legacy in the past. In one article on its website, a writer carefully examined Muir’s   (Links to an external site.) writings and found both racism and a growing admiration for Native Californians as he got older. That review found that Muir held bigoted views toward Indians (“he used such negative terms as ‘dirty,’ ‘garrulous as jays,’ ‘Superstitious,’ ‘deadly,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘squirrelish,’ and ‘wife stealing’ to describe California Indians,” the report said). But later in life, he came to admire their stewardship of the land and expressed concern about the cruel ways they were treated. Floyd’s death has sparked a new look at the racism and violence inflicted on Native Californians. State officials removed a statue of Christopher Columbus from the Capitol rotunda in Sacramento this summer. A statue of Serra was pulled down on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, with protesters saying the founder of the Spanish mission system enslaved and abused Indians.   Editorial: Coming to grips with the checkered history of John Muir — and the conservation movement Memorials to revered naturalist John Muir are strewn throughout the United States  (Links to an external site.)  — and far beyond. In California alone, 18 public schools are named after him, five of them in Los Angeles County. Not to mention a redwood forest and the 217-mile trail that begins in Yosemite Valley, a place he wrote about with rapture. There are lodges and a rock and an inlet and, oddly, highways. The honors stretch into Canada, across the sea to Scotland and even into outer space, where a tiny planet was dubbed Johnmuir  (Links to an external site.)  in 2006. What could be unlovable about a man who directly helped preserve Yosemite and Sequoia as parks, who co-founded the Sierra Club and is considered the father of the national parks system because of the admiration for wilderness that he inspired? The answer: his overt racism toward Black people and Native Americans, including the Miwok tribe that inhabited Yosemite Valley long before the arrival of the white men who expelled them. Muir’s racism hasn’t exactly been a secret, but it’s not well known, either. Hey, he’s the guy we put on our state’s quarter in 2005, not a man famous for hateful viewpoints. That is, until this week, when the Sierra Club openly acknowledged the truth about Muir. And it didn’t stop there; the environmentalist organization also called out the white supremacists and eugenicists who were prominent early members of the group, and reminded us that people of color were at times excluded from the club. Though the Sierra Club’s announcement didn’t go into detail, it’s known that Muir supported ejecting Native Americans from their lands to make way for people-free open spaces. He described the Miwok people, most of whom had been killed or driven from Yosemite by the time he arrived in 1868, in the ugliest of terms  (Links to an external site.) , writing that they were “dirty,” “altogether hideous” and “seem to have no right place in the landscape.” This land may have been made for you and me, but to Muir and other early conservationists, “you and me” meant the class of white gentlemen who made occasional forays to what Muir saw as the untouched beauty of wilderness. Muir actually misunderstood the “untouched” part as well. The open meadows he admired that afforded broad views of the geological splendors of Yosemite weren’t the hand of nature; they were the result of strategic fires set by the Miwok to prevent undergrowth and catastrophic forest fires. Forty years after the Miwok were gone, so were the meadows. Of Black people, Muir infamously wrote  (Links to an external site.) , “One energetic white man, working with a will, would easily pick as much cotton as half a dozen Sambos  (Links to an external site.)  and Sallies.” This hateful viewpoint wasn’t confined to the early leadership of the Sierra Club. It’s long past time for the conservation movement in general to confront the ways in which its early history was entwined with the eugenics  (Links to an external site.)  movement, the idea being to protect the finest of nature along with what these supremacists saw as the finest of humankind. Among others was Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service under President Theodore Roosevelt (who himself held racist viewpoints  (Links to an external site.) ). Pinchot saw land preservation as naturally linked to continued dominance by white people. A conservation report  (Links to an external site.)  written under his authority called for forced sterilization or prohibition of marriage for criminals and other elements seen as undesirable. “If our nation cares to make any provision for its grandchildren and its grandchildren’s grandchildren, this provision must include conservation in all its branches — but above all, the conservation of the racial stock itself.” Good for the Sierra Club for beginning the process, openly admitting and rejecting the unacceptable aspects of its beginnings and vowing to remake itself, including bringing on racially and ethnically diverse leadership. This doesn’t have to mean stripping Muir’s name from the dozens of sites that honor him, a man who felt more affinity for bears than for people regardless of their skin color. It’s far more important to take meaningful steps toward cultivating wider interest in and access to open lands. The National Park Service, to its credit, has worked in recent years to bring more diverse groups of visitors to the parks. As for Muir, he eventually came to learn more about Native Americans, to openly admire them and to decry cruel treatment of them. He was flawed in a terrible way, he showed himself capable of learning at least somewhat, and he left a rich legacy, an incredible trove of natural beauty. Now it’s time to make sure it was made for all of us.   Letters to the Editor: John Muir was a racist? History will be harder on us for ruining the planet To the editor: One cannot judge the values held by people in the past using the standards of the present. Prior to the 19th century, slavery was present in almost every society on Earth. It is even acknowledged in the Bible. To consider John Muir a bigot  (Links to an external site.)  for representing the values of his time is irresponsible and distorts the values of his time. Imagine someone from the 22nd century judging you for failing to stop driving fossil-fueled vehicles after scientists acknowledged the damage that carbon dioxide emissions did to the atmosphere and to future generations. In fact, there is an inertia to ideas. Time is necessary for societies to change, and it is wrong to blame Muir for representing what were the conventional views of his time. To the editor: Muir’s biggest failing was being born in the first half of the 19th century. In those days, Europeans routinely assumed they were superior to the other peoples of the world. The horrors of the 20th century were often consequences of that assumption. Unchallenged assumptions can be very dangerous. As Muir and the Sierra Club that he founded have warned us, future generations may judge us quite harshly for our assumptions about proper stewardship of this planet. To avoid those condemnations, we should act now to end environmental destruction. Jim Ralston, Los Angeles To the editor: Recent revelations about Muir’s statements show that regrettably, he was a racist. But he may also have been somewhat of a misanthrope. Muir’s love of nature was unquestioned, and he devoted his life to its preservation. His gift was the ability to convince people that we should preserve a collection of nature’s timeless jewels for future generations to enjoy. In reality, he was endeavoring to protect these wild wonders from the exploitation of future generations. Muir knew humanity for what it was: selfish, short-sighted and destructive. But he also knew the idea of environmental preservation would only garner acceptance as long as it pertained to the enjoyment of people. Protecting nature for nature’s sake was a nonstarter. Through it all, Muir helped create the Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Mount Rainier and Petrified Forest national parks. If the ancient redwood trees, an untold numbers of thriving animal species and an impressive array of pristine wilderness had one person to thank for their continued existence, it would be Muir. Mark McCloud, Newhall To the editor: The assertions by Muir’s critics are incompatible with many of his written thoughts about equity. As a young man in Wisconsin, he wrote of the Winnebago people “being robbed of their lands and pushed ruthlessly back into narrower and narrower limits by alien races who were cutting off their means of livelihood.” In 1876, he wrote a newspaper article calling for vacation time for “men, women and children of every creed and color from every nation under the sun.” Our public lands are the best thing our government has done for all of us. Muir would encourage us not to divide ourselves, but to get more of everyone out on the trail. Peter Yates, Culver City -I need two paragraphs, first a long one answering these questions: a summary of your reaction to/thoughts about the LA Times articles. A few points to consider commenting on: Were you familiar with John Muir before reading this articles? If so, what was your perception of him? Has that perception changed? If you were not familiar with John Muir before reading this, how would you describe your reaction to him after reading this article? In one of the editorials posted, the author states “One cannot judge the values held by people in the past using the standards of the present”. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Should John Muir be held to standards of the past or present? The writer states, ” it is wrong to blame Muir for representing what were the conventional views of his time.” Again, do you agree or disagree. Is it fair to expect more from our heroes? How should Muir’s legacy be presented in a class such as this one? Should he be “removed” from discussion? Or should his role in history be presented from both sides? Across the state of California, there are many tributes to John Muir, ” In California alone, 18 public schools are named after him, five of them in Los Angeles County. Not to mention a redwood forest and the 217-mile trail that begins in Yosemite Valley, a place he wrote about with rapture. There are lodges and a rock and an inlet and, oddly, highways”. Many confederate statues are being torn down. Should the same apply to John Muir? How do we reconcile Muir’s overt racism toward Black people and Native Americans with his contribution to the environmental movement? What SHOULD Muir’s legacy be? Muir spoke about the “untouched beauty of wilderness”. What did that mean then, and what should it mean now? -Then the second paragraph which I don’t need to be too long, i need a write a response to one of my classmates posts (a question, comment, thought, or opinion). If you disagree, please do so respectfully. -My classmates post is: Before this class, I have never heard anything on the topic of John Muir. I view the man myself as just a historical figure who had a big impact on Californian environmental history, but at the cost of many others. In regards to anyone saying his racist opinions should be excused because they were popular at the time, I can only agree we can’t exactly hold him to today’s standards, but that we should still not hold someone with such values as any type of hero in history. While Muir did some things to further the study and protection of nature, he has committed many actions as well that would now be considered illegal or unjust.  Because of this, when discussing John Muir, the right way to do it is to make students aware of all his actions (both sides) so he is not forgotten but not looked up to.  Just because he was racist doesn’t take away his other achievements, but rather holds them in a light that does not praise him. As other statues have been taken down, his should too. This isn’t a means to erase history, but rather remind Americans now that our values should not allow or line up with racism. We have so many people who have furthered science that are not racist that it would be a waste to keep up those who no longer represent our values.  I hope now and in the future John Muir is discussed and not forgotten so we all address that history can’t only have heroes. it is a reminder that part of our education method has come at the cost of many groups of individuals, such as Black people and Native Americans.

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