Environmentalists Grapple with the Racist History of John Muir

The Sierra Club attempts to address the ”deeply harmful” elements of its co-founder’s legacy

John Muir, one of the central figures of the early 20th-century American environmental movement, has been celebrated for his many contributions, particularly in California. His name adorns schools and redwood forests, and he was among the voices that advocated for the establishment of some of the first national parks in the United States, including Yosemite, Sequoia, and the Grand Canyon.

But as the Sierra Club, an organization he co-founded 128 years ago, wrote in a statement today, Muir’s legacy, and that of a number of early leaders of the conservation movement, is marred by a record of racism, white supremacism, and eugenics.

Historians and critics have pointed to Muir’s racist writings and his close association individuals like American Eugenics Society founder Henry Fairfield Osborn for years. Documents from the 1860s and 1870s find him describing Indigenous people as “filthy” and expressing an attitude toward them which one writer described as “depressing and painfully devoid of empathy.”

Amid a national reckoning with racism and, specifically, a movement to radically revaluate how American history is framed and taught–from the removal of Confederate statues to rewriting of textbooks–the Sierra Club felt it was an important time to directly speak to these difficult parts of their own history.

“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 organization wrote in a web post entitled “Pulling Down Our Monuments.” 

“The whiteness and privilege of our early membership fed into a very dangerous idea–one that’s still circulating today. It’s the idea that exploring, enjoying, and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs,” the post continues. “Such willful ignorance is what allows some people to shut their eyes to the reality that the wild places we love are also the ancestral homelands of Native peoples, forced off their lands in the decades or centuries before they became national parks. It allows them to overlook, too, the fact that only people insulated from systemic racism and brutality can afford to focus solely on preserving wilderness. Black communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color continue to endure the traumatic burden of fighting for their right to a healthy environment while simultaneously fighting for freedom from discrimination and police violence.”

RELATED: National Parks Are Suddenly Flooded with Wildlife. What Happens When Humans Return?

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