We must, I’m afraid, reclassify John Muir.
He seemed the safe one, the nineteenth century naturalist who helped stoke a deep, American love for the outdoors and the will to preserve the wild spaces of a colonialist nation. Nice guy. Cool jacket. Big beard. A walking Successory poster. Just the mention of his name conjured, for many, sepia toned images of a simpler time along with your basic Ken Burns soundtrack.
The truth is more complicated, and the Sierra Club has now felt compelled to acknowledge their co-founder’s problematic past.
“The Sierra Club is a 128-year-old organization with a complex history, some of which has caused significant and immeasurable harm,” the environmental group said in an article titled “Pulling Down Our Monuments.” On the subject of John Muir, they were direct. “He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life. 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.”
But the story of the Sierra Club gets worse before it gets better:
“Other early Sierra Club members and leaders — like Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan — were vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudo-scientific arm, eugenics. Jordan, for example, served on the board of directors during Muir’s presidency. A “kingpin”of the eugenics movement, he pushed for forced-sterilization laws and programs that deprived tens of thousands of women of their right to bear children — mostly Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poor women, and those living with disabilities and mental illness. He cofounded the Human Betterment Foundation, whose research and model laws were used to create Nazi Germany’s eugenics legislation.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that membership in the club was white—by design—until the 1960s.
RaceAhead has covered the white supremacist convictions of the early conservationists in detail—and why, as an avid fly-fisherperson, I never encounter any people of color on any river, in any capacity. Yes, Muir evolved. Decent people often do when faced with the error of their ways. But acknowledging the “complex history” of the Sierra Club is an opportunity to have important conversations about how the same ideas that preserved the outdoors for the benefit of white people are baked into the foundations of every part of American life.
So, while we’re pulling down the monuments, take a moment to go outside in nature and refresh you spirit, if you can. That’s my plan for the week. Think of it as a radical act of democracy.