Pulling Down Our Monuments

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The Sierra Club is a 128-year-old organization with a complex history, some of which has caused significant and immeasurable harm. As defenders of Black life pull down Confederate monuments across the country, we must also take this moment to reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy. 

It’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history. That will be followed by posts on how we’ve had to evolve on issues of immigration and population control, environmental justice, and Indigenous sovereignty. We will also devote a post to a discussion of how the Sierra Club is working to center the voices of people we have historically ignored, so we can begin repairing some of the harms done. 

The most monumental figure in the Sierra Club’s past is John Muir. Beloved by many of our members, his writings taught generations of people to see the sacredness of nature. But Muir maintained friendships with people like Henry Fairfield Osborn, who worked for both the conservation of nature and the conservation of the white race. Head of the New York Zoological Society and the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, Osborn also helped found the American Eugenics Society in the years after Muir’s death. 

And Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement. 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. 

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.

In these 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. The Sierra Club maintained that basic orientation until at least the 1960s because membership remained exclusive. Membership could only be granted through sponsorship from existing members, some of whom screened out any applicants of color. 

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. 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.  

The persistence of this misguided idea is part of the reason why we still get comments from our own members telling us to “stay in our lane,” and stop talking about issues of race, equity, and privilege. But as writer Julian Brave NoiseCat says, “The environment is no longer a white sanctuary. The messy business of society, power, and race is everywhere and intertwined.” 

The Sierra Club that I want to belong to not only acknowledges that reality, it also works to counter racism and exclusion wherever it occurs -- in our parks and wilderness areas, in our communities, in the halls of power, and especially among our own staff, volunteers, and 3.8 million members and supporters.

I know that isn’t the Sierra Club that has historically existed. People within the organization have had to push the Sierra Club to evolve for the better and to affirmatively place itself on the side of justice, often at great personal cost. In future posts in this series, we’ll talk more about the struggles Indigenous people, people of color, and their white allies went through to get this organization to evolve on issues like immigration and environmental justice. 

For all the harms the Sierra Club has caused, and continues to cause, to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, I am deeply sorry. I know that apologies are empty unless accompanied by a commitment to change. I am making that commitment, publicly, right now. And I invite you to hold me and other Sierra Club leaders, staff, and volunteers accountable whenever we don’t live up to our commitment to becoming an actively anti-racist organization. 

To begin with, we are redesigning our leadership structure so that Black, Indigenous, and other leaders of color at the Sierra Club make up the majority of the team making top-level organizational decisions. We will initiate similar changes to elevate the voices and experiences of staff of color across the organization. We know that the systems of power that got us here will not enable the transformational change we need. 

Pending approval from our board, we will shift $5 million from our budget over the next year -- and more in the years to come -- to make long-overdue investments in our staff of color and our environmental and racial justice work. We will create a dialogue with, and resources for, our members about the intersection between racism and environmental justice issues, and invest in our HR and training capacities to ensure that staff, volunteers, and members are held accountable for any harm they inflict upon members of our Sierra Club community who identify as Black, Indigenous, or people of color. We will also spend the next year studying our history and determining which of our monuments need to be renamed or pulled down entirely. 

In subsequent posts in this series, we'll talk in much more depth about the steps we’re taking to rebuild the Sierra Club on a basis of racial and social justice and to try to repair the harm we’ve caused. I know that the steps I’ve outlined above are only the beginnings of what will be a years-long process to reckon with our history, regain trust from the communities we have harmed, and create a diverse and equitable Sierra Club for the 21st century.

This post by Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune sparked a range of reactions among Sierra Club members -- some approving, some disapproving, and many with mixed emotions. In the spirit of fostering constructive dialogue among our members, we are publishing here a sample of the responses.

I’ve been a Sierra Club member for most of the past 35 years, but, as a Native American ecologist, I’ve often cringed while doing so. I’ve long known of founder John Muir’s racism and his wish to see the Sierra Nevada absent of Native people. It is good to see that you are apologizing for that past and pledging to do something about it. Many of us regard the organization as an elitist ensemble of wealthy, white travelers who would prefer the landscapes they visit to be devoid of people. Empty landscapes are the result of settler actions. Protecting land didn’t start with the Sierra Club; it started with Indigenous people.

Now the real work at the Sierra Club begins. Make the organization inclusive, diverse, equitable, down-to-earth, and really useful to everyone. Offer warm and sincere invitations to a broad spectrum of citizens to join. It’s a tall order, but this organization can do it.

-- Mike Horn

I belong to the Sierra Club because I want to enjoy and protect wilderness and because I want to protect the wider world from the effects of climate change. Of course, I expect Michael Brune to be anti-racist and to care about the treatment of other people—just as I hope the leaders of the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League and the ACLU care about wilderness preservation and climate change. But their members expect them to do their jobs, and our members expect Brune to do his.

Parsing John Muir’s life in order to highlight a few moments or beliefs that were not representative of his life’s work is absurd. There is scarcely a historical (or living) figure who could survive the parsing of his or her every utterance in 2020 America. Not Abraham Lincoln nor FDR nor JFK. If Michael Brune can’t find a way to explain John Muir’s life, in balance, to our members, he’s probably got the wrong job. And if the Sierra Club can’t spend its precious resources fighting for our ideals of a safe climate and a living wilderness in these perilous times, led by the most qualified and best able, then I can find another organization to support.

-- Michael Katz

Thank you very much for your eye-opening and inspirational message. I was not aware of the Sierra Club’s complicated and flawed history, and while it troubled me to read it (especially because I have greatly admired John Muir), I now have a greater understanding about those early leaders and what might have shaped their attitudes. As an Asian American, I have personally felt the pain of racist attitudes and behaviors. I agree it is time for reckoning and reconciliation by the Sierra Club, and I fully support the future steps that your statement promised.

-- Ruth Hung Cooperrider

As a Sierra Club member, lifelong Sierra hiker, and an admirer of John Muir, I was sorry to read your article “Pulling Down Our Monuments,” because it misrepresented Muir’s writing and life. Muir was not a racist, and indeed in the context of his time, he was a tolerant and generous figure, worthy of respect both then and now.

You accused Muir of having friends who were racists, but these were not so much friends as professional associates. And guilt by association is always a weak rhetorical ploy. We all know people whose opinions we deplore, with whom we still sometimes have to deal. Muir had scores of professional acquaintances; he is not responsible for their flaws.

Muir’s journals included a comment critical of Black people he passed by in his walk through the South. And after a group of Native Americans accosted him in Mono Pass, asking for alcohol and tobacco and not letting him go on for a while, he described them in negative terms. But in his very next journal entry, he wrote that he was sorry to have been so negative. Later, after trips to Alaska gave him close interactions with the Tlingit community, he stated very clearly that Native American cultures had values superior to the dominant white society of his time. In an era when there really were murderous “Indian haters,” Muir defended Native Americans and their cultures.

Criticizing Muir is uncalled for. He wasn’t perfect, but he wasn’t a racist, as his writing clearly shows. Instead of attacking him, you should be working on some of the ways the Sierra Club has deprioritized the goal of preserving wilderness since his time.

-- Kim Stanley Robinson

I simply want to say “Thank You” for this article. The environmental movement needs more leadership like yours to rectify past wrongs regarding social and racial injustices. This letter of apology is powerful and badly needed. The steps the Sierra Club aims to take in order to rectify past wrongs and build a better fairer future are solid. Equally important, the actions are not just being taken behind closed doors--they are being laid out publicly. Trust-building depends on such transparency. Thank you again for not "staying in (the narrow environmentalist) lane". Veering is wholly appreciated and paramount. Here's hoping others follow.

-- Tracy Raczek 

Thank you for writing this statement. I am the provost of John Muir College at UC San Diego. My own experience with the Sierra Club over the years has been quite complicated: from the propaganda that I received as a high school science teacher in the 1990s for "Zero Population Growth" which argued against immigration and blamed the Global South for worldwide resource shortages; to the funding I received for the non-profit Wilderness Adventures for Youth as well as scholarships for Sierra Club-organized Inspiring Connections Outdoors outings programs. Our students at John Muir College have a similarly complicated relationship to John Muir. We are the most popular college at UC San Diego. The college motto, "celebrating the independent spirit," is inspired by John Muir's life and resonates with our students. Our students are committed to environmental justice, to fighting systemic racism, and to regenerating our relationships with Kumeyaay communities--our campus sits on the ancestral homelands of the Kumeyaay Nation. As the UC San Diego college with the largest percentages of Indigenous, Black and Latinx students, I believe we have an obligation to address the monuments that we have created. Our student leaders and faculty have sustained a critical dialogue about John Muir's legacy, given that he is our college's namesake. But we have kept this conversation mostly sequestered, given the sensitivities of the many people who are invested in Muir's legacy. Your statement has made it possible for us to make these conversations public, and has catalyzed an open discussion among our faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Thank you for your brave truth-speaking.

-- K. Wayne Yang, Provost, John Muir College

This article and its attempt to be politically correct in the current environment has reached a new low. The criticism of John Muir, who was born in the mid-19th century, based on the evolution of contemporary beliefs is not justified. Whatever John Muir’s shortcomings may have been, we should all be forever thankful for what he accomplished. You have a job because of John Muir. I would hope your future tenure with the Sierra Club is short. I won’t plan to renew my membership with Sierra Club.

-- Richard Briscoe

Thank you very much for this wonderful article. I totally support the work in repenting and rectifying the Sierra Club's racist past to create an organization that promotes justice, equity and inclusion. I applaud your work in turning us in the right direction. I certainly was not aware of that racist past until reading your article. Nevertheless, I'm not in favor of pulling down statues of John Muir, who does not deserve to be held in disdain and loathing equal to Confederate generals.

-- Dale Wright

I am wholeheartedly opposed to your denunciation of John Muir because of his friendship with a known eugenicist. Guilt by association has never looked so bad. And attempting to assuage your (and board of directors’) rash of white guilt by spending $5 million on racial justice work is just pandering to the groupthink of our current zeitgeist.

I have been a member of Sierra Club since 1999, but I will not renew my membership this year. Not because I am racist, but because denouncing the wrong ideologies of the past by smearing a great individual via guilt by association is illogical and wrong. Rather than tearing down a statue of a Confederate hero like Robert E. Lee, I say build a new one to abolitionist heroes like Frederick Douglass or Levi Coffin. The Sierra Club is following the path of virtue-signalling and reacting to guilt over the past sins of America, which are legion. By smearing John Muir rather than giving a balanced view of the man and his story, you are doing a great disservice to our collective understanding of American history.

-- John Cardarelli

I am a woman of color and a Life Member of the Sierra Club. When I was in law school many years ago, I remember receiving a question about environmental justice when I was running for a leadership position with the Black Law Student Association. I remember answering that I would be concerned if it appeared there was toxic dumping in Black communities. My answer stuck with me, and even though I knew that the Sierra Club was unconcerned with the plight of communities of color, I joined in hopes that one day that would change. You cannot know the magnitude of the relief and satisfaction I feel after reading your recent post acknowledging the complicity of the Sierra Club in white supremacy. What courage! I now feel that I belong as a Life Member of the Sierra Club. Please include me as an ally and supporter of your mission to redeem and transform the Sierra Club.

-- Tanya Lewis

As a 33-year member of the Sierra Club and a lifelong supporter of equal rights, I have to protest the purity test that you seem to be applying to John Muir and presumably other early members of the organization. I think you have to strike a balance in which you note the achievements as well as the sins of current and former members. History brings changes, but to apply tomorrow's standards to past events and associations--especially events that preceded the civil rights movement--dishonors the organization and its legacy. Will you hunt through the background of Ansel Adams, David Brower, Galen Rowell and whoever else to find a bad word or a bond to a bigot or an interest in a misguided philosophy? And if you find such a blot, what will you do? Are you 100 percent above reproach? Is everyone on the board of directors perfect? I doubt it. Let's acknowledge the flaws of the past and move on.

-- Leo Stutzin

I applaud you on taking the initiative to make necessary equity changes in our organization. However, I am terribly disturbed that you wish to remove our founder, John Muir, as a symbol for environmental protection. I think you're throwing the baby out with the bath water and jumping on the wave of destruction that is sweeping this nation. Yes, it appears that Muir had some friends who were eugenicists, but that doesn't mean he agreed with the philosophy of eugenics himself. All of this feels to me like it’s really stretching an excuse to remove Muir. It reminds me of the Biblical story about the men who wanted to stone the prostitute: "Who among you have not done something wrong? Then cast the first stone." John Muir spearheaded saving the planet. Words he wrote in his youth and acquaintances he had do not have any bearing on what he actually taught us or what he stood for. I feel it is wrong to remove him and I think it should be a vote by all the members of the organization to decide how to address the Muir legacy.

-- Ellen Kesler

Thank you for the forthrightness and honesty to confront the Sierra Club’s past. As a long-time John Muir Society member, the Sierra Club you describe going forward is the organization that I want to be a part of and will continue to vigorously support. Our public lands and the world’s environment are gifts to all people, but that gift has come with a tremendous cost for some communities. Thank you for taking the first steps to speak truthfully about our past and pledge equity and inclusion as our future.

--Scott Britton-Mehlisch

We have not met, but I worked at Sierra Club from 1986 to 1996. As far as I know, we were the first national environmental organization to establish an environmental justice program in the late 1980s. Small steps, but forward movement. I am distressed to read a San Francisco Chronicle headline that infers the Sierra Club is disowning association with John Muir. John Muir was a product of this time and ethnicity, an eccentric who inspired many to consider the intrinsic value--and majesty--of wild nature. Over time, a grassroots (mostly-white) hiking club grew into a force for good, on the shoulders of many generous and committed people. Your article strikes me as warranted and balanced. But beware of what happens in the translation of journalists! I, for one, don’t think it’s necessary to rename Muir Woods, or the like. Let’s be clear-eyed adults: Everyone is a flawed mix of all their actions and beliefs. I don’t know of anyone besides Muir who’s climbed a tall tree to experience a High Sierra thunderstorm. This flawed man was more at home in the mountains than with people. Acknowledge, forgive, recommit: the trail ahead is still quite steep. Thanks for listening.

-- Wende Micco

Thank you for your courageous leadership in admitting the Sierra Club’s wrongs, apologizing, and taking steps to rectify what still needs to be changed. You are moving the Sierra Club and the world a step forward in the awakening that is happening around us.

-- Susan Mingesz


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