John Muir in Native America
Muir's romantic vision obscured Indigenous ownership of the land—but a new generation is pulling away the veil
Gerard Baker began his illustrious career with the National Park Service at 20. As a young patrol ranger in the 1970s, he often overheard the park interpreters while he collected trash or mowed lawns. "One thing I noticed," the Mandan/Hidatsa man from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota told me, "is that we were never talked about. From the early, early days of the philosophies on American Indians, we were looked at as being nothing but so-called animals without even a soul. The animal that they move out of the way so they can have the land. And so, when they start making national parks, they didn't think about taking Indian land. They didn't think about that we had spiritual places. They didn't talk about that." When Baker started out in the Park Service, the park interpreters were mostly white, and the stories they told reflected white viewpoints—and blind spots.
The first European Americans to venture into the North American continent understood that they were entering someone else's homeland, that these places were fully inhabited and known. They knew that they were invaders, partly because they fought to dispossess Native Americans. But that reality got buried, and while we generally like to think that it's those other people over there who did the bad stuff, it was lovers of the beauty of the American landscape who reimagined the whole continent before 1492 as an empty place where, as the Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
Once the US military and armed white settlers drove Native Americans from their lands, national parks from Yosemite to Yellowstone worked to keep them out so they could offer non-Native visitors a vision of nature as a place apart from humanity, a place without a history, a place where human beings were only visitors. It was a kind of representational genocide, excluding Native Americans from their homelands and erasing them from consciousness and conversation. It wasn't only national parks that did it. Nature writers and photographers and environmentalists and environmental groups also did it. The Sierra Club is not exempt. In fact, if this idea of virgin wilderness and of nature as a place apart from human culture has a beginning, that beginning is inseparable from the history of the Sierra Club and its most famous founder.
The word garden occurs over and over in the young John Muir's rapturous account of his summer in the Sierra Nevada in 1869. "More beautiful, better kept gardens cannot be imagined," he declared. When he saw Yosemite Valley from the north rim, he noted, "the level bottom seemed to be dressed like a garden." He assumed he knew who was the gardener in the valley and the heights, the meadows and the groves: "So trim and tasteful are these silvery, spiry groves one would fancy they must have been placed in position by some master landscape gardener. . . . But Nature is the only gardener able to do work so fine."
Muir had first come to the Sierra in 1868, carrying little on his back but a lot in his head. Already an expert botanist and naturalist, he was also a daring theorist of glaciation and the geological formation of the landscapes he saw. Along with his scientific knowledge, he carried the prejudices of most white people in his time and place, and they showed up in the way he described the dispossessed Native Californians he encountered. In one such meeting, when he was working as a shepherd, an old woman dressed in calico rags and with a basket on her back strolled into the sheepherders' camp. Muir declared, "In every way she seemed sadly unlike Nature's neat well-dressed animals, though living like them on the bounty of the wilderness. Strange that mankind alone is dirty." He distinguished her from the animals, which he was more inclined to admire.
Likewise, he said of a Native man who briefly herded sheep with him, "The Indian kept in the background, saying never a word, as if he belonged to another species." In a later encounter, near the crest of the Sierra, he referred to the "grossness" of Native Californians and felt "such desperate repulsion from one's fellow beings, however degraded." And he tossed out descriptions like "a strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness." (At the same time, he expressed a shame of sorts for having such feelings, writing, "to prefer the society of squirrels and woodchucks to that of our own species must surely be unnatural.") The racial baggage he carried kept him from seeing that Native Americans had not merely reaped the bounty of the luxuriant landscapes he wandered through but had shaped them with sophisticated land-management strategies. Some of the places he admired so enthusiastically looked like gardens because they were gardens, the plants in them encouraged, the forests managed by the areas' Native people. Had he been able to recognize and convey that, the history of the American environmental movement might have been different.
Muir's spiritualized version of the natural world as a place of luminous order was something he could and did rally people like him to defend. It had a constructive side, but it is no longer possible to ignore its destructive side. If getting over the idea that much of this continent was wild in the old sense of untouched or uninfluenced by human beings feels like a loss for those raised on that vision, it brings with it a far greater gain: the realization that there is no inevitable nature-culture dichotomy and that the example of people living on the land—or of many peoples living on many kinds of land, from the Arctic to the Everglades—without devastating it has always been here.
An important part of this recognition for those of us who are the descendants of immigrants is understanding that the violence against Native Americans was not only literal but cultural. They were dismissed and disparaged and written out of the record as they were slaughtered and pushed out of their places and brutalized out of their cultures, and this led us to misunderstand them, ourselves, and the natural world of North America. I think that asking whether these long-gone figures such as Muir could have known better is asking whether the past itself could have been better. It could have been better, but now it can't; it's done and gone. But the future can be better, and we in the present are making that future now. And part of making a better future involves reexamining the past and trying to repair what was broken and hear who was silenced then.
LATE LAST SUMMER, Muir's views came up for reconsideration when the great racial reckoning that has been going on for the past few decades intensified into the largest protests in US history in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. "[Muir] made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life," wrote Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune in a July 2020 online column in response to the protests. "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."
Muir's views and values shaped the conservation movement and then the environmental movement and its literature with a vision of the American landscape that erased Native American ownership of their land. When I first began visiting Yosemite in the early 1990s, many white people in public talks, in books, and in interpretive materials insisted that the Native inhabitants of the place had somehow faded away and become extinct, while others—and even a park plaque—suggested that human beings had first arrived in the valley in the middle of the 19th century, rather than thousands of years ago.
There were three terrible impacts from this erasure. First was the denial of the rights of Native Americans to their homelands and their rights to be visible, represented, and respected in the places they had always been and in the contemporary society in which they lived. Second was the consequence for the white imagination, which was rendered impoverished and distorted in its understanding of and respect for nature, history, and the people who were here long before the rest of us arrived. The third impact was on land-management practices.
Native Americans as hunters, gatherers, agriculturalists and horticulturalists, users of fire as a land-management technique, and makers of routes across the continent played a profound role in creating the magnificent North American landscape that Europeans invaded. Their use of fire helped maintain plants and spaces that benefited these first human inhabitants—including increasing animal populations, causing plants to put forth new growth in the form of straight shoots suitable for arrow making and basket making, and keeping forests open and underbrush down. In Yosemite Valley, burning encouraged oak trees and grasslands to flourish; conifers have since overtaken many meadows and deciduous groves. The recent fires across the West are most of all a result of climate change—but more than a century of fire suppression by a society that could only imagine fire as destructive contributed meaningfully.
It may be hard for younger people to remember how different the mainstream white imagination was even 30 years ago: Native Americans were often spoken of as though they had vanished, and the crimes against them were regarded as regrettable but part of a past that put no obligations on the non-Native population in the present. They were rarely acknowledged as members of contemporary society. Exhibitions, books, images, historical monuments, and plaques assumed that Native Americans were not among the readers and listeners, let alone voices with something to contribute. The idea that places across the Americas had been discovered by white explorers and uninhabited beforehand was widely believed, and white mountaineers and adventurers often spoke about being the first to set foot in places where Native people had set foot thousands of years before.
We in our time, like Muir was in his, are shaped by historical processes. In Muir's era, nature was seen as something apart. For a lot of nature lovers, it was that sublime stuff out there, and the most spectacular, exceptional, and beautiful parts were worth protecting. Too often this very protection was part of a calculus in which other parts—all the rest, generally—were offered up for destruction and development. It took the pervasiveness of radioactive fallout in the 1950s and pesticides in the 1960s to wake conservationists up to the fact that nothing is separate, and you can't truly protect a place by setting it apart.
Those who fully absorbed that truth became environmentalists. And over the past 30 years, as the human rights and racial justice movements expanded, so did the environmental movement, and then they all began to intersect. That intersection shed light on what had been unjust and untrue about the dominant stories of the past and sometimes allowed better stories to be heard and new ones to arise. It opened up room for the stories of those not so well served by the dominant narrative of the conservation movement, and those stories, I believe, better serve all of us. Though it's not in the past tense—it's a process that has only just begun.
THE UNITED STATES WILL, a few decades from now, be a nonwhite-majority nation, and any environmental group that wants to play a powerful role needs to speak to that diversity of experience, past and present. "I have never believed John Muir had any interest in me," declared nature writer and poet Camille Dungy when we corresponded about this. "I mean that in terms of many of the demographics I represent. Certainly as a Black person, also as a woman. The organization he helped found got the ear of the richest, most powerful men in the country because it spoke to what they wanted to see in themselves and their ideas about suitable recreation. That wasn't a space that made room for me. In fact, it was a space that kept out people who weren't relatively wealthy white men," she said. "If I want to find/make my place in the American so-called wilderness, I've got to claim it myself. And I will. And I do. But what that means is more inclusive than what Muir imagined."
Anti-racist, racial justice, and Native rights advocates did exist in Muir's time, and Muir was friendly with some of them, including poet Helen Hunt Jackson, who wrote powerfully about Native rights and federal mistreatment. But such individuals were rare and exceptional, salmon swimming upstream in a powerful current of prejudice. It's important to add that just as the people who first and most fervently believed that slavery was utterly wrong were the enslaved, so the people who most believed in the rights of Native Americans were Native Americans. Likewise, they best understood that the American landscapes we'd sometimes dub wilderness had been loved and long inhabited, and many Native people continued to love and, as much as possible, inhabit and care for those places. They, however, did not determine how history was written and taught, how the landscape was conceived and managed, how the commemorative plaques scattered across that landscape told the story, how the western movies showed white settlers as the rooted people and Native Americans as the invaders, how the environmental movement left them out of the story.
Some people changed the story. Gerard Baker worked his way up in the national park hierarchy and was given a remarkable chance to transform key places in the American West. He became park superintendent—the top position—at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in 1994 and stayed four years. The name of the monument had been, until 1991, Custer National Battlefield, an indicator of whose story was remembered and honored there.
Baker said that what he tried to do as superintendent was "not change the interpretation of Little Bighorn but add to the interpretation, add to the understanding of that particular battle. Everybody studied that damn battle. But what they did not study was what was happening behind the tribal perspective. They did not study the Lakota, what was going on with them, that whole land grab, that putting them on the reservation. So the way it was being perceived at Little Bighorn was almost that the Indians were the bad guys." He took off his uniform and went with the visitors to listen to his own employees, and "Holy, holy crap. The Indians sounded really terrible." The park interpreter described Native women taking knives to the bodies of the dead US soldiers, "and this guy [a park visitor] was looking at me kind of bad." Baker—who is well over six feet, usually wore his hair in long braids, and occasionally showed up for work wearing traditional Mandan attire—probably stood out in the crowd.
He asked the interpreters what they did on the anniversary of the battle when Native people came to commemorate the event their own way, and they told him, "We just talk louder so that people can hear us." He educated his non-Native staff, bringing them to Native communities and hiring Native American interpreters to tell the story from the perspective of the "Lakotas and the Oglalas and the Hunkpapas and all those ones that participated in that battle, including the other side, the Arikaras and the Crows" who scouted for and fought with Custer's troops. He described his work as not taking stories away but bringing in others, and other storytellers. But changing the story angers people. "You have too damn many Indians here," some of the military enthusiasts told him, and then "I start getting calls from different people, anonymous calls saying they are going to come and shoot me and beat me up and those kinds of stuff." A lot of calls.
In 2004, Baker began a six-year stint as superintendent at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Charles E. Rushmore was a rich New Yorker of little significance, and having his name tacked onto a mountain that already had a Lakota name—Six Grandfathers (Thuŋkášila Šákpe)—helped erase the fact that the place was a part of the Black Hills promised to the Lakota in perpetuity, just as the immense sculpture of four white men's faces erased the actual face of the mountain. Baker began his leadership role with a simple act: erecting a tepee and sticking around for the conversations it prompted. The structure said, We are here, this is home, we belong here, and there are other stories than the story of the four presidents whose faces stare out over the landscape that existed long before their ancestors arrived.
JOHN MUIR WAS NOT ONLY a cofounder of the Sierra Club and instrumental in how it took shape in its first couple of decades, but also a powerful storyteller who influenced how others far beyond the Sierra Club would see the land and imagine it. Nevertheless, when I talked to the Sierra Club's first Black president, Aaron Mair, he found the racial views of the Sierra Club's first president small potatoes compared with those of Joseph LeConte, an early influential Sierra Club board member and the organization's second vice president. LeConte was a cofounder of the Sierra Club who before the Civil War owned slaves, during it supported the Confederacy, and afterward argued for Black inferiority and against Black rights. (In 2016, the Sierra Club removed his name from a structure in Yosemite Valley.)
Mair saw Muir as someone just trying to stay out of the fray, and he read Muir's memoir of his journey across a South still full of wounds and wreckage from the Civil War, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, that way. Another way to put it is that Muir wasn't as interested in people as he was in glaciers, forests, and mountains. He was 11 when his family moved from Scotland to a part of Wisconsin from which the Native people had been so recently dispossessed that "Indians belonging to the Menominee and Winnebago tribes occasionally visited us at our cabin to get a piece of bread or some matches, or to sharpen their knives on our grindstone." In his memoir of that childhood, he recalls an "Indian mound" just behind the family home. The evidence that this had been someone else's place was all around him. When he arrived in California, the same violent process of dispossession was underway.
Muir spoke often of the Sierra Nevada as a kind of home, and he meant it in a spiritual, metaphysical way. "No longing for anything now or hereafter as we go home into the mountain's heart," he wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra. "Going to the mountains is like going home," he wrote in The Mountains of California. He reenvisioned Native homelands as a spiritual home for white seekers, which proved to be a useful justification for protecting those places from development.
The Sierra Club was founded in imitation of existing elite mountaineering and outdoor recreation clubs like the original Alpine Club, founded in London in 1857. But from its inception, it reached beyond them with a commitment to not only explore and enjoy but also protect the Sierra Nevada, from which it took its name. Mission creep is usually a pejorative term, but the Sierra Club's expansion and revision of its purpose over time has been perhaps the best thing about it, and it has evolved mightily, mostly during the past 50 or so years, expanding both beyond the Sierra Nevada and California and beyond the clubbiness of its first three-quarters of a century.
Mair was emphatic about the fact that there was no gradual and inevitable evolution from Muir's 19th-century views to contemporary perspectives. What had changed had changed recently, as the result of insurrections by those who'd been devalued and excluded and of the complex forces making them more audible and less easy to ignore. "The Club up until the 1990s was a white-centered organization," Mair said. "It was a racist institution in the sense of the blind white privilege. Right now, we're getting the tools and vocabulary to deconstruct that. The tools weren't there 30 years ago. Folks don't realize we didn't have the tools."
People like Gerard Baker have been making those tools. He made space for other stories to be told, and other people learned to listen. Now he talks about the possibility of Native land management on federal lands and tribal national parks. When I asked Baker about Muir, he replied, "You can't look at one person. You have to look at the philosophy of that time period. And with that in mind, he did a damn good thing." Muir cofounded an organization that protected and preserved a great many significant places, and in the 1960s it moved from protecting places by setting them apart to recognizing that everything is connected. And the organization moved, however imperfectly and incompletely, from only embracing those white-collar white people with the desire to camp and climb and hike to trying to address environmental racism and environmental justice (and sometimes trying to bring traditionally excluded people into those beautiful places it had preserved). In addressing pesticides, mining, contamination, energy generation, and eventually climate, the Sierra Club took up issues that, exactly because of environmental racism, disproportionately affect the poor and nonwhite. Now its climate work is in behalf of all life on Earth.
"OUR DEMOCRACY'S founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true," Nikole Hannah-Jones declared in her introductory essay for The New York Times' 1619 Project, its epic commemoration of when the first slaves arrived in what would become the United States. Contained in that bold statement is the argument that you can do something that is flawed but valuable because it contains room for revision, because an imperfect gesture can, as we say, hold space for what is yet to come.
The Sierra Club literally held space, preventing forests from being cut down, canyons from being dammed, mountainscapes from being developed, wetlands from being drained, species from going extinct. That vast achievement bequeathed us the legacy of thousands of relatively intact natural places and ecosystems. In the literal spaces and the imaginative ones, there is room to change who decides, who matters, who gets heard, whose story gets told. That work is part of protecting the environment and understanding what it was and is.
Gerard Baker is retired now, but many carry on the work he was doing to reframe the meaning of particular places, regain land rights for Native people, and reestablish the real history of this continent. At climate demonstrations, I often hear young people introduce themselves by naming the Native nation on whose land they live or stand, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors late last year made it policy to acknowledge the Ohlone people and their land rights at the start of each weekly meeting. Those are small but resonant gestures almost unimaginable only a few decades ago.
Not all the gestures have been small. One of the most remarkable encounters in recent history came at Standing Rock, North Dakota, when thousands of Native and non-Native people gathered to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. More than 2,000 US military veterans went there to stand with the Lakota water protectors, and some of the veterans participated in a ceremony in which they apologized and, on their knees, asked for forgiveness. In that moment, protecting the land, addressing climate chaos, respecting Native sovereignty and rights, and remembering history in order to change it were all the same thing.
It is impossible to imagine the Sierra Club Board of Directors, at the organization's founding in San Francisco, saying they were "on the unceded ancestral homeland of the Ramaytush Ohlone," and it's unlikely that Joseph LeConte could have imagined or welcomed a successor like Aaron Mair. The secretary of war who preserved the battlefield at Little Bighorn (which remained under military control until 1940) could not have foreseen that someday Lakota and Cheyenne interpreters would be on the federal payroll, hired to tell their side of the story.
Now, Deb Haaland of Laguna Pueblo, a 35th-generation New Mexican, has been chosen to be the secretary of the Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and more than a fifth of the land of the United States. The past fades into the distance; the future is being made in the present. History's wrongs are invitations to set them right, and getting it right this time around has everything to do with the future of the planet as well as this turbulent nation full of stains and possibilities.
This article appeared in the March/April edition with the headline "Unfinished Business."
This article was funded by the Sierra Club Foundation.
to read Rebecca Solnit's 1992 Sierra magazine article about Yosemite.