The sheer number of things named after famed environmentalist John Muir in California makes for widespread implications if and when it comes time to remove his name from places of honor. But the man wrote many egregiously racist things which, however typical they were for his time, could mean that things like Muir Woods should get new namesakes.
Acknowledgement of Muir's racism is not new, however this week the Sierra Club, the environmental advocacy group which he cofounded, printed an essay that seeks to more fully reckon with Muir's words. Titled "Pulling Down Our Own Monuments," the piece by Executive Director Michael Brune concedes that even "though his views evolved later in his life," Muir "made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes." And Brune offers his personal apology "for all the harms the Sierra Club has caused, and continues to cause, to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color."
The Sierra Club also acknowledges that its other early members of the group were even worse. Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan, who helped launch the club with Muir and served on its board, were openly white supremacist in their views, and advocated for eugenics.
And the very places we associate with Muir's legacy, like Yosemite National Park and Muir Woods, exist as playgrounds for our enjoyment only because indigenous people were forcibly removed from them — though that process of relocation and outright genocide preceded Muir by a couple of decades.
As preparations to celebrate the centennial of Muir's death were being made in 2014, the Los Angeles Times published a piece about the problematic and openly racist language to be found throughout Muir's writings. (For example, prior coming to California, he trekked on foot through the South and spoke of seeing "wigwams of savages," referred to indigenous people as "dirty" and "garrulous as jays," and referred to Black people as lazy.) The piece suggests that the modern environmental movement, while appreciative of the conservation of "pristine" natural spaces that Muir helped spearhead, is less interested in looking at nature as a "temple" for the privileged to enjoy during their leisure time.
The piece also quotes Jon Christensen, a historian with UCLA’s Institute of Environment and Sustainability, saying, "Muir’s legacy has to go. It’s just not useful anymore."
Knowing all this, the Sierra Club may be genuinely stymied as to how to reconcile the circumstances of its founding and its very existence with today's moment, when environmentalism is fully enmeshed with the world of racial justice. The beliefs and intentions of its founders — not to mention the whiteness of its membership through much of the organization's existence — make for some difficult reckoning ahead.
On its website, the Sierra Club celebrates diversity, saying, "We work with other partner organizations, nonprofits, and campaigns to build a diverse, inclusive movement that represents today’s American public. We know that environmental issues can’t be separated from social justice—because we all breathe the same air and share the same land."
And today, Brune is saying that the club will divert $5 million of its annual budget in the coming year "to make long-overdue investments in our staff of color and our environmental and racial justice work."
But what of all the buildings and places named for Muir, in this moment when activists are toppling statues of Junipero Serra over claims that he aided in the genocide of Native Americans? Serra didn't leave behind written proof of his openly racist views — and arguably Muir had more of an impact on the process of preserving the nation's prettiest landscape at the expense of indigenous people, who themselves were rounded up and relocated to less desirable lands throughout the nineteenth and early 20th century.
A conservative website that shall not be named or linked to because it's still crowing about "Obamagate indictments" wrote about the topic of Muir's racism with some glee several years ago. Muir is a liberal hero, as the "Father of the National Parks," and the tone of the piece is basically "Wait 'til all the tree-huggers find out that Muir was racist."
Muir is one more to add to an ever-lengthening list, and the debate over his legacy won't likely be wrapped up soon.