Sierra Club reckons with the racism of founder John Muir

Amid the ongoing cultural reckoning over Confederate statues, the Sierra Club announced on Wednesday that it will consider renaming or pulling down monuments dedicated to its founder, the iconic conservationist John Muir.

Muir, who was known as “the father of our national parks” and a “wilderness prophet,” founded the Sierra Club in 1892. The organization fought to preserve Yosemite Valley and other land that became national parks.

But Muir also made derogatory comments about Black and indigenous people that “continue to hurt and alienate” people of color, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement posted to the group’s website early Wednesday.

“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,” Brune wrote. “It’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history.”

Brune explained that Muir maintained a close friendship with Henry Fairfield Osborn, the head of the New York Zoological Society and the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History, who “worked for both the conservation of nature and the conservation of the white race.” Muir died in 1914.

“Muir was not immune to the racism peddled by many in the early conservation movement,” Brune continued. “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.”

According to a lengthy profile of Muir published by Atlas Obscura, Muir “regarded Native Americans as subhuman,” calling them “dirty” and “lazy.” According to the Washington Post, he “once referred to African-Americans as lazy ‘Sambos,’ a racist pejorative that many black people consider to be even more offensive than the N-word.”

John Muir, a Scottish-American naturalist, writer and pioneer of conservation. (Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
John Muir, a Scottish-American naturalist, writer and pioneer of conservation. (Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Other early Sierra Club members and leaders, like David Starr Jordan, were vocal advocates for white supremacy and the pseudoscientific discipline it spawned, eugenics. Jordan served on the board of directors during Muir’s presidency.

“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,” Brune wrote.

Brune said the 128-year-old organization will be “redesigning” its leadership structure so that people of color “make up the majority of the team making top-level” decisions; shift $5 million from its annual budget “to make long-overdue investments in our staff of color and our environmental and racial justice work”; and spend the next year “studying our history and determining which of our monuments need to be renamed or pulled down entirely.”

“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,” he added.

John Muir (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
John Muir. (MPI/Getty Images)

A national reckoning

Following the death of George Floyd in late May and the Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism and police violence against Black communities that followed, there has been a reckoning, both nationally and globally, with monuments and other tributes to racists. A number of Confederate statues were taken down across the South, either by protesters or by local officials attempting to get ahead of unauthorized toppling. Monuments to the explorer Christopher Columbus have also been targeted over his enslavement and murder of indigenous natives of the Caribbean.

A direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson has called for the third president’s memorial in Washington to be replaced with one of Harriet Tubman, citing his ancestor’s slave ownership. A statue of Theodore Roosevelt, the nation’s 26th president, is set to be removed from outside New York City’s American Museum of Natural History — not as a commentary on Roosevelt but owing to how it depicts the two figures flanking him, a Native American man and a Black man. The museum said it still planned to honor Roosevelt, whom it called a “a pioneering conservationist.”

“The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice,” said Theodore Roosevelt IV, a great-grandson and museum trustee, in endorsing the move.

President Trump has attempted to make the targeting of monuments and Confederate flags a key issue in his campaign, holding a July 3 rally at Mount Rushmore, where he discussed the topic at length.

“Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children,” Trump said. "Their goal is not a better America. Their goal is to end America."

ABC News reported earlier this month that the Trump campaign was considering displaying statues at future rallies, but he hasn’t held any major events since the speech in South Dakota. A bill to remove 11 statues honoring former members of the Confederacy at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., was stalled by Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ordered the removal of portraits of former speakers who served in the Confederacy, while Congress considers the renaming of military bases named after Confederate officers, a move Trump stridently opposes.


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