Earlier today, the Sierra Club’s president Michael Brune, posted a letter to the organization’s website saying that it’s time to reckon with John Muir’s racist statements and associations with eugenics proponents.
Titled “Pulling Down Our Monuments,” the letter begins by stating, “It’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history.”
The biggest Sierra Club monument of all, of course, is John Muir.
Beloved by conservationists and outdoorists for decades for his reverence for wild places and his crucial role in kickstarting the conservation movement, the national park system, and the Sierra Club itself, Muir is largely the bearded, crinkled face representing America’s founding wilderness protector.
But, as activists have pointed out for years, Muir made disparaging comments about Black Americans and Native Americans that don’t sit well, in 2020. He had an undying reverence for wilderness and nature, but Muir was also, somewhat ironically, a man for whom refinement, technological advance, and the markings of traditional success were of great importance. He could also be deeply judgmental about people he encountered on his journey across the US.
Muir called Cherokee homes he visited in Oklahoma “the uncouth transitionist …wigwams of savages.” “Birds make nests and nearly all beasts make some kind of bed for their young,” wrote Muir upon visiting a Black family in Georgia, “but these negroes [sic] allow their younglings to lie nestless and naked in the dirt.”
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,” Brune explains in the letter. “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.”
It wasn’t only Muir, however, the Sierra Club is reckoning with.
Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan, two crucial early members of the club, were eugenics supporters who expressed white supremacist views. From Brune’s letter, it’s easy to imagine they weren’t alone.
“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,” Brune explains. “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 Sierra Club has long expanded beyond that exclusivity and today has nearly 4 million dues-paying members nationwide (full disclosure: your author is among them). Brune wants to direct the club’s focus to expanding that number, especially among people who may have felt uncomfortable with the Sierra Club’s past.
“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,” he says. “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.”
Brune goes on to say the club will shift millions of dollars toward hiring more BIPOC employees and in addressing environmental racism. This will include teaching programs for staff and volunteers. The organization plans to release more statements like Brune’s outlining what the Sierra Club is doing to further their goals and to continue the conversation about which monuments of the club’s past may need to be assessed.