Sierra Club reevaluates its history (including the racism of founder John Muir)

  • Published on July 22nd, 2020

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.

Photo of Muir by Carleton Watkins, circa 1875 (WIkimedia Commons)
Photo of Muir by Carleton Watkins, circa 1875 (WIkimedia Commons)

By Michael Brune
Executive Director, Sierra Club

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.

Theodore Roosevelt and Muir, 1906
Theodore Roosevelt and Muir, 1906 (Wikimedia Commons)

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.


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