Sierra Club apologizes for founder John Muir's racist views

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U.S. National Park Service

FILE - This 1907 photo provided by the U.S. National Park Service shows naturalist John Muir in Yosemite National Park, Calif. The Sierra Club is reckoning with the racist views of founder John Muir, the naturalist who helped spawn environmentalism. The San Francisco-based environmental group said Wednesday, July 22, 2020, that Muir was part of the group's history perpetuating white supremacy. Executive Director Michael Brune says Muir made racist remarks about Black people and Native Americans, though his views later evolved. (Courtesy of U.S. National Park Service via AP)

LOS ANGELES – The Sierra Club apologized Wednesday for racist remarks its founder, naturalist John Muir, made more then a century ago as the influential environmental group grapples with a harmful history that perpetuated white supremacy.

Executive Director Michael Brune said it was “time to take down some of our own monuments” as statues of Confederate officers and colonists are toppled across the U.S. in a reckoning with the nation's racist history following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Muir, who founded the club in 1892, helped spawn the environmental movement and is called “father of our national parks,” figures prominently in what Brune called a “truth-telling” about the group's early history.

“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," Brune wrote on the group's website. “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.”

Muir, who was born in Scotland, came to the U.S. as a young man and traveled and wrote extensively, romanticizing nature in breathless passages. He emphasized the need to preserve the land but also disdained American Indians as dirty savages and Black people as lazy “Sambos,” a particularly offensive slur.

He also kept company with other early club members and leaders, such as Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan, who advocated for white supremacy and promoting the race through eugenics, which called for forced sterilization of Blacks and other minority groups, Brune said.

Until recent years, Muir's legacy has been largely untarnished and focused on his conservation efforts, such as saving Yosemite Valley before it became a national park and preserving the world's largest trees in what became Sequoia National Park.

But Richard White, a Stanford history professor, said Muir’s advocacy for wilderness has an inherent racial bias.