By Wilson Walker

MARTINEZ (KPIX 5) — The John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez is where America’s most famous conservationist spent the last 24 years of his life. It is also where Muir lived when he founded the Sierra Club, a club that has now called out Muir’s connections to racism.

“When we called this blog ‘Pulling Down Our Monuments,’ we’re not trying to erase history,” said Ramon Cruz, President of the Sierra Club Board of Directors. “We’re trying to learn from it. Again, no one is going to take out the legacy that John Muir left us with.”

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Cruz says no organization is exempt from rethinking its history of race relations. So after 128 years, the club is rethinking John Muir, a man who has, quietly, bothered historians and environmentalists for some time.

“I’ve taught John Muir for years, and every time you read John Muir the problems that have come up now are readily apparent,” said Richard White, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University. “John Muir shared the racial attitudes of his time. He wasn’t an Indian hater, but he certainly thought Indian peoples were inferior.”

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White says Muir’s conservation legacy isn’t going anywhere, but his complexities speak to a more contemporary problem for the environmental movement.

“The fact is you have to contextualize John Muir,” said White. “He has been turned into an environmental saint and one of the real problems
environmentalism has had a very long time is that it is seen as unsympathetic to non-whites. What has been seen as a white problem, and that goes back hallway, and that also takes us back to John Muir.”

Muir’s name is almost synonymous with the Northern California landscape, and our appreciation of it. The Sierra Club says it does not intend to disavow Muir, just acknowledge that man’s perspective changed over the course of his life, not unlike the organization he founded.

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“Young John Muir was certainly not the John Muir in his later writings,” said Cruz. “If we want to be part of a movement that centers justice and equity, then we need to be sure that we come to terms with our past.”