John Muir in Native AmericaHistorians in the News
tags: Native American history, environmentalism, John Muir
Gerard Baker began his illustrious career with the National Park Service at 20. As a young patrol ranger in the 1970s, he often overheard the park interpreters while he collected trash or mowed lawns. "One thing I noticed," the Mandan/Hidatsa man from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota told me, "is that we were never talked about. From the early, early days of the philosophies on American Indians, we were looked at as being nothing but so-called animals without even a soul. The animal that they move out of the way so they can have the land. And so, when they start making national parks, they didn't think about taking Indian land. They didn't think about that we had spiritual places. They didn't talk about that." When Baker started out in the Park Service, the park interpreters were mostly white, and the stories they told reflected white viewpoints—and blind spots.
The first European Americans to venture into the North American continent understood that they were entering someone else's homeland, that these places were fully inhabited and known. They knew that they were invaders, partly because they fought to dispossess Native Americans. But that reality got buried, and while we generally like to think that it's those other people over there who did the bad stuff, it was lovers of the beauty of the American landscape who reimagined the whole continent before 1492 as an empty place where, as the Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."
Once the US military and armed white settlers drove Native Americans from their lands, national parks from Yosemite to Yellowstone worked to keep them out so they could offer non-Native visitors a vision of nature as a place apart from humanity, a place without a history, a place where human beings were only visitors. It was a kind of representational genocide, excluding Native Americans from their homelands and erasing them from consciousness and conversation. It wasn't only national parks that did it. Nature writers and photographers and environmentalists and environmental groups also did it. The Sierra Club is not exempt. In fact, if this idea of virgin wilderness and of nature as a place apart from human culture has a beginning, that beginning is inseparable from the history of the Sierra Club and its most famous founder.
The word garden occurs over and over in the young John Muir's rapturous account of his summer in the Sierra Nevada in 1869. "More beautiful, better kept gardens cannot be imagined," he declared. When he saw Yosemite Valley from the north rim, he noted, "the level bottom seemed to be dressed like a garden." He assumed he knew who was the gardener in the valley and the heights, the meadows and the groves: "So trim and tasteful are these silvery, spiry groves one would fancy they must have been placed in position by some master landscape gardener. . . . But Nature is the only gardener able to do work so fine."
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