For my money, Donald Worster is the finest environmental historian in the USA, probably the world for that matter. This exchange grew out of a comment by Survival International’s executive director under my article criticizing Jedediah Purdy. Purdy had written an article in the New Yorker Magazine charging Muir with favoring the ethnic cleansing of American Indians from Yosemite and Curry agreed with it.
My email to Worster:
Hi, Donald I am a huge fan of your work and own every book you have written except the one on John Muir. A while back I wrote a critique of Jedediah Purdy’s attack on Muir in the New Yorker Magazine: https://louisproyect.org/2015/08/17/the-racism-of-early-environmentalism-or-environmentalists/ Just today I got a comment on the article from Stephen Curry, the Executive Director of Survival International who agrees completely with Purdy. He referred me to a Truthout article he wrote that stated: “Conservation leaders like John Muir believed that the indigenous people who had inhabited Yosemite for at least 6,000 years were a desecration and had to go.” I wrote him a note:
I am not sure what you mean by “believed”. Donald Worster’s bio of Muir makes no such reference. I have also read Muir extensively and do not recall words to that effect although he did express racist views common to the period. So maybe you can help me out by telling me exactly where in Muir’s writings do you find support for your allegation.
Do you have any thoughts on this?
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Dear Louis, I am flattered that you are such a loyal reader. But do get the Muir biography, which addresses in many pages this old hackneyed charge against him. There is nothing that I could find anywhere in all the extensive Muir papers that expresses the racist views he is charged with, unless we use a very broad brush definition of racism (ie., to mean any criticism of another group of people. By that standard the world is full of racists, including most Indians, blacks, etc.). If racism means a theory that some races of people, whatever “race” means, are genetically inferior to other races, then Muir was not a racist. I write specifically about Muir’s encounter with a group of Indians, not in Yosemite valley exactly, but on a trail in the nearby mountains, a year or so after he had arrived in California He did find those people dirty and frightening. So might Mr Purdy if he had been in Muir’s shoes, all alone with a group of strangers dressed in animal skins, with strong odors, demanding tobacco and alcohol and pulling at his clothes. Try it on the streets of Naples or Calcutta. But if Mr Purdy would simply turn the page in that journal (My First Summer in the Sierra) he would read contrary evidence—Muir feeling ashamed of his initial fearful and negative reaction, Muir asserting the vision of poet Robert Burns that we will all, including the Indians, come to be brothers one day. Those Indians, by the way, did not live in Yos Valley, they came from the Mono Lake area, and the Yos Indians feared and deposed them (were they also racists?). And it was those Mono Paiutes who massacred the Yos Indians and left the valley uninhabited, except for a lone individual or two. No one destroyed inhabited settlements to make way for Yosemite Park. Muir was a friend of a man he called Indian Tom in the valley, a guy who carried his letters out to civilization. Then there is all of Muir’s experience with Indians in Alaska. There Muir criticized the nation’s treatment of native peoples, etc. etc. Purdy has done no homework, while he recycles worn out, prejudcial, and highly selective charges. He repeats old slanders that a true scholar should be ashamed to pass on. I don’t think his intellectual or moral responsibility rises much higher than Fox News.