This article and image are reproduced with the author’s permission from Terra Incognita Media. The piece was published there in March 2019.
It’s Actually Not Complicated At All
“Separate the art from the artist.” “Everybody is complicated.” “They were a product of their time.” “He was a complicated guy.” “It’s complicated.”
These comments come up frequently when we talk about the truth of those who our society have lauded and held in high esteem as heroes or geniuses. These are all white-centring sentiments that are triggered by white fragility. We see this trend of protecting men like John Muir, Louis C.K., or Harvey Weinstein, or Edward Abbey, or Charles Bukowski, to name only a few, yet I could go on — forever — because the list of white men who abuse their power is exhaustive and exhausting. To know that these men write our history, decide what is included in a “canon” of literature, is deeply, painfully, exhausting because it skews the past to plow a narrative fit for ongoing colonization, and allows white men to keep hoarding power. Uplifting these men as “heroes” and exclusively shelving their stories, excludes and discounts the myriad lived experiences and perspectives of womxn, femmes, trans, non-binary folx, Black, Indigenous, People of Color who were contemporaries of these men, and who would tell you a very different story.
A surge of discussion has been happening in the outdoor industry about John Muir’s complicity in the dispossession of Indigenous communities heavily due to the work that Indigenous Women Hike (IWH) has been doing to encourage folx to “Rethink the Wild.”
“Rethink the Wild” is IWH’s t-shirt and awareness campaign. The t-shirt illustration is a classic image of Muir sitting, one leg crossed over the other, leaning over his walking stick, but this time with bloody hands, and a quote that reads, “A strangely dirty and irregular life these dark-eyed, dark-haired, half-happy savages lead in this clean wilderness.”
When preparing to go public with this illustration, Jolie Varela, the founder of Indigenous Women Hike, dealt with a lot of anxiety and stress, due to the inevitable backlash from those who prefer to keep things hushed when it comes to the impacts of ongoing colonization, and the way in which our environmental “heroes” play a huge role. Varela shared the illustration with this caption:
“The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as ‘an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is absent.’ The American idea of wilderness did not exist, it had to be created.
Indigenous people have always been a part of the land. We’ve always existed in spaces that American history has written us out of. National Parks were created on Treaty Lands. ‘Great’ American conservationists fought to preserve their idea of wilderness— which meant Indian Removal by any means. This meant dishonoring treaties.
This art is meant to start a conversation. Profits from this shirt design will go toward our efforts to travel with our Indigenous relatives in Peru. In the midst of the government shutdown, National Parks are being desecrated. Indigenous homelands are being desecrated. But is it any wonder when we consider how these lands came to be known as public lands in the first place? To move forward we must acknowledge this sad and violent history. We need to take a deeper look at ‘Great American Heroes’ like John Muir. We must no longer be complicit in the erasure of Native peoples from these spaces. We must Rethink the Wild.”
John Muir visited Ahwahnee (Yosemite) for the first time in 1868, ten years before the Bannock War, which took place in 1878. But when Muir arrived to the Sierras, forced Indigenous removals were already under way and John Muir was aiding and abetting it with his writing. John Muir very much knew that indigenous people were fighting for their lives and being forced into internment camps — what we now call reservations. In John Muir’s case his contemporaries included Sarah Winnemucca, a Northern Paiute author, activist and educator. A couple decades after his first time in the Sierras, “The Soft-Hearted Sioux” written by Zitkala-Sa [aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin] (1876-1938) was published. This story details how indigenous youth were forced to assimilate to white culture and worship Christianity. Zitkala-Sa was very much against the eradication of indigenous culture and language. Harriet Jacobs who wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In 1868, the same year John Muir first arrived in Ahwahnee (Yosemite Valley), Elizabeth Keckley published her memoir Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. A few years earlier in 1855, Josephine Brown published Biography of an American Bondman, by His Daughter. As an assistant to her father’s extensive anti-slavery activities, Brown’s writing was no doubt crucial in Black liberation and exposing the machinery of white supremacy.
Many like to excuse John Muir as just a “product of his times,” but this comes up short, not only because it’s never acceptable to aid and abet structures of oppression, but also because there were ample people bringing to light the violence of slavery and colonization. John Muir knew what was going on and he didn’t care. This is hard for us white people to accept because it means that we have to not only “Rethink the Wild,” but rethink everything that we believe in and have built our identities around, and maybe even rethink some tattoos we got, or Instagram handles we created. There’s no gentle way around it. Worshipping Muir needs to stop. It’s time to rip the band-aid off.
Who Defines What is “Natural”? Who “Naturally” Belongs?
In Black Faces, White Spaces, Carolyn Finney shares that,
“…we have collectively come to understand/see/envision the environmental debate as shaped and inhabited primarily by white people. And our ability to imagine others is colored by the narratives, images, and meanings we’ve come to hold as truths in relation to the environment….
In the case of race and the environment, it’s not just who we imagine has something valuable to say. These assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions are at the very foundation of our environmental thinking, how we define the ‘environment,’ and how we think of ourselves in relationship with the environment. Who do we see? What do we see?”
White people have always decided what is “natural,” as well as who “naturally” belongs and who doesn’t. John Muir did not do “some powerful work for conservation and parks.” He co-founded the Sierra Club and worked to ensure that Ahwahnee became Yosemite National Park — these structures are tools that maintain power for a few (white people, particularly white men), as well as perpetuate gatekeeping (the practice of limiting and controlling resources). National Parks are active tools in ongoing indigenous genocide.
A few days after launching Rethink the Wild, Varela shared with Indigenous Women Hike’s Instagram account an image of the book Dispossessing the Wilderness by Mark David Spence. She wrote:
“For my Indigenous folx, this was an emotional read. I was brought to tears more than a few times. This is obviously a heavy subject but as a Native woman wanting to learn more about ‘American Conservation’ this is a good place to start.
The book is pretty dense, but interesting. Anyone who recreates and visits National Parks needs to read this book. Dispossessing the Wilderness highlights the removal of Natives from Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks.”
In Dispossessing the Wilderness, David Spence goes into detail about how the National Parks were marketed and sold to white audiences as vacation spots to “get away from it all.” To get away from, you know, the buzzing, mundane, chaotic, stressful, anxiety-inducing, apocalyptic, capitalist hellhole we created for ourselves — we all need a break sometimes. In order to selfishly save our mental health we created “wilderness” a construct entirely concocted out of the white imagination to rationalize our greed, industrial growth and expansion. “Wilderness” functions as an important tool that was pushed forward by the poster-boys of the romantic period like Thomas Cole, George Catlin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Herman Melville — John Muir loved these guys. They were the architects of what white America salivates over today: idealized uninhabited landscapes.
A Non-Consensual Fantasy
Why this obsession with uninhabited, when uninhabited spaces have never even been a thing? This isn’t the first time we projected this anti-indigenous falsehood. This fantasy extends back to our fantasies of exploration and manifest destiny, when settlers first came to the shores of Turtle Island (what we now call the United States). Because we were feeling the detrimental physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects of capitalism, the gender binary, and our self-imposed oppressive hierarchies, we sought an invention of untouched land that was never actually untouched. But in our twisted white minds we get off on non-consensual fantasies. Intergenerational trauma lives in our bodies because we are the descendants of colonizers and slave-holders — those who imposed the violence of non-consent, or in other words, rape culture. We have inherited the position of the oppressor, which means that we need to seek healing for ourselves and our minds. All white people need to heal from our internalized white supremacy. We are only causing harm to ourselves and others if we are not actively working on this daily.
The Earth doesn’t need “saving” – it needs to be left alone. We need to stop projecting our colonizer narratives onto the Earth and its people. What drives white environmentalism is also what drives the non-profit industrial complex. White people have generational wealth, resources, power, and money, and therefore, the ability to create non-profits under the guise of helping and working towards “sustainability.” But the only thing sustaining is that those who need the resources the most remain in poverty, and those who have the money remain in power. Really, really rich men thrive on the reliance of the poor.
The answer to all of this is not complicated, but quite simple: white people, we need to start giving up our power, doing away with hierarchy in our organizations, and focusing on equitable outcomes for all. This may be a scary idea because it means changing everything about our lives, but it doesn’t have to be scary. Giving up power means being in community with each other, building relationships instead of power dynamics, and ultimately, everyone benefits. The systems as they are now are not healthy for anyone, not even those who benefit from them.
Racism and colonization is an issue that is very much still of our time. Jolie Varela expressed on social media that she wishes more people would “…acknowledge Indigenous people/organizations who are already doing this work, who have been doing this work…As an indigenous woman who still feels the effects of removal brought on by JM and his brand of American Conservation I do not view this as ‘complicated.’ It’s obvious because I see the impacts of this brand of removal every day. It’s not ‘complicated’ it’s messed up. I think addressing this issue as complicated allows people to make excuses for just how uncomplicated it really is. Because then people would have to address their own behavior and their own privilege. And it’s a way to excuse violent behavior.”
Often, White People Wonder, “What Can I do?” So, Here Is What I Do:
As a white woman who wants to end the legacy of harm and violence that I inherited from my ancestors (intentionally or not), I try to constantly confront white supremacy and how it shows up in myself and in my life. I frequently refer to Tema Okun’s list of White Supremacy Culture characteristics to help me locate where and how white supremacy is at play throughout my day and in my thinking, behavior, and actions. I support Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) -led initiatives, organizations, and businesses. When opportunities come my way, I either give it up to a BIPOC, or I look for ways to include, spotlight, or recommend BIPOC to be included if they are not already. I follow, read, and pay for anti-racist education. I understand that anti-racism is a practice, not an identity. This means that I never deny my inherent racism for being raised in a society that conditions me to believe myself superior for my skin color, but I can practice anti-racism to try to prevent myself from causing harm as much as possible.
I don’t write off my friends and family who are resistant to talking about whiteness. I find ways to engage them in conversation about white supremacy and our complicity in it. I step out of my comfort zone and take risks at work in having these conversations because I know, ultimately, the risks are probably in my head, or rather, in my white fragility. I facilitate a series called “Detaching from Whiteness.” I don’t shy away from having these conversations with kids. Not only will they most likely be the most receptive, but it is a moral failing if we don’t talk candidly with children about systems of oppression because this is the world they are inheriting. Often, the kids end up teaching me. I value relationships over profit or social capital, which is the opposite of white supremacy culture. I give my money to people doing the work on the ground. I give my money to those who stand on street corners looking for change because I know it’s going to someone who needs it, not a third-party. I actively work to see myself in others, while honoring, respecting, and acknowledging our difference.
All of this is where I begin.
Erin Monahan is the founder of Terra Incognita Media. She’s a writer, facilitator, and rock climber based in Portland, Oregon. Her writing focuses on detaching from the commitment to the construct of Whiteness. You can follow her on Instagram @erin.k.monahan