Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

Muir's Early Indian Views:
Another Look At My First Summer In The Sierra

by Ross Wakefield


(Reprinted from The John Muir Newsletter , v.5, no.1, Winter 1994- 95)

(John Muir Newsletter Editor's note: The author is a student at the University of the Pacific, majoring in Religious Studies. He is a member of the Mescalero Apache tribe. This paper was prepared in the fall of 1994 for an undergraduate history course, "John Muir and the American Environment.")


In many ways, John Muir walked a path ahead of his own time. In western culture, he was among the first to express a limited "biocentric" view--that is to say, he often expressed the idea that humans had no more intrinsic value than any creature of nature. Many times, in fact, he disparaged humans as something less than natural. However, Muir could not escape his own culture, nor could he ignore his own upbringing by a Calvinist father. At times Muir's new thinking brought apparent contradictions in his own mind, being unable to meld his "nature on a pedestal" views with those still buried in his own conscience. On the subject of Indians this seems to be particularly true. Muir at times observes and even envies their near harmony with nature, thus nearly elevating them to his nature pedestal. On other occasions, however, he regards them as little more than dirty beggars. All in all, there seems to be in Muir some grudging respect for Indians, but it is often masked behind the institutionalized racism that underlies his writing. He recognizes that Indians are human, yet seems disappointed that they are not quite able to reach the imagined cleanliness of the pedestal upon which he places nature.

Before going into the Sierra for the first time, Muir had to figure out how to fund his trip. Above all he needed bread. At first he considers "...trying to believe I might learn to live like the wild animals, gleaning nourishment...from seeds, berries, etc." However, this is never a serious thought. Muir makes it seem a fanciful thing indeed, and turns to sheepherding for larder. Indians, though, lived for several millennia by "gleaning" from nature what they needed.

Perhaps because of his own periodic bouts with hunger while in the mountains, food gathering was a recurrent theme in My First Summer. Often he acknowledged the native experience and contrasted their natural bounty with the gastronomic limitations of western culture. "The Indian puts us to shame," he wrote, "so do the squirrels--starchy roots and seeds and bark in abundance, yet the failure of the meal sack disturbs our bodily balance...."

Later he complained: "Like the Indians, we ought to know how to get the starch out of fern and saxifrage stalks, lily bulbs, pine bark etc. Our education has been sadly neglected for many generations." Still later he wrote: "We should boil lupine leaves, clover, starchy petioles, and saxifrage rootstocks like the Indians."

Time after time Muir implied that Indians were closely tied to nature, and not just in the area of foodstuffs. He observed with obvious approval the fact that for uncounted centuries, natives have lived among the hills of the Sierra with little noticeable effect on the land. He noted the similarities between Indian and animal trails, in contrast to what one might expect of western man after thousands of years of habitation. "Indians walk softly and they hurt the landscape hardly more than the birds and squirrels, and their brush and bark huts last longer than those of wood rats..." "Along the main ridges and larger branches of the river Indian trails may be traced, but they are not nearly as distinct as one would expect to find them." These faint marks stood in sharp contrast to the irrevocable damage done by white culture. He condemned "roads blasted in solid rock, wild streams dammed and tamed, and turned out of their channels and led along the sides of canyons and valleys to work in the mines like slaves." Even trestles led to the erosion of the "mountain face."

While Indian trace faded quickly, white structures were built to last. "Long will it be ere these marks are effaced...," he wrote. Yet Muir recognized that even the finest monuments eventually give way to natural forces. "Nature is doing what she can, replanting, gardening, sweeping away old dams and flumes, leveling the gravel and boulder piles, patiently trying to heal every scar."

On at least two occasions in My First Summer Muir credits Indians with developing instinctive behavior, an ability he thought was in short supply among civilized humans. Although today we tend to emphasize learned behavior, Muir's appreciation of native instinct is evidence of his belief that Indians were close to nature and its natural virtues. Speaking of their stealthy movements, for example, Muir wrote that the "wild Indian power of escaping observation...was probably slowly acquired in hard hunting...and this experience transmitted through many generations seems at length to have become ...instinct."

Up to this point we have witnessed a certain admiration of Indians by Muir. While never coming out right and saying it, he nevertheless seemed to believe that Indians were indeed living in harmony with Nature. One would have to conclude that white culture has a lot to learn from the Indians. But his views turned abruptly in later chapters of My First Summer. Despite his previous favorable observations, he ultimately argued that Indians were not part of nature: "...most Indians I have known are not a whit more natural in their lives than we civilized whites." The basis for this apparent contradiction in Muir's thinking appears to rest on a western bias against Indian forms of personal hygiene. "The worst thing about them is their uncleanliness," he wrote. Nothing wild is unclean." Here Muir utterly ignores all objective evidence. His Nature was a clean place, and natives should also be clean to be part of the natural world. Perhaps Muir himself had never seen a dirty animal, or simply couldn't see the dirt through romantic eyes. Yet most people who have spent time in deserts or forests are familiar with dirt in various forms: infected wounds on animals, mud encrusted forepaws, leaf-strewn fur, etc. Moreover, Muir ignored things that might explain dirt on natives. Many coated their faces to protect from the wind, as was likely the case of the women whose face had enough dirt to be of "geological significance." Muir also didn't seem to recognize the connection between the failure of even the dogs to notice the approach of Indians and their "dirty skins." As scent camouflage, dirt was not washed off. It helped to hide the human scent.

The evidence of Muir's ethnocentric bias goes beyond the matter of Indian hygiene. Though he frequently complained of lack of food for his own needs, he was intrigued by the native custom of eating such natural foods as larvae and fern starch. Yet Muir himself avoided wilderness food, even though he had ample opportunity to try it. One of his fellow shepherds was an Indian who never seemed to be hungry. On other occasions Muir traded with Indians who came to his camp. Whether Muir simply couldn't stomach native food, or whether he wouldn't stoop so low as to ask for food from a non-white we cannot know, but clearly this anomaly must be taken into consideration when Muir's opinion of Indians is discussed.

Muir acknowledged that he knew little about a group of Indians living around Mono Lake. "Perhaps if I knew them better I should like them more," he wrote. Perhaps, but unlikely. Although he often described his discussions with other travel companions, even a bit with a Chinese man, not once does Muir mention a conversation with an Indian. We can note that in the beginning the Indian guide who accompanied the expedition was stand-offish, a characteristic of many native people when around strangers, but after several weeks, surely with any sign of friendship from Muir, this barrier might have been overcome.

In one final odd occasion, Muir's cultural bias shows through in My First Summer. He met an Indian who, after a few minutes of looking over his party, "cut off eight or ten pounds of venison for us, and begged a 'lill' (little) of everything.". This sounds suspiciously like barter, or trade. In fact, if a white person had done the same thing it would surely be termed 'trading' but for Muir, the unclean Indian could not trade, only beg.

John Muir was in fact a radical. He placed value on nature as few people in his culture had ever done before. And as an observer he excelled. When dealing with Indians, however, he could not escape his own cultural biases. Muir tended to be rather unorthodox in his thinking, and regarded nature with something akin to worship, but his portrayals of native people and their culture closely resemble contemporary Christian teachings about the ways of the "heathen." His observations acknowledged Indian harmony with nature, but his cultural values and his new view of nature meant that the Indian was in a no- man's land. The pedestal of John Muir's Nature was too high for the Indian to attain, and his "uncivilized" behavior such as begging kept him from being an equal of the white. John Muir was an exceptionally talented advocate for nature, but let no one then conclude he was a friend of the Indian.



Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2014 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.