A Guest on Stolen Land

Work in Progress

Like most historic places in America, you’re likely to encounter a plaque while thru hiking. Or maybe a statue or a commemorative rock of some sort. 9 times out of 10, that plaque commemorates our colonial past and honors the (typically) white (typically) male who “discovered” the place. Meanwhile, centuries of native communities lived on, cultivated, and cared for that land. It reminds me of the Eddie Izzard sketch where he talks about early European settlers inquiring about who “owns” the land by asking, “But do you have a FLAG?!?”

Where this sense of entitlement came from for my ancestors (and the violence that accompanied it) is something I’m still unpacking. The body keeps the score when it comes to trauma and, for me, the feeling of being a guest on stolen land is ever-present while hiking. I’m learning how to honor that truth, but it’s a work in progress.

The Atlantic recently had a series about “Who Owns the Wilderness” and one article discussed whether we should cancel John Muir, knowing his problematic past. Like any historical figure, they argued, we shouldn’t excuse their bigotry, hatred, or darker parts of their humanity, but outright ‘canceling’ them takes away the opportunity to make meaningful change. Do we continue to exalt John Muir for his contributions to conservation, even though in doing so, he disparaged Black and Indigenous people and lacked an understanding of their own contributions to the land? What if Muir’s reverence for all creatures on Earth doesn’t extend to other human beings? (The dude kept company with eugenicists and remained largely silent on how wrong those practices are.)

A fellow trekker rightly reminded me in my first post that the “John Muir Trail” is the ancestral land of the Nüümü people, and that one step towards having a more expansive vision of history is to acknowledge the land and respect the sovereignty of the native people who still maintain their connection to the land.

We head into Ahwahnechee land (Yosemite) this morning to begin our thru hike, and I’m thinking more about my responsibility to question the narratives we’ve been sold about this place.

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Comments 6

  • Kathy : Jun 19th

    Thanks for highlighting Indigenous communities in your posts 🙂 have a wonderful hike, I’m already nostalgic!

  • Dean King : Jun 20th

    Hi Kate, I agree with you that it’s a good idea to question the narratives we have been told and to reach for a broader and more empathetic understanding of our nation’s history. But as a nature lover and columnist, you owe yourself and your readers better than to pass off secondhand pronouncements by the Atlantic and others on John Muir. Your one specific accusation that John Muir had friends who believed in eugenics is the type of smear technique used by those who have no real evidence for their case. Yes, eugenics is a reprehensible idea, but at that time many prominent scientists and cultural leaders were testing out the concept; not John Muir. Did Muir ever seriously think about eugenics? We don’t know. He never says anything about it, because it simply wasn’t part of his purview or something he knew anything about. But John Muir did take a courageous and painstaking stand against rampant logging, devastating sheepherding and the destruction of mountain ecosystems by the greedy capitalists who showed no concern for the environmental havoc they were causing. That is primarily why we celebrate John Muir. If you really look at what Muir said about Native Americans, you will find that by and large he greatly admired them. I can get into details with you, but there is not enough room here. Suffice it to say, Muir was a very descriptive writer and pulled no punches. He had plenty of realistic and unflattering things to say about white people too. Muir never once said that Native Americans or anyone else for that matter did not belong in the wilderness he was trying to preserve. In fact, he encouraged all people to get out into life-giving nature. If it weren’t for Muir, the wilderness you enjoy today would be very different and much reduced, and climate change would certainly be more advanced than it is now. Muir gave us a philosophy of love and respect for all things in nature, and while he was a bit of a misanthrope at times, that includes all of humanity. Why the Sierra Club chose to throw him under the bus, I suggest, comes from its own questionable leadership well after Muir helped create the organization and passed away in 1914. While we should take a good long look at our history and the sad and cruel way we have treated indigenous Americans, Muir is not to blame for that’ nor is he to blame for the club’s failure to embrace the concepts of environmental equity sooner. The club’s current leadership did us all a great disservice in choosing to scapegoat him. Respectfully! Dean

  • Paul : Jun 20th

    Leave No Trace means exactly that…

  • JhonYermo : Jun 20th

    Could not subscribe fast enough. Thank you for a brilliant, well thought out article. The nations that were there before some European, with a gun, a sword, and a bible stole their land and often slaughtered the inhabitants.
    Thank you for this piece.
    ZEP and 1619. We must learn the TRUTH./

  • Becky : Jun 21st

    In Australia, public events often begin with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land on which the event is being held. I recognize that this is a small step, but I always appreciated, as it kept Australia’s indigenous peoples top of mind for me. Thanks for doing the same here!


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