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The Sierra Club: America’s oldest conservation group denounces racism of its founder John Muir

By Oliver O’Connell

The oldest conservation group in the US, The Sierra Club, will take down monuments to its founder due to his racist history.

John Muir, who founded the group in 1892 and whose activism helped preserve the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park, also had ties to white supremacists and made derogatory comments about Black and indigenous people that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes.

“As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight,” a statement from Michael Brune, executive director of the group, says. “They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of colour who come into contact with the Sierra Club.”

As the US begins to confront its past with the removal of many statues related to the Confederacy, the group has decided to re-examine its own history and “our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy”.

Muir was friends with Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was head of the New York Zoological Society and the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History — he also helped found the American Eugenics Society in the years following Muir’s death.

Other early Sierra Club members and leaders Mr Brune calls out in his statement include Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan, both vocal advocates for white supremacy and eugenics. Jordan co-founded the Human Betterment Foundation, whose research and model laws were used to create Nazi Germany’s eugenics legislation.

The early membership of the club was defined by “whiteness and privilege” and allowed for wilful ignorance about the spaces the group enjoyed once being the homes of Native peoples, forced off their lands by white settlers. Exclusionary membership practices continued until at least the 1960s.