Friday, July 21, 2017

John Muir: How A Single Story Can Diminish All Other Stories

Yosemite National ParkI recently had an opportunity to read student essays that were being judged for a county competition. I came across an essay about the story of John Muir, renowned as an adventurer, environmentalist and botanist. As I read his story, I learned that he was an immigrant from Scotland in 1849 and after working on a farm, studying at the University about botany, he began working at a warehouse. After a year he decided he was done and he was going to respond to his true calling of being an explorer and the study of botany.

John Muir often called his explorations wanderings and it was at this point that I got irritated.

Indian fishing at Trinity LakeAs I reflected on John Muir and the option he had to wander after feeling that he wanted to follow his truth, I thought of all my indigenous ancestors who did not have that option in 1849. In fact, it was the opposite. See their truth had been to follow the traditional way of their ancestors and to wander in rhythm with nature and move according to her seasons. Western anthropologists call this a nomadic lifestyle. I call it, being in tune with nature and following her rhythm to provide for their families and community. No matter what we call it, as reported in 1850 by the Daily Alta California, "Whites are becoming impressed with the belief that it will be absolutely necessary to exterminate the savages before they can labor much longer in the mines with security." And with that, state sanctioned killings of entire villages took place. The Pomo tribe experienced 800 of its members killed in what became known as Bloody Island. 

In Yosemite, one of the most prized areas often associated with John Muir in 1850 was beginning the Mariposa War where the Ahwahneechees and Chowchillas traditionally lived and were being systematically removed so that miners could mine for gold "safely". They were not allowed to continue their traditional way of living, if they chose to wander they could be killed. Nevermind the wealth of information they carried of the land and all of the gifts the natural plant life had to offer. 

Picture of mass burial at wounded knee
Mass burial at Wounded Knee
And what of the plains tribes? In 1849 Crazy Horse from the Oglala Lakota was a child being raised in the traditional ways of his people. That would soon change as land across the plains was being divided and divvied up among the white settlers, displacing entire tribes from their ancestral land with force, indescribable violence and mass killings. For those, like Crazy Horse who would grow up to hold onto the traditional way of his people and as chief of his band live according to the seasons of the plains, their fate was very different than that of the Scottish immigrant. Unlike John Muir, they were not called wanderers, nor were his people being hailed as environmentalists who understood botany on a very intimate level, they were called Wild Indians and if they did not acquiesce to confinement on reservations where their travel and movement was limited to the confines of the reservation, they would be massacred. 

And what of the Black community? In 1849 maybe one of them thought they too were tired of working in the fields and wanted to follow their truth and wander across these lands to explore and discover. And yet had they done this, they would be a fugitive, killed or if they didn't work, called lazy and ignorant. 

And these quick reflections of mine does not begin to touch on the struggles of Mexicans who were caught between governments fighting for land, with pillaging and raping of their towns and villages. And the all too common stigma of lazy Mexican is one to reflect on in light of a European immigrant who wandered these United States, often not working and just taking in the solace that nature provides. 

So why be concerned? 

Because the only story told in our classrooms is that of John Muir and how his wanderings led him to "discover" the beauty of our land and the riches she has to offer. How his wanderings allowed for him to advocate for national land and protection of our natural heritage. That is all wonderful. 

But it negates that people of color have been doing this long before John Muir and were systematically massacred and silenced. 

Picture of three Lakota boys showing acculturation
Three Lakota boys
Those that survived were again cut from any of their ancestral heritage and wisdom by forcibly being placed in boarding schools that have been revealed to have been wrought with dehumanizing conditions and constant abuse. Tsianina Lomawaima, head of the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona, says from the start, the government's objective was to "erase and replace" Indian culture, part of a larger strategy to conquer Indians.

By being shut out from this narrative, people of color once again look as if they have not really accomplished anything. In this narrative of John Muir's that we tell in our classrooms it is only John Muir who is celebrated for following his truth and "saving" our environmental heritage. 
As a student of color you don't see yourself in this narrative, as a matter of fact, the only time you see yourself is as the defeated tribes who lived in the wild or enslaved people born of nowhere, working on plantations, or a strange people who came across the water only to work on railroads and mines with no families allowed, or a people who are strangers in their own land known to be lazy and violent. You see no other storyline in our schools and for all students this creates a false perception of divisiveness and notions of superiority and inferiority.

I am not talking about the need for a special class on ethnic heritage or a special series of books about certain chiefs or leaders of color for children to read about. Although these are noble attempts, they do not legitimize the voices of the people of color who have equal weight in knowledge and understanding - if not more - than the white person that has been chosen in their stead. In this case, an immigrant from Scotland. Would not Chief Joseph or any medicine man or woman from his tribe known more than an immigrant from Scotland and have been able to contribute meaningfully to the learning and discourse John Muir was having about the flora, fauna and geology of this beautiful country? 

The dominant discourse in this country on icons like John Muir is able to ignore the rampant injustices that were happening to the people from the same land John Muir was hailing, because the people being displaced from these soon to be National Parks were not seen with the same value as white Europeans. Had the 800 Pomo Indians massacred on Trinity Lake, a lake later hailed in John Muir's journals for its beauty, been Scottish, John Muir would not be talking about the lake!

Native American with quoteThe sting in all of this, is after systematically trying to dehumanize and destroy people of color and their contributions to the story of humanity, we today quote many of those chiefs and leaders we were so willing to destroy. 

It is not enough to say, "that is the past" or "I didn't do that" when we continue to perpetuate only one story of our shared history. This is not about making any one group a villain. It is about telling the whole story and when we do, sometimes the truth can be ugly. But if we are willing to walk through the pain together, hear how today the choices of our white ancestors gave an unfair advantage to people like John Muir and their descendants, who today may have a long standing history of education and financial gain and security because of the choices afforded their ancestors. And when you understand the entire picture and you realize that while many people of color may have wanted to pursue an education, start a business or wander these United States, they were unable to because they were facing massive persecution, incarceration, and systematic destruction of their people, then maybe we can ask ourselves - how do we heal and support one another to reach our true capacity as one people? 

If we are to truly embrace one another in brotherhood as one human family, we have to be willing to tell all stories. To not only hear other narratives, but to open up the discourse to other experiences and truths. 

In the end, I am grateful to John Muir, and like all of us this call to truth is important and can be hard to follow. But I have to say, it is not to him I look to for hope or strength or vision or even truth. I look to my ancestors who struggled to keep the truth of their vision alive, no matter the sacrifices, especially when powerful forces waged against them. To Wascar from the Quechua people, to Crazy Horse of the Oglala Lakota, to Nelson Mandela of the Thembu tribe to Malcolm X to my Nana Mitchell and Mama Cruzesa. These leaders are part of my narrative for they continued to dig in deep to find their connection to a greater source of power and with that understanding of themselves as noble beings, they pushed back against an oppressive and destructive system that would have them believe otherwise. 

This sustains me today and it is what I hope to share with students and teachers across the globe, that they may find many powerful stories in their heritage that sustain them in the face of oppression or even in just feeling forgotten. 

I see you. You are not forgotten.