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What’s in a name? Plenty, as it turns out

Ashland School District residents will have an opportunity to express their opinions Monday evening when the School Board considers renaming John Muir Outdoor School because some consider the legendary conservationist a racist, especially toward Native Americans. The board could vote on the recommendation Nov. 8.

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We are not taking a position on the proposed renaming, leaving that up to the district. We do urge all concerned to make sure they understand Muir and his attitudes in the context of history.

Muir, a champion of protecting wild areas, is considered the father of our national parks, and was a founder of the Sierra Club. He died in 1914.

Modern-day critics point to things he wrote about Native Americans he encountered in the forests of what is now Yosemite National Park, describing them as “filthy,” and accuse him of participating in what amounted to a genocide of Indigenous tribes in the Sierra Nevada in the 1800s.

The Ashland School Board last year created a committee to “consider any negative impact that official building names may have on members of the school community based on the namesake’s morally repugnant views or actions.” The committee’s only recommendation so far is to rename John Muir School.

In its report, the committee wrote, “We further recognize this committee’s finding might be controversial and we encourage you to dig deeper into the evidence as we have.”

We concur. Here is some evidence we found.

Raymond Barnett, a retired Chico State University biology professor who published a study of Muir, wrote an article on the Sierra Club website titled “John Muir: Racist or Admirer of Native Americans?”

Barnett’s article quotes extensively from Muir’s journals. He notes that Muir first arrived in the Sierra Nevada as a young man in 1869, a decade and a half after white settlers lured by the gold rush had committed murder, rape and pillage of Indigenous tribes, driving them from their ancestral territories.

“Critical to a proper understanding of what Muir saw and unflinchingly described in the Sierra Nevada of 1869 is an awareness that the Native Americans he encountered were experiencing the first generation of a holocaust that had destroyed their traditional culture and way of life,” Barnett wrote.

“The exceptional thing about Muir’s depiction of the Sierra Nevada Native Americans he encounters in 1869 is how often he insists on crediting them with admirable traits, how persistently he compares their culture favorably above those of his fellow Anglo-americans, how often he reminds himself (and his future readers) that these struggling people are still ‘fellow beings’ of Muir and his kind, how they in fact are, still, their ‘brothers’,” he continued.

Muir also was quoted with denouncing a U.S. Army officer he met at a dinner party who was involved the Army’s “Indian extermination” campaign. The party’s hostess recounted Muir telling the officer he was “a champion for a mean, brutal policy.”

Are those the words of a racist? From the enlightened perspective of the 21st century, maybe, but in the context of the 19th century, maybe not.

It’s interesting to note that the John Muir School’s website mentions Muir, but no details of his life or any discussion of his actions and attitudes toward Indigenous people. It would be valuable to students of a magnet school named for him to explore this man’s history in depth. Call it a teachable moment, and seek to understand who he was relative to his time.

That should happen even if the school doesn’t keep his name.