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John Muir Outdoor School faces name change

Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders camp at the Lava Beds National Monument as part of a geology class at the John Muir School. Courtesy photo
Using committee findings, Ashland School Board could order Sierra Club co-founder’s name scrubbed for his racist views

John Muir’s name graces health care centers, hiking trails, libraries and schools not just in the United States but around the world.

Locally, a school in Ashland emphasizing outdoor education bears the name of the “Father of our National Parks” who was also co-founder of the Sierra Club.

Since his death in 1914, however, that father figure legacy has been scrutinized under today’s standards, even by a Sierra Club publication, as racist. Couple that with recent movements such as Black Lives Matter and the literal takedown of Confederate monuments, and it’s a recipe that could lead to Muir’s name being removed from places that bear his moniker.

That could include the John Muir Outdoor School in Ashland. Last year, the city’s school board tasked a committee to examine the names of all district buildings. Specifically, its job would be 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.”

Its first and only recommendation thus far was for the school to rename the outdoor school.

“The committee well recognizes John Muir’s substantial contributions to the ‘preservation of wild places.’ But a deeper and more critical reading of his actions and beliefs sheds light on the harms done historically, and how they reverberate to the present day,” the committee wrote in its final report. “We further recognize this committee’s finding might be controversial and we encourage you to dig deeper into the evidence as we have.”

The public will be allowed to give their thoughts on the matter at the next board meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 25.

Jennifer Parks, principal of the John Muir Outdoor School, said members of the board had a listening session with school staff regarding the possible renaming.

“I am grateful for a school board and community that value equity, diversity and inclusion, and are invested in careful reflection on the importance of the values communicated in a school name and the history behind it,” Parks wrote in an email to the Mail Tribune. “As we work to build inclusive schools for our students and families, community engagement and voice are an important part. I respect the process that the committee went through and the transparency they showed in the report that they prepared.”

The board could make a decision at its meeting Nov. 8.

COMMITTEE WORK

John Muir Outdoor School started as a small outdoor education program at Walker School that eventually became its own school, according to Parks.

She said the name started as simply John Muir School, was later changed to John Muir Magnet School before becoming John Muir Outdoor School.

The naming committee’s purpose was born in the fall of 2020, when board members expressed that a review of building names was appropriate.

Ashland School Board member Victor Chang, who sat on the committee, said the topic was something that’s been on board members’ minds for a while.

“Now, there is a sense of urgency that this is important even though we have a lot of other things going on,” Chang said. “We have to walk and chew gum at the same time.”

That means the school board’s focus on the issues of the day, like the pandemic, can also occur as it examines the names of district buildings.

“When we look at inclusive and safe environments, obviously the names associated with our schools and facilities are a part of that,” Chang said. “Do they speak to kids today? Do they see aspects of themselves, their identities marginalized or oppressed by ... the names on our buildings?”

The committee met almost every week from January to August of this year.

Its first order of business was to discuss the process and methodology to complete its work. The members settled on an assessment rubric with “a scale of pros and cons, which tries to take into account standards of behavior for our subjects’ time as well as our own.”

“What was acceptable in other periods of history, we the community get to decide, ‘our metrics have changed,’” Chang said. “What might have been OK then might not be OK now. I think about all kinds of more contemporary figures … whose legacy would be great to honor.”

The committee determined that of the building names it examined, the ones with the largest negative scores would be the sites to consider first.

The committee’s report recommended that the only facility that should be renamed — for now — is the John Muir Outdoor School, which received a score of -2.7, the lowest score of the names evaluated.

COMMITTEE EVALUATION

Consistent with its methodology, the committee examined whether Muir’s actions contributed to society as judged by people living in the mid-19th and early-20th centuries.

“[Muir] advocated for the protection and preservation of vast tracts of wilderness, supported efforts for the creation of the national park system and produced various published writings that promoted and inspired an appreciation for nature,” the report said.

Chang agreed that what Muir and the Sierra Club did for awareness and protection of wilderness, helping to establish the national parks system and conservation more broadly were “monumental impacts.”

But the committee did find that Muir’s “work on behalf of protecting the environment was not balanced with proper consideration for the impact of policies on Native American tribes.”

“Muir's work, intentionally or unintentionally, may have strengthened Eurocentric views such as ‘Manifest Destiny’ that were harmful to Native American communities,” the report said. “The idea of ‘wilderness’ as a place ‘free from humans’ really added more rationale for … forcible land grabs and usurpation of the Indigenous people already living there.”

Chang said his work on the committee was “eye-opening” to Muir’s work.

“The whole idea of preserving wilderness is predicated upon, ‘Oh, there’s no one there. We shouldn’t let industry soil [it] so that people with money and backpacks can go tramping around and enjoy the wilderness,’” he said. “But it was really eye-opening [to find out] that wilderness was not empty land. It was occupied by Native Americans who we forcibly removed, killed and lied to.”

The committee also concluded Muir’s approach to the environment was linked to his views of groups of people, particularly those of color.

Chang called Muir’s views not only racist but classist.

“He perceived a lot of people beneath him — whether white, Black, native — and maybe a little bit less deserving of sovereignty, rights, etc.” Chang said. “So his influence, for the neutral or the negative, was pretty pervasive.”

Chang added, “with the lens of today, I was able to say, ‘wow! There’s significant negative impacts to what he did, what he stood for, what he espoused, what he allowed to have happen.’”

The John Muir Outdoor School’s “about” section on its website mentions Muir, but not anything about his disparaging past. It only contains a quote attributed to him: “Who publishes the sheet-music of the winds or the music of water written in river-lines?”

Additional materials about the outdoor school, such as a powerpoint presentation and brochure, don’t expand upon who Muir was.

LEGACY REVISITED

An article for Sierra Magazine, written by Rebecca Solnit, a California-based writer, daughter of immigrants and longtime club member, seems to have hit on the things the Ashland School Board found when examining Muir’s legacy.

The article, “John Muir in Native America,” includes a subheadline that reads: “Muir's romantic vision obscured Indigenous ownership of the land — but a new generation is pulling away the veil.”

Solnit starts by talking about how the military and armed white settlers drove Native Americans from their land — including places like Yosemite — and then offered non-Native people a place to visit that did not recognize the tribes that once lived there. “The Sierra Club is not exempt” from responsibility, Solnit wrote.

“In fact, if this idea of virgin wilderness and of nature as a place apart from human culture has a beginning, that beginning is inseparable from the history of the Sierra Club and its most famous founder,” she stated.

Solnit named a few examples of racist comments Muir is believed to have made about Native Americans.

“The racial baggage he carried kept him from seeing that Native Americans had not merely reaped the bounty of the luxuriant landscapes he wandered through but had shaped them with sophisticated land-management strategies,” she wrote. “Some of the places he admired so enthusiastically looked like gardens because they were gardens.”

Muir’s legacy resurfaced last year, when George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police. That led Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune to issue a response in an online column, which Solnit quoted in her extensive article.

"As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir's words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club,” Brune wrote.

Solnit issued a call to the current generations of Americans when it comes to properly recognizing the past.

“It could have been better, but now it can't; it's done and gone,” she wrote. “But the future can be better, and we in the present are making that future now. And part of making a better future involves reexamining the past and trying to repair what was broken and hear who was silenced then.”

An online user named Bill Mankin wrote in the comments section below the article that he was happy to see this “outstanding article” on the organization he’d grown to know so much about.

“I've been a club member for 45 years, so I've witnessed the club's evolution, and I'm so proud of this organization and of SIERRA for publishing this kind of deep introspective soul-searching,” he wrote. “These things are very uncomfortable to confront, but only by doing so can we move into the kind of future that this organization and its mission need and deserve.”