Cast Out of Eden: The Untold Story of John Muir, Indigenous Peoples, and the American Wilderness

Image of Cast Out of Eden: The Untold Story of John Muir, Indigenous Peoples, and the American Wilderness
Release Date: 
May 2, 2024
Bison Books
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“Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was the land ‘infected’ with ‘wild animals’ and ‘savage’ people.”
—Luther Standing Bear

Recent events in Gaza have animated current discussions about "genocide" and what it has meant and still does mean. Those who want to understand it might look back at the history of the frontier in America and on the life of John Muir who is so firmly lodged in California lore and legend that he seems as impregnable as El Capitan, the huge granite monolith in Yosemite National Park that Muir helped to create in 1890 and then aimed to protect with help from our jingoist big game hunter Theodore Roosevelt. Muir’s name is written all over the state of California: John Muir Wilderness, John Muir National Monument, John Muir National Monument, John Muir College, John Muir High School, and more.

You’d think he was God or his son. Almost everyone today who loves the wilderness also loves Muir, the Scots-born Calvinist who came to the US as a young man, wandered far and wide, co-founded the Sierra Club, and became known as “The Father of the National Parks.” There’s a dark side, too, that citizens ought to know about now. Maybe it’s time to dethrone Muir.

In 2020, the Sierra Club issued a statement that read, “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.” Bravo Sierra Club. That statement ought to have been issued ages ago and should be widely distributed today.

Those who don’t love Muir, point out that he wanted to remove Indians from the wilderness by force, and keep them out, forever. They also point out that Muir regarded Indians as “dirty,” “smelly” “savages” who could not be “civilized.” So, wage a genocidal war against them, he urged, and exterminate them.

Others including President Teddy Roosevelt held that same view. "The settler and the pioneer have at bottom had justice on their side," he wrote. "This great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages."

Still, not all settlers and not all whites wanted to exterminate Indians. The writer and painter Constance Gordon-Cumming (1837–1924), like Muir born in Scotland, noted that Indians were "unjustly despoiled of their heritage." She hoped that some "sense of fair play might have induced a certain amount of sympathy for the wild tribes." She added, "but this is an idea which apparently never found room in the mind of the encroaching whites."

Now, along comes a new biography of Muir titled Cast Out of Eden by Robert Aquinas McNally—the author of The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age—who aims to balance the “good” Muir against the “evil Muir,” as one might call him. Margaret Verble, a Cherokee and a novelist, writes that “McNally takes Muir off his pedestal and paints him as a man of his times, blinded by his belief in white supremacy and his faith in manifest destiny.” But McNally doesn’t take Muir down from his pedestal nearly far enough.

In the Epilogue to his biography, McNally writes that “the big thing Muir got so right” was the “awe that wild spaces call up and connects us to the cosmos and shines a beacon through the black holes of human existence.” Why one wonders did that awe not connect Americans to the Indians? McNally adds that, “where Muir went wrong was in assuming that this soulful connection to the wild belonged solely to people who traced their ancestry to northern Europe.” Indeed, Muir went egregiously wrong.

McNally aims to be balanced. He misses an opportunity to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Still, every so often, McNally takes off the kid gloves and reveals Muir’s connections to the robber barons and identifies his racist barbs directed not only at Indians, but also at American Blacks and Chinese. McNally also exposes the brutal exploitation by white settlers of Indians and Chinese in the “unsettling” of the West, plus the pillage of Indian graves and the desecration of Indian arts and crafts including “totem poles.” But he doesn’t inhabit his book with real Indians such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and others. He relegates them to the background.

What Muir didn’t realize ages ago, and what McNally today doesn’t seem to realize is that “the wilderness,” as it was and still is called, is a fiction imported from Europe by settlers and then imposed on the American landscape. And why use the word “Eden” to describe the places that Indians inhabited? It only mythologizes the landscape and doesn’t make sense. It wasn’t Eden to the Ojibwe, the Jilkoot, the Ohlone and or any of the other tribes who made the place we call America their home.

Luther Standing Bear (1868–1939) spoke for nearly all Native Americans when he noted in his book, Land of The Spotted  Eagle (1933), “We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills and winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild.’ To us it was tame.” Standing Bear added, “Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was the land ‘infected’ with ‘wild animals’ and ‘savage’ people.”

Standing Bear was not only an author. He was also an actor in Hollywood movies. He knows how Indians have been depicted on screen. Not pretty or honest. The word and the concept of the white man’s “civilization” irked Standing Bear immensely. He noted that it had “not added one whit to my sense of justice; to my reverence for the rights of life; to my love for truth, honesty, and generosity.”

McNally does not quote Standing Bear or mention him. He hardly mentions any specific, individual Indians, nor does he provide his generic Native American with names and identities. Indeed, he largely omits the story of California Indians from the pages of Cast Out of Eden, though he sometimes describes them as victims and losers. They have also been survivors who honor the past.

Yes, as McNally observes, there are exceptions to Muir’s steady servings of white supremacy. He wrote for example that “Some of the best people in the world are Chinese, and we must not hate them.” But he added that “they are birds with feathers so unlike our own they seem to have been hatched on some other planet.” What he gave with one hand he took away with the other.

The real story of John Muir, the foe of Indians, will probably have to be told again and again before Americans begin to realize that to create “the wilderness,” settlers, ranchers, soldiers and statesmen slaughtered Indians who lived in California’s mountains and valleys and who tended the landscape.

The U.S. needs a massive education program in which Native Americans can tell their own stories about invasion, occupation, colonization, and their resistance to the men and women who arrived with guns, bibles, and the gospel of Manifest Destiny.