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Ancoutahan: John Muir among Native Peoples

by Chris Highland


Shall Brothers Be

The 19th and 20th centuries present a particularly tragic story of the systematic destruction of First Nations people on the American frontier. Tribes were decimated by war, seizure of land (facilitated by broken treaties), disease and cultural assimilation. While explorers, hunters and trappers were often first to make contact with indigenous inhabitants, opening the way for a flood of invaders, missionaries were particularly intent on transforming entire cultures through conversion, teaching English (primarily through Bible lessons), enforcing "proper" clothing and overall forcing native people to "conform, reform, or die."

Even though he resisted the forces that would restrict his own wildness, John Muir was steeped in a cultural mindset that allowed for this prejudice powered injustice. It cannot be sugarcoated. He clearly viewed "Indians" as human but as primitive humans in need of knowledge, education and, to some extent, civilization. As Michael Cohen tries to explain this tension, "Perhaps Muir's personal experience with the Indians was limited to the observation of decaying or degraded cultures. . . . If he was repulsed by wild Indians, he was also disappointed when he met an Indian who had become a shepherd and lost his wildness." (The Pathless Way, 1984). No doubt Muir was caught in the contradictions of cultures. There were clear lapses in his thought now and then when he "lost his wildness" in judgement of those "wild ones" he knew so little about.

Having admitted these tensions, preconceptions and condescension in viewpoint, it can also be shown that Muir had at least some fascination, even admiration, for native cultures and their original relation to the natural world. If we are observant we can find in his writings a hesitant, though delighted, discovery of more than a non-human home in the solitary wilderness. To a degree, he found an unexpected welcoming among the human inhabitants of the wildlands as well.

Writing of the origins of Muir's mixed feelings about First Peoples that emerged from his early life in Wisconsin, Linnie Marsh Wolfe writes, "The American Indian was always a contradiction of John Muir's idea that wild humans should be clean and beautiful like wild animals" (Son of the Wilderness, 1945). Surely an odd concept for a "son of the wilderness." Wolfe explains that Muir was sickened in later life recalling how ancient grave-sites were plowed up on the farm to grow crops. In stark contrast to the violent ways settlers treated the land, he later wrote, "the Indians walk softly and hurt the landscape hardly more than the birds and squirrels" (My First Summer in the Sierra, 1911). Muir readers know that's a high complement coming from him.

As Donald Worster reasons, Muir understood that Indians "were a part of humankind. . .but people in general often depressed him by their frequent inability to harmonize with the rest of nature" (A Passion for Nature, 2008). He seemed to struggle with what he saw that disgusted him: how could people live so seamlessly, so intimately with the landscape yet be so hard to look at?

Throughout his life Muir had a keen interest in these mysterious people and offered many firsthand descriptions and insights in his observations of disintegrating and dying cultures. In My First Summer in the Sierra he describes a band of Mono Indians in stunning language: "They were wrapped in blankets made of the skins of sage-rabbits. The dirt on some of the faces seemed almost old enough and thick enough to have a geological significance." He goes on to say that he wanted to pass by the group but they surrounded him asking for tobacco and whisky. He was "glad to get away from the gray, grim crowd," yet after they moved on he reflected, "[It] seems sad to feel such desperate repulsion from one's fellow beings, however degraded. To prefer the society of squirrels and woodchucks to that of our own species must surely be unnatural." For a moment it's unclear whether he means his repulsion or the Indians toward him, but then the mountaineer appears to sense his own preference for the wild over being with his species, and the next lines reveal something more: "So with a fresh breeze and a hill or mountain between us I must wish them Godspeed and try to pray and sing with [Robert] Burns,

'It's coming yet, for a' that,
that man to man, the warld over,
shall brothers be for a' that.' "
["A Man's a Man for a' That"]

This is decidedly not the attitude of the missionaries known to Muir.

Later, his innate prejudices surface again when he comes upon the tribe harvesting wild rye seeds near Moraine Lake. "I fancy the bread made from it must be as good as wheat bread. . . . The women were evidently enjoying [the gathering] laughing and chattering and looking almost natural, though most Indians I have seen are not a whit more natural in their lives than we civilized whites." Oddly, I think, he reacts to their "uncleanness." But even in this harsh appraisal the not-so-clean and not-so-natural Scotsman admits, "Perhaps if I knew them better I should like them better." Once again, not a typical response we might hear from a merchant or missionary!

Significantly, he spends time writing down his observations of their brush tents, tastes the berries they collect and seems mystified by their diet including larvae, rabbit, deer, sheep, sage hens, squirrels and pine nuts. He finds the pine nuts delicious, but also writes admiringly of the way "the squaws carry immense loads on their backs across the rough passes and down the range, making journeys of about forty or fifty miles each way." For the rugged mountain man, this seems astounding. In fact, Muir was never known to carry such a load on his treks through the highlands.

In his first summer saunter through his beloved Range of Light, Muir said he never felt loneliness. Though he may not have had his Indian encounters in mind, he said he "never enjoyed grander company. The whole wilderness seems to be alive and familiar, full of humanity. The very stones seem talkative, sympathetic, brotherly. No wonder when we consider that we all have the same Father and Mother." I find this particularly remarkable since his lofty words appear to echo those lines from Burns and harken back to his encounters with the "unnatural" and "unclean" brothers [and sisters] who make their homes in that living wilderness. Perhaps, as he scribbles later, he has been so filled with "wild enthusiasm" he cannot contain the overwhelming sense that "More and more, in a place like this, we feel ourselves a part of wild Nature, kin to everything"--even kinship with those we might like (and learn from) if we knew them better.

Tenaya and the Ahwahnee People of Yosemite

Before considering his formative times among Alaskan natives, it would be informative to consider Muir's historical record of the early history of White/ Indian relations in The Yosemite (1914).

In an otherwise wonderful narrative, Muir stumbles when claiming the original inhabitants of the Valley made war upon the frenzy of gold miners, "in their usual murdering, plundering style." This is more than cringeworthy bigotry. He explains how the government gathered the tribes onto reservations but the Yosemite (Grizzly Bear) Tribe "were the most troublesome and defiant of all."

In a great irony of history apparently completely lost on Muir, it was the rounding up of the tribe by a battalion under the command of Major Savage (!) that led to the Yosemite Valley being "discovered." You can't be more blind to the twisted lessons of history than this! And what was Major Savage's message to the people defending their own tribal lands? According to Muir, he told the Indians "if they would come in and make treaty" they would be provided with "protection" including food and clothing, but if they did not come in willingly, the Major would "make war upon them and kill them all."

The tribe responded in an amazing way. The chief, Tenaya, came alone to meet with the Major. This is where Muir shows another, more humane, side. He records the words of the old chief in an assumed respectful manner. The chief did not want anything from "the Great Father" because "the Great Spirit" is their father and they only wish to remain "in the mountains where we were born, where the ashes of our fathers have been given to the wind." Beautiful, powerful words. And recorded for all time by —John Muir.

Muir does not end with this story of the seizing of Yosemite and its people. The chief apologizes for the stealing of horses from the invaders and says he just wants peace. But the Major is firm. The tribe must leave. Muir spends several more pages weaving this awful tale of land stealing. Chief Tenaya finally gives up with these shaming words,"My heart has been sore. . .but I am now willing to go, for it is best for my people." As Muir lays it out, the valley was named Yosemite "to perpetuate the name of the tribe who so long had made their home there." Nevertheless, he adds, "The Indian name of the Valley, however, is Ahwahnee."

Some of the tribe resists the relocation. One of Tenaya's sons is killed escaping. The chief delivers himself and gives his final speech, recorded by, one might guess, a troubled Muir,

"Kill me, Sir Captain, yes, kill me as you killed my son, as you would kill my people if they were to come to you. You would kill all my tribe if you had the power. Yes, Sir America, you can now tell your warriors to kill the old chief. . . . You may kill me, Sir Captain, but you shall not live in peace. I will follow in your footsteps. I will not leave my home, but be with the spirits among the rocks, the waterfalls, in the rivers and in the winds."

Muir goes on to relate that Tenaya never consented to sell the Valley. The chief was finally shot and killed after returning to the Valley. As Muir, perhaps with at least a smidgeon of sympathy, says it, "The Tenaya Canyon and lake were named for the famous old chief."

To one who has read a great deal of Muir's writings, the Yosemite occupation by "Sir America" can be heard echoing through a large part of the great naturalist's life and work. The preservationist who most loudly preached and proclaimed the protection of lands as wild, free sanctuaries belonging to no one and everyone, seemed almost haunted by the events that "opened" Yosemite and henceforward all National Parks.

One cannot excuse Muir for standing by somewhat dispassionately or forgive the United States Government for passionately stealing these lands and killing their original peoples like so much wild vermin. Yet I think it is informative and intriguing that John Muir was the scribe who told the true story while dedicating his life to calling us all "home" to these lands where "divinity" inhabits the rocks and waterfalls, rivers and winds - echoing the old chief.

In his journals, Muir offers hints of his conflicted feelings about First Peoples. "To the Indian mind all nature was instinct with deity. A spirit was embodied in every mountain, stream, and waterfall" (July, 1890). This comes close to a summary of Muir's own mind. Some years earlier the younger Muir had appreciated "the redmen, with flesh colored like the rocks, and sinews tough as the granite, who for thousands of years have dragged in files through these silent depths, clad in dull skins and grass, with mountain flowers stuck in their black hair and their wild animal eyes sparkling bright as the lakes" (1872). If this was not John Muir, I for one would think this was disrespectful and disparaging language. But it is hard not to imagine Muir himself revealing a not-so-hidden personal desire to join these wild ones in those silent depths. In fact, many would no doubt have described Muir emerging from the mountains in just such critical yet curious language (being as he was the dirty outdoorsman with sparkling bright eyes who never shaved!).

Muir's true feelings do not have to be read between the lines. Even when he pokes and teases, he can be rather straightforward. In a letter to his Wisconsin friend, Emily Pelton, written from Yosemite Valley in April 1872, he pointedly prepares her for an upcoming camping trip to Tenaya Canyon:

"You mention the refining influences of society. Compared with the intense purity and cordiality and beauty of Nature, the most delicate refinements and cultures of civilization are gross barbarisms."

Using colorful language, he pushes back at her societal sensibilities, writing that he has no wish to have contact with the "rough vertical animals" who bring their "filth" into the "pure" mountains. Then he offers a self-description similar to how he portrays Indians he has encountered:

"You'll find me rough as the rocks and about the same colour -- granite... . Come and see my teachers; come, see my Mountain Mother."

Alaska: Chief Shakes of the Stickeen

We cannot appreciate John Muir's unsettled and unsettling relationship with Native peoples without a close view of his Alaskan experience. As his climbing companion and devoted missionary, The Rev. Samuel Hall Young, says in Alaska Days with John Muir (1915), "Muir's mission was to find and study the forests, mountains and glaciers." They both enjoyed the same poets, such as Burns, and carried copies of Thoreau and Emerson. Only Rev. Young carried a Bible since "[Muir] had his in his head." One went to Alaska to preach to wild people and the other went to learn from the wilderness and preach a primal, wild gospel.

So it is that on his seven tramps into the northland of Alaska between 1879 and 1899, Muir was brought face to face with some of the most primitive of people who became, in some sense, the most profound examples of the Wild Life he longed for. On his earliest trips, in the company of Christian missionaries, Muir was introduced to Natives in the heart wrenching process of being converted by American Religion and American "Civilization." As Richard Nelson puts it in his introduction to Muir's Travels in Alaska (1997 intro to the 1915 book), "John Muir was witness to a crucial time in the history of the Tlingit people: the very moment when their religious beliefs were being overturned and their entire culture was at the brink of profound change." It is in this context that Muir, who was often careful to cite the Indian names to locations (Tahoma for Mount Rainier for instance), became a storyteller of more than ice and forests. He became the storyteller for flesh and blood human lives, recording and relating some of the most meaningful moments of wisdom as well as waste—waste of perfect opportunities to learn from the First Naturalists whose wisdom would soon be lost.

Muir quickly saw that Alaska was a special place. "To the lover of pure wildness Alaska is one of the most wonderful countries in the world." It didn't take him long to have his enthusiasm a bit tempered by the conflict of cultures. He was warned that "the Indians were a bad lot" and that the woods were "impenetrable." Being Muir, he took up the challenges. "These natural difficulties made the grand wild country all the more attractive, and I determined to get into the heart of it." Perhaps he didn't anticipate that a portion of that heart would be found in his interactions with the original Alaskans.

His initial guides were missionaries, their families and their converts, so he stepped immediately into tours of mission schools and evangelical services on this frontier of faith. Always looking for opportunities to escape from the conversion business, both Whites and Natives thought the wild Scotsman was a strange sort, with his unbelievable and unheard-of mission, not to people in darkness but to the mountains of light.

The true spirit of Muir's admiring fascination with Native people and their culture is clear in the contrasts he observed vis-a-vis the "civilized" world. It could be said that he stepped out and beyond cultural prejudice as his experience brought him closer to the people themselves.

He was grateful that Rev. Young brought him into "confiding contact" with the Tlingit tribes so he could learn all about them. Their sense of family honor was particularly touching to Muir who thought that the "perfectly natural, straightforward way" they spoke of death was much healthier than "the vacant, silent, hesitating behavior of most civilized friends." Unlike the city-world, the tribes were unafraid to speak of death, "[sympathizing] with their neighbors in their misfortunes and sorrows." He also noted they were "fond and indulgent parents" who never spanked their children.

On Wrangell island in 1879 Muir was invited, along with three Presbyterian missionaries and their wives, to a dinner with chief Shakes of the Stickeen tribe (Wrangell sits at the mouth of the Stikine River flowing 400 miles from British Columbia). Muir commented that the dinner was good but "there was no trace of Indian dishes." The tribe gave Muir the name Ancoutahan. He was told it translated: "adopted chief." He felt privileged by the honor.

The visitors were entertained with traditional dances of the bear, porpoise and deer after which an Indian woman explained that they would never again dance in this "foolish way" since now they are no longer "blind" and "Jesus Christ tells us what to do." Muir was paying close attention to these words of new converts. Then he records the pathetic words of the chief who thanks the missionaries for bringing the light to the tribe who had lived in darkness, and through their gospel "taught us the right way to live and the right way to die." After the entertainment, the party of Whites was given the robes and headdresses that had been worn by tribal shamans. Muir received one himself.

Why would John Muir relate this story? What motivated the naturalist to pencil his account of the last tribal dances of the Stickeen people? There may be a hint in the words he chose about chief Shakes, who stood to address his converting conquerors "with grave dignity."

Muir re-tells the scene related by his missionary friend,

"When the missionary had finished his sermon, chief Shakes [of the Stickeens] slowly arose, and, after thanking the missionary for coming so far to bring them good tidings and taking so much unselfish interest in the welfare of this tribe, he advised his people to accept the new religion. . . .

'Compared with the white man we are only blind children, knowing not how best to live either here or in the country we go to after we die. . . . But I am too old to learn a new religion, and besides, many of my people who have died were bad and foolish people, and if this word the missionary has brought us is true, and I think it is, many of my people must be in that bad country the missionary calls 'Hell,' and I must go there also, for a Stickeen chief never deserts his people in time of trouble. . . .'

It's obvious that Muir exhibited a greater measure of respect for the chief than the learned "doctors of divinity."

As Muir made his way deeper into the Alaskan wilderness where he "found a home" he must have been haunted by the memories of his time among the Stickeen. When he speaks of hearing the "voice of God" in the "glorious temples" of the mountains, that he had "seen Him and heard Him preaching like a man" out in the "pure wildness," it is in distinct opposition, even defiant heresy, in the context of Christian mission activities and intents.

One "invented excursion" (mission) took Muir into an abandoned Stickeen village led by one missionary who was excited about finding artifacts that "the Indians aboard will dig for us." Muir's reflection is classic:

"It seemed strange, however, that so important a mission to the most influential of the Alaskan tribes should end in a deserted village. But divinity abounded nevertheless; the day was divine and there was plenty of natural religion in the newborn landscapes that were being baptized in sunshine, and sermons in the glacial boulders on the beach where we landed."

One imagines the journal-keeper keeping his mouth shut with these heretical musings! And, ironically, we can both fault Muir for his silence and applaud him for writing these "innocent" words that exposed his reading public to the tragic disappearance of those who also felt "at home" in Alaska.

As he saunters the sad village, Muir is struck with "the excellence of the workmanship" the "admirable geometry" the "completeness of form" and the "skill of a wild and positive kind." He was captivated. With his keen eye for detail, Muir takes some time studying the totems and their meaning in the life of the tribe, the "family pride" and the "truly wonderful" designs. There was a "venerable air" about the scene. He says that, like the Tlingit tribes, these totem poles are lifted with a great feast and dancing by a happy circle of people. "They are always planted firmly in the ground and stand fast, showing the sturdy erectness of their builders." Ancoutahan was unashamed to show his respect and admiration.

What happened next in this ghostly village shocked the sensitive saunterer from California. As Muir tells it,

"While I was busy with my pencil, I heard chopping going on at the north end of the village, followed by a heavy thud, as if a tree had fallen. . .The archaeological doctor called the steamer deck hands to one of the most interesting of the totems and directed them to cut it down. . .and convey it aboard the steamer, with a view to taking it on East to enrich some museum or other. This sacrilege came near causing trouble, and would have cost us dear had the totem not chanced to belong to the Kadachan family, the representative of which is a member of the newly organized Wrangell Presbyterian Church.

Kadachan looked very seriously into the face of the reverend doctor and [asked]: 'How would you like to have an Indian go to a graveyard and break down and carry away a monument belonging to your family?'

However, the religious relations of the parties and a few trifling presents embedded in apologies served to hush and mend the matter."

Muir concludes this awful story with an air of detachment. One could imagine he was stunned to silence, though he was not a man known for silence. He quickly brings this chapter to conclusion with a description of the "glorious sunset" that helped to "clear away the shadows of our meditations among the ruins." After the steamship lands back at Wrangell, he seems to nearly run back to his room with the throw-away comment that this episode was "one of the most memorable of my life."

Alaska: Chief Toyatte of the Chilcats

One other story to relate here concerns chief Toyatte of the Chilcats, "the most influential of all the Thlinkit tribes." Muir had already been hearing stories of the nobility and hospitality of the tribe. Reverend Samuel Young preached to an assembly of 250 in the Chilcat village. The chief expressed thanks, then invited Muir to speak. Muir was reluctant but when compelled simply explained that he was in the land to see the glaciers, mountains and forests. He ended up offering a mini-lecture on "the country God had given them" and "the brotherhood of man." After further meetings over the days ahead, the shaman rose to speak with appreciative words ("the Indian and White man are on the same side of the river, eye to eye, heart to heart").

Muir was treated with great respect and hospitality almost to the point of embarrassment. His five speeches were so well received that he was offered wives, a church, school and other honors!  

The other orator admired by Muir was chief Toyatte. The description we're given of the chief's indoctrination into the Presbyterian Church and his subsequent death speaks volumes on Muir's deep connection to the First Peoples of Alaska. At Fort Wrangell, after Toyatte had spoken of his mother's religion, the shamans and his new faith, Muir wrote,

"In all his gestures, and in the language in which he expressed himself, there was a noble simplicity and earnestness and majestic bearing which made the sermons and behavior of the three distinguished divinity doctors present seem commonplace in comparison."

When Muir returned to Wrangell he learned the old man had been killed in a tribal dispute. Once again, Muir's pencil is as active as a walking stick, as we hear how Toyatte protected Rev. Young and refused to be taken to a safe place in the church:

"[Toyatte said], 'Mr. Young, I am not going to fight. . .I must stay with my young men and share their dangers. . . but I will not fight. But you must go away; you are a minister and you are an important man. Go to your home in the fort.' "

Toyatte was shot and killed. Muir ends this poignant event with these memorial words,

"On this first Alaska excursion I saw Toyatte under all circumstances. . .but never under any circumstances did I ever see him do anything, or make a single gesture, that was not dignified, or hear him say a word that might not be uttered anywhere. He often deplored the fact that he had no son to take his name at his death, and expressed himself as very grateful when I told him that his name would not be forgotten -- that I had named one of the Stickeen glaciers for him."

And, of course, had written of the noble chief's life and tragic death in his last book, Travels in Alaska.

A Native in Nature

In his first published book, The Mountains of California (1894), Muir finds companions in the high country who share his appreciation for the beauty of birds. Unlike apathetic lowlanders, the Digger Indians he meets tell him their names for wild flowers while their children "gather and braid them as decorations for their hair." This primal love is familiar to the bounding botanist.

Muir can, and ought to be, questioned for many of his anglo-centric views and prejudices toward First Nations people. It can certainly be argued that "Muir never managed to integrate completely the figure of Native [Humanity] into his ecological vision of the American wilderness" (Cohen, p. 189), but it cannot be denied, and ought not to be forgotten, that with his pencil in hand he preserved not only a written record of a vanishing culture but, as a zealous missionary of the ice-mountains, he helped to preserve the vast lands where he found home, among his new friends in the wilderness.

Returning to his beloved Sierra temples in 1874, he writes to his good friend, Jeanne Carr, describing an evening on horseback weaving through "the grand priest-like pines." He tells of a "strange mass of tones" carried on the breeze through the trees. His riding companion tells Muir that it's a death chant. "Some Indian is dead." They see fires shining red through the forest, "marking the place of congregation." He felt an "indescribable impressiveness" while he "listened eagerly." He sensed the swells of sorrow were as natural as the world he loved: "falling boulders and rushing streams and wind tones caught from rock and tree were in [the chanting]."

As they ride back into the night, Muir reflects: "I wondered that so much of mountain nature should well out from such a source." He seemed to long for that depth of identity with Nature.

On his 800-mile canoe trip in Alaska (1879), to the uncharted Glacier Bay and beyond, the crew consisted of four Stickeen (including Toyatte), Rev. Young and Muir. The "Ice Chief" as he was known to them, heard many stories from the guides:

"I greatly enjoyed the Indian's camp-fire talk this evening on their ancient customs, how they were taught by their parents ere the whites came among them, their religion, ideas connected with the next world, the stars, plants, the behavior and language of animals under different circumstances, manner of getting a living, etc."

As Wolfe says, "Muir was deeply impressed [that to the Indian mind all Nature was divine]. . .and "with his own deep-seated paganism, felt these children of the wilderness came nearer to the truth. . .than did the tutored, civilized exponents of Christianity."

It would be hard to read the words of the "Ice Chief" without sensing a certain warmth he felt toward his indigenous northern friends.

To conclude, there is one beautiful image that perhaps captures the true heart of Muir among Native People. On the canoe trip north among the Hootsenoo, Muir stayed overnight in a village called Killisnoo. The chief invited the explorers to sleep under his own roof with his family. Muir was delighted, saying, "I never felt more at home. The loving kindness bestowed on the little ones made the house glow."


2014, Updated 2018.



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