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ELS Book Club Event: The Yosemite by John Muir and Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks by Mark David Spence

September 22, 2022 @ 5:30 pm 6:30 pm

Free event!

In October 2022, ELS is thrilled to welcome section members, panelists and guests back to Yosemite for our iconic Annual Conference. The August Book Club will explore Yosemite National Park’s long and painful history, which cannot be separated from its scenic beauty.

For over a century, the narrative of the national park system was best summarized in Ken Burn’s famous documentary series, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” Burn waxes eloquent, describing the park system as “an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence and just as radical: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone.” John Muir, a founder of the Sierra Club, and his seminal work, The Yosemite, form the basis for this narrative.  

But also “uniquely American” is settler colonialism, a coordinated genocidal campaign to murder and assimilate Native people and divest them of their land. As Muir scholars now recognize,  “Sierra Club leaders during Muir’s time advocated for white supremacy, racial purity, Asian exclusion, and forced sterilizations of women based on eugenicist notions of race, class and disability. Their ideas would come to influence the racist ideologies of Nazi leaders.” The national park system that Muir championed “displaced Indigenous nations and dispossessed them of their lands, recasting their homes as ‘wilderness,’ often in violation of treaties that serve as federal and international law.” To understand this dimension of NPS history, we will also read Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks by Mark David Spence. (It is also deeply questionable that the “everyone” John Muir and national leaders considered when picturing the park’s visitors included BIPOC. ELS’s October 2021 Book Club selection, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, by Carolyn Finney is an excellent resource for further reading on the African-American experience in public open space.)

Further Reading:

Want to learn more? Check out these articles, podcasts and books:

  • John Muir College, Environmental Justice in the Wake of John Muir at with links to articles discussing the formation of the Sierra Club, Native removal and the creation of the National Park Service
  • David Treur
    • Return the National Parks to the Tribes, The Atlantic, May 2021
    • The Problem with America’s National Parks, Podcast, The Atlantic, April 15, 2021)
  • Dino Gilio-Whitaker, As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock (2019)
  • Philip Burnham, Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans and the National Parks (2012)
  • Robert H. Keller and Michael F. Turek, American Indians and National Parks (1999)
  • Discovery of the Yosemite in 1851 by Lafayette Houghton Bunnell, M.D. of the Mariposa Battalion, One of the Discoverers. Originally published in 1880 and sold in gift shops at YNP, Brunnell’s first-hand account recounts the brutal military campaign in Yosemite and depicts early American attitudes towards Native people.

The Yosemite is available to read for free through the Sierra Club at Or reduce your carbon footprint by checking these titles out from your local library, purchasing a used copy, listening to an audio book which supports local booksellers or by purchasing a physical copy from a local bookstore. 

We are committed to accessibility! Virtual events are equipped with closed captioning. To request an in-person accommodation, send us a note at or contact us at 916-516-1760 for assistance.


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