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John Muir, Indigenous erasure, and conservation reckoning

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Rogelio Luque-Lora.

The great naturalist and environmental advocate John Muir is well-known for his silence around the question of Native peoples, even and especially those who were violently removed from the lands in and around the places he most revered. Yet his 1913 book, “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth,” is notable for its saturation with descriptions of Native people and activity in the places around which the Muir family settled in Wisconsin in the 1840s, a little more than a decade after the violent conclusion of the Blackhawk War. Combining a close reading of the text with a psychoanalytic interpretation of this remarkable reversal reveals Muir’s repression of Native memories, which parallels the larger American erasure that accompanied that era’s genocide. A Lacanian analysis, moreover, suggests that such repression is necessarily never complete, and tends to erupt in the form of repetitive compulsion, announcing itself through the activities of conservation and the founding of the national parks system. Meaningful steps towards redressing historical inequity and violence, while advancing a more just model of conservation, require acknowledgment of this repression in Muir’s psyche and our own as settlers. This holds further implications for the role of the unconscious in political ecology more generally.

This talk is part of the Political Ecology Group meetings series.

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