The Wild Line

Wilderness Reflections

When the dust settles after years of meetings and disputes and intellectual navel-gazing and studies and horse-trading and lies, the administrative act of preserving American wilderness is, in concept, simple. A bold line is drawn around the landscape to identify an area’s special status: no building, no logging, no motors, no roads, “no trace.” As the architects of America’s wilderness ethic intended, the designated land is to revert to a refuge where uninhabited Earth is spared the indignities of asphalt and landfill.

I recall the tingle that shot through my nine-year-old body when I first saw the line. For two or three summers my family camped at a favorite fishing hole on the South Fork of the Payette River, in central Idaho. On days when midday heat numbed trout and small children alike, some grown-up would lure us onto a trail with promises of Vienna sausages and candy bars. A few hundred yards up what is now called the Idaho Centennial Trail, we routinely paused to admire a wooden sign marking our entrance into the Sawtooth Primitive Area. Here was a place where animals ran free, my folks said, where humans only visited.

photo of a woman in elaborate native attire
photo of a bearded and serious manPhotos University of Washington, Taber & Boyd

The line became more real when I encountered a new sign in July 1965: Entering Sawtooth Wilderness Area.

“This is all that’s left of the great American frontier,” Dad intoned. He and Mom had recently joined The Wilderness Society, and in the simplest, most romantic way he could muster, Dad explained how the Wilderness Act became law, saving the natural treasures of a great nation. Lover of history and close calls, Dad regaled us with nail-biters about John Muir, the “grandfather” of wilderness, who survived by grit and blind faith. “Muir was a wild guy,” Dad said, “but he was lucky. The Paiute (whom he taught on the rez) thrived for centuries out here not because of luck, but because it was home. Now you tell me – who’s wilder?”

My father’s question lingered as I tried to discern the division of an otherwise innocuous lodgepole pine meadow. As the others turned for camp, I hopped back and forth over the line. Wilderness, just plain old forest; wilderness, forest. I swore it felt different on the wild side.

The incident propelled me through a half-century of inquiry into the wild line. As a student of “frontier rhetoric,” I explored Native and non-Native relationships with the natural world, an investigation that, over time, confirmed my father’s allusion to the racist implications of the word “wild.” Tecumseh and Thoreau notwithstanding, tracing the roots of American conservation advocacy invariably led to the man whose name I first heard from Dad.

In his crusade to preserve his beloved Sierra Nevada and America’s forests, John Muir sharpened a rhetorical tack dodged by Emerson and Thoreau. While American philosophers and poets waxed romantic over the beauty and restorative powers of wild places, Muir was among the first to argue for their necessity. Like few Euro-American contemporaries, Muir’s sheer personal vigor and scientific acuity deepened his relationship with nature beyond utility or taxonomy. Product of an evangelical upbringing, he fashioned an image of wild nature safe enough for a Christian nation.

Read “evangelical” as righteous passion. Like all true believers, Muir drew a line between good and evil – specifically the superiority of wild over domestic. But – as I learned in the course of my explorations – lines are funny things. Even when inviolate, they can move, pivoting on an axis, as it were. More to the point, a line looks different depending upon which side of the line you stand. For Native people, the wild line all too often meant exclusion, and the inevitable collapse of the Old Ways.

This became especially clear to me when I moved to Alaska in 1980 and felt the environmental icon’s presence in vast landscapes seemingly untouched by humans. How, I wondered, did Alaska Natives respond to “preserved” lands? Did the wilderness status kill culture by locking Natives from their traditional lands, or did it protect the Old Ways by managing lands and resources for future generations?

Muir ventured into Alaska in 1879 lugging with him the then-widespread belief that Native Americans were little more than mythology, pitiable has-beens with “no place in the landscape.” Aboard the steamship from San Francisco, Muir’s missionary companions spoke of the northern Tlingit people as the last of the “wild tribes”– untreatied, warlike, animistic – in a geographic and cultural stronghold untouched by Euro-American influence.

The Chilkat-Chilkoot tribal alliance guarded Jilkaat aani, a 2.6-million-acre territory of tidewater back-channels, primeval valleys, and glacier-cloaked mountains at the northern terminus of the Inside Passage. For perhaps a thousand years, the two tribes subsisted on, among other resources, huge salmon runs on three rivers. Fierce guardians of a rich homeland, the northern Tlingit drew a bold line that prohibited any white settlement.

John Muir persuaded them to redraw the line.

On November 4, a week after Muir “discovered” Glacier Bay, he and his companions paddled to Jilkaat aani and changed the course of history. For five days in the headman’s house, the Reverend Hall Young preached to audiences so large that people ripped boards off the roof to hang from the rafters and listen. A short speech from Muir about “brotherhood” convinced the Tlingits to open their lands to the whites, thus revealing secret trade routes into the Yukon interior. As many as 2,000 Chilkat-Chilkoot converted to Christianity.

“He was the first white man who didn’t want something from us,” says Kim Strong, a former village council president. Sally Burratin, a Klukwan elder, agrees. Her relatives never mentioned the preacher, only Muir, whose uncharacteristically brief homilies possessed “more of God’s power” than any white man they had known. They asked if he might be their missionary, but Muir declined – he was returning to a sweetheart in California, and what would she say?

The first white miners crossed Chilkoot Pass the next spring, producing gold and rumor enough to eventually lead to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 and an attendant Tlingit cultural upheaval.

Although Tlingits credit Muir for his strength as a speaker and peacemaker, they dispute his worship of the wild. “Wilderness is a made-up word,” says Tlingit cultural activist Bob Sam, “because Native people were here as stewards long before John Muir.” The way Sam sees it, Muir created “a religion called conservation” which “disciples follow blindly.” For Native Alaskans, like many Indigenous people, the wild line makes little sense. Wilderness threatens to nullify an ancient relationship with place and snuff out a way of life.

A crowning achievement for Muir’s disciples was the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act of 1980, which set aside 56 million acres of wilderness and 44 million acres of Native-controlled lands. Here in the Last Frontier, wilderness set-asides are subject to the “Alaska exception” that allows, among other things, motorized access to pursue traditional subsistence foods for Natives and rural residents. Most Alaska wildlands are stewarded by those who have the most to lose. In Alaska, the wild line has become squiggly.

Today, some Native Alaskans are beginning to welcome the wild line as a defense of their traditional way of life. In Klukwan, ancestral seat of the Chilkat tribe, up to 80 percent of villagers’ protein comes from the river. Nets that stretch into the Chilkat (meaning “salmon storehouse”) River are prime indicators of community wellness. Full nets mean healthy diets, economic resilience, and community purpose.

Now, a potential mine threatens the Chilkat tribe. Deposits of copper, zinc, gold, and silver found by Constantine Metal Resources at the head of a Chilkat tributary may lead to massive development in the near future. If the mine goes ahead, a toxic legacy of leach field seepage guarantees the end of legendary salmon stocks.

“When it comes to fish, we draw the line,” says Brian Willard, interim Klukwan village manager, of the community’s stance. “It’s not that we’re against all mining. But without salmon we’re gone. Poof.”

By teaming up with watershed groups, Klukwan is in the process of leveraging the wild line for subsistence rights, and once again asserting themselves as protectors of Jilkaat aani.

Alaska changed Muir’s thinking about wilderness and Native Americans, just as it has changed mine. After living among the Tlingit, Muir exclaimed that “Uncle Sam has no better subjects, white, black, or brown, or any more deserving his considerate care.” By today’s standards, Muir’s Alaska journals sound naïve or racist – but they still contain a wisdom of sorts, a reminder that a line runs in two directions, that it can be an exchange.

“Many a good lesson might be learned from these wild children,” he wrote. “They should send missionaries to the Christians.”

For the full story, look for Daniel Lee Henry’s book Across the Shaman’s River: John Muir and the Last Tlingit Stronghold in 2015.

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