Tribe Blocks Renaming of Lake Tahoe Cove for 'Racist' Mark Twain

Monday, 19 May 2014 12:21 PM

By Lisa Degnen

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The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California stopped a section of Lake Tahoe from being named after literary icon Mark Twain on the grounds that the writer was racist towards Native Americans.

Fox News reports that the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names is putting a vote on whether to name a scenic cove on the lake after Samuel Clemens, Twain's real name, on an indefinite hold after it heard the complaints from the tribe, which said the lake is part of its ancestral homeland.

"Samuel Clemens had racist views on the native people of this country and has captured those views in his literature," Darrel Cruz, the head of the Washoe's cultural resource department wrote in a letter to the board, Fox reports. "Therefore, we cannot support the notion of giving a place name in Lake Tahoe to Samuel Clemens."

The letter also said that the "Tahoe" is actually the Washoe word for lake — not quite the way Twain mentioned it in his writings. "It means grasshopper soup, the favorite dish of the digger tribe — and of the Pi-utes as well," Twain is quoted.

Cruz says that was a derogatory term created by Whites in reference to some tribes who dug for roots or ate grasshoppers for food.

Fox cites several history professors who say that Twain had read "false" reports about Native Americans early in his life but, ultimately was a great admirer of them at the end of his life.

James Hulse, history professor emeritus at the University of Nevada-Reno, told the board: "The cove should be named after him because Twain praised Tahoe's beauty while visiting the lake in the early 1860s and became one of America's most beloved authors after assuming his pen name as a Nevada newspaper reporter around the same time. In his early days, [Twain's] ironic-comic mode was insulting to everyone, including governors, legislators, mine bosses, and journalistic colleagues. He learned and overcame his prejudices far better than most of his contemporaries and successors."

It's not the first time Twain has been called a racist. Academics have analyzed the "Tom Sawyer" author's writings for prejudicial undertones for many years, with other claims that Huckleberry Finn was anti-black.

The site Twainweb.net quotes the writer saying in an 1853 to his family: "I reckon I had better black my face, for in these Eastern states, n-----s are considerably better than white people."

But they add that for a Southern white man in that era, "It would probably be impossible not to find some elements of our 20th century definition of racism. However, to call Mark Twain a racist is a fallacy and does a disservice to the contributions he made in the area of colloquial speech, folklore, and narration.

“Mark Twain was far from being a racist. People who still persist in calling Mark Twain a racist should reread 'Huckleberry Finn' and especially Twain's preface: 'Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.'"

Fox reports that another vote on renaming the cove is not likely.

"I have a great deal of respect for the Washoe Tribe. And if their cultural committee is unhappy with naming the cove for Mark Twain, I'm not going to fight them," said board member Robert Stewart. "We need to show sensitivity to the tribe."

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