Plan to name Lake Tahoe cove after Mark Twain scrapped after tribe complains

An effort to name a Lake Tahoe cove after American literary icon Mark Twain has been scuttled for the second time in three years, citing opposition from a tribe that says the writer held racist views of Native Americans.

The Nevada State Board on Geographic Names this week voted to indefinitely table the request after hearing opposition from the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, whose ancestral homeland includes Lake Tahoe. Darrel Cruz, head of the tribe's cultural resource department, said the late author did not deserve to have a scenic cove on the lake’s northeast shore named for Samuel Clemens, Twain’s real name.

"Samuel Clemens had racist views on the native people of this country and has captured those views in his literature," Cruz wrote in a letter to the board. "Therefore, we cannot support the notion of giving a place name in Lake Tahoe to Samuel Clemens."

Cruz cited Twain's opposition to the naming of the lake as Tahoe, which is derived from the Washoe word "da ow" for lake. He also took exception to a Twain quote about Lake Tahoe: "People say that Tahoe means 'Silver Lake' — 'Limpid Water' — 'Falling Leaf.' Bosh! It means grasshopper soup, the favorite dish of the digger tribe — and of the Pi-utes as well."


Washoes dislike being referred to as the "digger tribe," Cruz said, a derogatory term applied to some tribes in the West who dug roots for food. Other tribes ate grasshoppers.

Joseph Csicsila, an English professor at Eastern Michigan University, told that Twain's hostile attitude toward Native Americans has been well documented, but said there's more to the story.

"Twain's harsh depictions of Native Americans was in large part a response to the twin experiences of reading the 'false' accounts of Indian characters such as James Fenimore Cooper's Chingachgook in nineteenth-century romantic literature and his firsthand disillusioning experiences with some Native peoples in the West," Csicsila wrote in an email."That said, Twain gradually became sympathetic toward and even admiring of Native Americans in the final decades of his life."

James Hulse, history professor emeritus at the University of Nevada-Reno, said it's irrelevant whether Twain's writings were insulting to Native Americans. 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, Hulse said.

"In his early days, (Twain's) ironic-comic mode was insulting to everyone, including governors, legislators, mine bosses and journalistic colleagues," he told the board. "He learned and overcame his prejudices far better than most of his contemporaries and successors."

Thomas Quirk, an English professor emeritus at the University of Missouri and leading Twain scholar, said the author eventually overcame his racism against blacks. But Quirk said he has found no evidence that he significantly changed his views on American Indians.

Twain did not embrace the idea of idolizing what he called the "noble red man," Quirk said, and poked fun at writer James Fenimore Cooper for doing so.

"When it comes to African-Americans, he was ahead of his time substantially," he said. "When it comes to Native Americans, his record is not very good. If he were alive today, he would sing a different tune."

Meanwhile, Bruce Michelson, a Fulbright professor of American literature at the University of Antwerp, told that the cove shouldn't be named after Twain, not because of any racist views, but because the famous author, by his own account, once let a campfire of his get out of hand and ignite a big swath of forest -- while Twain and a friend climbed into a rowboat and watched while out on the water.

"Naming this stretch of beach after him would be a bit like naming some brushy Hollywood hilltop for a guy who dropped a cigarette there and burned a block of McMansions," Michelson said. "We have Mark Twain hotels and cafes and casinos; we have Mark Twain trailer parks and hotels and pizza parlors and riverboats, and the list goes on and on. Mark Twain is not going to be forgotten. So it's okay by me if they name this cove after some other Lake Tahoe legend instead."

Board member Robert Stewart, who initiated the plan to name the cove for Clemens, said it's unlikely it would resurface.

Stewart said he dropped his support of it, even though he learned about a later letter Twain wrote objecting to the treatment of tribes in Arizona and New Mexico.

"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," Stewart said. "We need to show sensitivity to the tribe."

Stewart said he still believes the cove near Incline Village is where Twain camped and accidentally started the wildfire while preparing to cook dinner in September 1861. But David Antonucci, a civil engineer from Homewood, Calif., maintains Twain camped on the California side of the lake.

It's the second time the bid to name the cove for Twain failed. In 2011, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names rejected the request after the U.S. Forest Service said Twain's influence on the Sierra Nevada lake was minimal and other historical figures were more deserving of the honor.

Supporters sought to honor him because there's no geographic feature in the state named for Twain, whose book "Roughing It" put Nevada on the map.

Fox News' Joshua Rhett Miller and The Associated Press contributed to this report.