The Paiutes of Nevada got kicked around pretty good throughout history. “Brutal” is a fair word to describe their treatment by Americans.
So, if they are a little upset in 2014, well, I suppose they have reason to be.
But branding Mark Twain and other historical figures bumping around Nevada in the 1800s as racist for using the “D” word (“digger” tribe) doesn’t seem productive.
It attempts to make a judgment across the span of 150 years that, in the end, becomes both unreasonable and unsustainable.
Calling a racist the man who penned “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” in the wake of slavery and the great social changes after the Civil War, seems particularly harsh.
For those unfamiliar, this controversy jumped into the news last month when the Nevada State Board of Geographic Names considered naming a cove at Lake Tahoe after Samuel Clemens, Twain’s real name.
The Washoe tribe, which considers its homeland to be the Lake Tahoe area, objected. The tribe’s head of the cultural resource department, Darrell Cruz, said, “Samuel Clemens had racist views on the native people of this country and has captured those views in his literature.”
A chief complaint against Twain is that he described the Washoes as a “digger tribe.”
Brother, let me tell you, if we were to erase from the map the names of places that carry the references of historical figures who used the word “digger tribe,” a good chunk of California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah would be in need of new names.
John C. Fremont, Kit Carson and just about all Spanish and Mormon leaders and explorers of their time might be considered racists by this standard.
In Aaron McArthur’s book about the Muddy River Mormon outpost “St. Thomas — A History Uncovered” he writes:
“John C. Fremont was not kind in his estimation of the tribe (Paiutes in the Moapa Valley). In his memoirs, he wrote, ‘In these Indians I was forcibly struck by an expression of countenance resembling that in a beast of prey; and all their actions are those of wild animals. Joined to the restless motion of the eye, there is a want of mind — and absence of thought — and an action wholly by impulse, strongly expressed and which strong expressed the similarity.’”
Based on that, there are many Fremont names that need to be changed in the West, including downtown Las Vegas’ premier gaming attraction, The Fremont Street Experience.
Fremont’s traveling companion and good buddy, Kit Carson, also might have some explaining to do. He has the Carson Valley, the Carson River and Nevada’s capital city Carson City to contend with. Although you’d be hard pressed to call Carson a racist, given he married a Native American and lived among Indians a good part of his life, he’s hated by the Navajo for his part in their detention by the U.S. Army. The Utes revere him, while other tribes consider him a ruthless killer of women and children.
Most pioneers of the West bear a similar historical problem, if they are to be judged only through new-century eyes. Many a school, street, mountain, ferry, river and bluff are named after Mormon pioneers, for example.
As McArthur’s book notes, “Whites who did not understand the exigencies of surviving in the desert with limited technology derided the Paiutes’ eating habits. The Southern Paiutes were also referred to as ‘Diggers’ by whites because of their habit of carrying a stick with which they constantly probed and dug, looking for edible roots, insects and reptiles.”
So, if using the “D” word is the standard, must we rename Brigham Young University based on the idea that at one time or another, he may have used, heard and tolerated the term “digger” to refer to Indians the saints encountered in trying to settle Nevada?
Of course not. And so the same with Mark Twain.
A more productive approach is for Nevadans to take more seriously the history of this state. In Las Vegas, for example, there are precious few museums dedicated to telling the story of the Paiutes and other tribes. It’s a travesty, really.
The Santa Fe Trail once cut through this beautiful valley. Now there’s hardly a trace, covered by rooftops, pools and fake grass.
We have important and little-known historical sites within the Las Vegas Valley — such as Sloan Canyon — that need better protection and preservation.
If we can remind the next generation of Las Vegans that life here did not begin with the Spanish explorers, or John C. Fremont, or the Mormons, or even worse, with Bugsy Siegel, we’ll be ahead of the game.
Sherman Frederick, former publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame, writes a column for Stephens Media. Read his blog at www.reviewjournal.com/columns-blogs/sherman-frederick.