Pine Nuts: Mark Twain and the Native American

Racism, by its definition, is based upon a supposition that one’s own race is superior to another. Mark Twain was as hard on whites as he was on anybody: “There are many humorous things in the world, among them, the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other savages.”

The recent controversy surrounding “Clemens Cove” being tabled by the Nevada State Board on Geographic Names due to a protest by our Native Americans is an issue that begs examination.

Personally, I revere the Washoe and Paiute people. They were better stewards of the Tahoe Basin than we have ever been or probably ever will be.

I have smoked the pipe of peace in a Washoe longhouse, joined hands and hearts in a Paiute tribal dance at Lake Pyramid, and hosted Washoe music and legend at the Mark Twain Cultural Center. I admire, respect and honor our Native Americans.

As an impressionist of Mark Twain, I am sensitive to the fact that the Native American was a blind spot in Twain’s moral vision, along with the French, Portuguese and Mary Baker Eddy.

Samuel Clemens was a racist in his younger day, even up to the time of writing Roughing It. But like many young prejudiced Americans he was able to outgrow his racism.

He then went on to expose and condemn racism by writing the strongest indictment of bigotry and narrow-mindedness of its time, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

He sent African American student, Warner McGuinn, to Yale Law School as “…partial reparation every white man owes to every black man.”

Had Samuel Clemens lived a little longer, I have to believe he would have tried to right Mark Twain’s unflattering and unfair portrait of our Native American. He hinted at it in his last major work.

Twain scholar Joe McCullough reminds us that in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven, when the narrator encounters an old ‘Pi Ute’ friend from Earth, he maintains, “He was powerful glad to see me, and you may make up your mind I was just as glad to see him, and feel that I was in the right kind of a heaven at last.”

In a small way, I can attempt to mend this fence myself with my work in the schools, at the Mark Twain Cultural Center, at various NV150 celebrations and aboard the Tahoe Queen this summer.

I can point out that the Native American women could identify over a hundred different medicinal herbs and apply them effectively. The men were just as accomplished in fishing and hunting, while providing a healthier diet than we enjoy today at Tahoe.

To facilitate this objective, I have asked our state archivist, Jeff Kintop, to arrange a meeting with Washoe and Paiute tribal elders, so that I can assimilate knowledge that might salve some hurts from a less sensitive time.

There might even be Washoe or Paiute words for “fairest picture,” as in “the fairest picture the whole earth affords,” that could one day become an acceptable name for Clemens Cove.

In the few years I have left to portray Mark Twain I plan to do my best to shed a more accurate and considerate light on our Native Americans, then and now.

In closing, I would like to call on Mark Twain for a final word…

“Always do right, this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Learn more about McAvoy Layne at


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