Pipelines and the Meaning of Thanksgiving

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Bakken / Dakota Access Oil Pipeline by Tony Webster, on FlickrDuring the last weeks of November, I like to share this quotation from the Autobiography of Mark Twain that focuses on Thanksgiving:

Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.

When I ask students to brainstorm things that they associate with Thanksgiving before they read this quotation, they discuss things like family, turkey, football, friends, pie, parades, and shopping. When they turn to more abstract concepts, they talk about tradition, patriotism, and thankfulness. Twain’s take on Thanksgiving forgoes all these feel-good ideas and zeros in on some ugly facts about the treatment of American Indians.

Twain’s syntax is complex, so I start by breaking down Twain’s passage and unpacking the words. I ask students to look in particular at the word choice Twain is using to communicate his opinion on the meaning of Thanksgiving:

  • It’s a function, rather than a holiday or celebration. 
  • The pilgrims are “those people.”
  • The function marks “exterminating their neighbors.”

There’s no whitewashing in Twain’s account of Thanksgiving. He uses tough words, and his meaning is clear. Thanksgiving for Twain is not about a harvest festival, family, or the good old days. It’s about “the white man” exterminating American Indians—and constructing a scenario where the Lord approves and should be thanked for this accomplishment.

Currently, American Indians from many nations are coming together to protest the pathway of the Dakota Access Pipeline through the sacred lands of the Standing Rock Tribe. As I consider the protesters’ fear that the pipeline will contaminate their water supply, I have to wonder if Mark Twain would see the situation as yet another moment in America’s history focused on exterminating American Indians. It’s a question that I want students to take up in their discussion by exploring the facts that are reported, those that are not mentioned, and the language that is used to discuss the protesters and their fight to protect their community.

The idea of discussing Mark Twain’s perspective on Thanksgiving is one that I originally explored in a 2010 post from my personal blog. Sadly, his commentary on treatment of American Indians is still on point if the situation in North Dakota is any measure.

How are you talking about political issues and current events with students this term? Please share your ideas in the comments.



Credit: Bakken / Dakota Access Oil Pipeline by Tony Webster, on Flickr, under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.