Thankfulness Buried in the Rubble

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2023

By Robert C. Koehler

Much as I love Thanksgiving — seeing my family . . . oh the turkey, oh the cranberry sauce —I feel like maybe a bomb fragment has hit the “thanks” part.

I find myself struggling to let a sense of thankfulness flow, because when I do — and doing so has always been a crucial part of the holiday — suddenly my gratitude for the blessings of my life starts to feel more like luck and, even worse, privilege. Yeah, how nice. I’m thankful for the books in my library. I’m thankful for the air I breathe, for my daughter, my sister, my nieces and nephews and all the friendship, all the love, that fortifies my life. But then . . .

As I give thanks to the walls of my house, as I kiss the computer at which I sit, I hear bombs flying and suddenly I can envision all of it . . . all of it, all of it … being taken from me in an instant. I envision digging for a child in the rubble.

Yes, this current war that is saturating the media — Israel’s assault on Gaza, funded by the United States, emerging from seven and a half decades of Israeli occupation of Palestine — has entered my consciousness in a way I can’t seem to ignore. It’s only one of several hellish wars festering on Planet Earth right now, but I can’t stop hearing the Israeli defense minister seeming to explain all of them: “We are fighting human animals.”

And once again, genocide is just and righteous and necessary. And history’s soul cracks open. The story of Thanksgiving is two cultures embracing and sharing a feast of life. But then one of the cultures stole the continent. As New York Times reporter Maya Salam wrote some years ago: “Thanksgiving facts and Thanksgiving myths have blended together for years like so much gravy and mashed potatoes, and separating them is just as complicated.”

Yeah, stir in the genocide. Stir in the slavery. The holiday starts renaming itself: Thankstaking.

Here’s a frequently left-out fragment of the Thanksgiving story. It’s the story of Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, a member of the Wampanoag tribe in the 1600s. He’s known to be the Pilgrims’ rescuer who, after half the Pilgrim settlers had died during a harsh winter, taught those who were left some necessary survival skills, including how to catch eel and grow corn.

But, according to, Tisquantum’s story is “less innocent than the narrative that he assisted the Pilgrims with teaching them how to grow crops and take advantage of North America’s bounties.”

What’s generally not mentioned in the classroom is that six years before the Mayflower arrived, in what is now known as Massachusetts, a slave-trader had captured Tisquantum, along with a group of Native Americans, who were taken as captives to Europe. Tisquantum eventually wound up escaping and made his way to England where he learned English. He returned to the American continent in 1619.

As the Potawatomi site explains: “While Tisquantum was overseas, New England’s Indigenous experienced a monumental death rate, with some communities losing nearly every tribal member to the decimating effects of European diseases.

“Upon returning to North American and his village of Patuset, Tisquantum found only piles of bones of his fellow tribesmen killed by the plagues. He realized he was the sole survivor of his village. The illness spread so quickly that many local tribes never had time to bury their dead.

“Where Tisquantum’s village once thrived, the Pilgrims established Plymouth Plantation.”

Tisquantum — escaped slave, sole survivor (because of his capture) of a village wiped out by a plague bequeathed by the Europeans — helped the newcomers learn how to live in their new land. In 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated their successful harvest that year, along with the Wampanoag, who apparently considered themselves allies of the new arrivals. But they weren’t. Instead, genocide ensued.

Wamsutta (Frank) James, a founder of the movement declaring Thanksgiving to be a National Day of Mourning for Native Americans, said in a 1970 speech: “We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end.”

All of which leads me back to the present moment, more or less. A day of thanks? A day of atonement?

As much as the human race has accomplished in the past several hundred thousand years, its evolution hasn’t yet created global social sanity. Despite cries of outrage from the political margins, geopolitical civilization essentially remains organized around the principle of war and conquest: Fragments of humanity are still trying to destroy one another. We’re at a point where our destructive power is so great that we’re on the brink of global suicide.

Sorry to bring this up just as the turkey’s being served. So let me try to find my way back into a spirit of thankfulness, as much as I can muster in the shadow of looming genocide. I am thankful that Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley recently doubled the number of U.S. senators calling for an Israeli ceasefire in the war — from one (Dick Durbin of Illinois) to two.

Merkley said: “Most importantly, the Israeli people and the Palestinian people must find leaders determined to partner with each other and the world to replace the cycle of hate and violence with both a long-term vision for security, peace and prosperity featuring two states for two peoples, and immediate, concrete steps toward that goal.”

The “thanks” feel small, but the hope is enormous.