For those unfamiliar with the Rainbow Gathering, it's the annual get together for the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a name that definitely does not sound like an offshoot of the Manson Family, and has been happening every July since 1972. They're a counterculture movement with no formal leadership structure, and the only thing one needs in order to be a member of this family is a bellybutton, a requirement I randomly discovered not every human on the planet is able to fulfill. They call themselves "Rainbows", and the gatherings are meant to be a community free from indoor plumbing and the evils of our capitalistic society, which they refer to as Babylon. It's basically Burning Man's extra crunchy older brother who disappeared for a few years in the sixties and came back a little weird.
The gatherings are somewhat controversial in that they're usually held on federal lands, much to the dismay of the Natives who originally lived there, although in the past there have been some people within the tribes who were willing to work with the Rainbows to make sure they're respectful to sacred sites and surrounding communities. However, this is hard to do with a gathering that can attract up to 20,000 people, and one of the major concerns around the event is the impact that all those people camping and pooping in one spot for weeks has on the environment.
I spoke to Detroit-based activist June Aweri about the environmental and cultural destruction they witnessed while documenting the 2015 Rainbow Gathering in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
"The gathering not only ecologically affects the land, but it's also setting a precedent for people to come in and do whatever they want on burial sites and on other sacred sites," says Aweri, who was based in Portland at the time and made the 1,300 mile trek to the Black Hills.
The scene they describe is one of environmental and cultural devastation, which included trees being cut down, accounts of sexual assault, appropriation of Native cultures, overt racism, like cutesy references to slavery, and damaged root systems thanks to the numerous trench latrines brimming with human waste. The worst of the "We're all one race: human" brand of politics that many of the Rainbows adopt.
"It's the most subversive kind of white supremacy," Aweri explains, "because it's done under the guise of some sort of obtuse spirituality."
It seems like everywhere the Rainbow Family goes, grievances follow, and this year was no different as there's already been a handful of incidents at the event. The Burns Paiute Tribe have also asked that the Rainbows respect their lands, but making sure this happens is another story, as one of the things that makes the group so difficult to work with is that they have no formal organizational structure. They also have a history of demanding to only speak with "real" Native leadership, a hypocrisy for a group with supposedly no leaders themselves, something that Diné/Ihanktonwan writer and #NotYourMascot creator Jacqueline Keeler pointed out in her article on the 2015 gathering in the Black Hills.
Now I'm not anti-hippie, I graduated from UC Santa Cruz for Christ's sake. I'm even listening to the Grateful Dead's Sunshine Daydream while I write this, so my tolerance for hippie bullshit is pretty high compared to others. I just think the Rainbow Gathering needs to work out an agreement with someone, somewhere, to find a permanent home for their annual celebration, instead of taking their traveling circus on the road to wreak havoc on a different piece of sacred Native land every year.
I don't know, maybe a place that has basic infrastructure like bathrooms and garbage facilities, like this blog post from 2004 suggests? It's also not a bad idea to have some sort of leadership structure and community accountability measures in place, so that maybe there's a chance someone who comes into camp calling themselves "Hitler" will be dealt with before they stab someone. And even though a good number of Rainbows always stay behind to clean up the site in the weeks after, having the event in the same spot each year could help in promoting stewardship of the land, which in turn could reduce the environmental damage that the group leaves behind.
So before you go getting mad at me for harshing on people's grooves, just know that I don't think it's a kind or reasonable thing to ask the Rainbow Family to stop their community gathering. But at the risk of sounding like a crotchety old lady, it's time for them to settle down and find a place of their own, and be sure to keep your fingers crossed that this year's Rainbow Gathering leaves as few footprints as possible.