A CONTROVERSIAL US RAINBOW GATHERING On Sacred Native American Land

Inside this year's Gathering on First Nations territory of the sacred Black Hills in South Dakota

7 Oct 2015

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The Black Hills rising from the Great Plains of North America in western South Dakota, sacred land to many Native American tribes: this was the place chosen as home to this year’s National US Rainbow Gathering.

With an estimated 1 700 Rainbow Family members in attendance, this was the smallest National Rainbow Gathering in decades. It was all at once the source of an unlikely conflict and the potential birth of a new alliance between Native peoples and the Rainbow Family.

 

Photography Teryani Lebendig, Richard Knopf, Chase Iron Eyes and Alice Rouse Colegrove

Text Sophie Pinchetti

 

If you’re no stranger to The Third Eye, then you’ll already be familiar with Rainbow (find out more with the magazines and online stories if not!). Held between 1st July and 7th July, the US National Rainbow Gathering brings together thousands on National Forest Land, where the Rainbow Family of Living Light has been assembling since 1972 – a child of the Sixties counterculture, you might say.

 

Rainbow Gathering in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Photo Teryani Lebendig
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The first Rainbow Gathering ever was held in 1972 on National Forest Land in Colorado, USA. Rainbow Gathering Archives

 

Hopi Grandfather speaking at the US Rainbow Gathering in 1977.
Hopi Grandfather speaking at the US Rainbow Gathering in 1977.

There is much in Rainbow that is inspired by indigenous culture, be it through the tipis, sweat lodges, ceremonies or the telling of the ‘Rainbow Warrior’ prophecy, attributed to the Hopi tribe.

Today, this leaderless ‘non-organisation’ has become a global phenomenon, regularly gathering to build an ephemeral community in the middle of nature, to celebrate Love, Peace, Unity and Respect and to co-create an alternative, sustainable lifestyle.

 

 

 

 

 

A view on the Rainbow Gathering in Michigan.
A view on the Rainbow Gathering in Manistee National Forest, Michigan. Photo Alice Rouse Colegrove

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So how is it that the Rainbow Family of Living Light, who has previously had good relations with Native peoples in the US, found itself in conflict with the Lakota Nation? Why did so many members of the Rainbow Family decide to “boycott” the Black Hills event and set up three other Gatherings around the country?

The fight to uphold indigenous peoples’ land rights is one close to The Third Eye’s heart. And as someone who has been inspired by Gatherings and attending them around Europe and Mexico since 2010, The Third Eye felt compelled to report on this story.

 

Full moon over the Rainbow Gathering in the Black Hills, South Dakota.
Full moon over the Rainbow Gathering in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Photo Teryani Lebendig
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Mount Rushmore National Monument, Where The Faces Of Four U.S. Presidents Are Carved Or, As Many Native People Say, Scarred Into The Sacred Black Hills (Paha Sapa). 2007. Photo John Willis

 

Controversy and division broke out amongst Native peoples and the Rainbow Family when the Black Hills was announced as the location for the 44th Annual Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes in early June. The protest against the Rainbow Gathering was spearheaded by the Native American community organization United Urban Warrior Society with the backing of the Black Hills Treaty Council. By mid June, a Notice of Complaint was served to the Rainbow Family by the Lakota Nation, criticising the Rainbow Family’s decision to hold the Gathering in the Black Hills without prior consultation of the First Nations and for breach of traditional tribal protocol. “If the Rainbow Family does not honour Lakota sovereignty then they are endorsing U.S. colonization of Lakota territory and genocide of our people”, read the Notice of Complaint.

 

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“I feel that the Rainbow Family of Living Light is encroaching on Lakota land with total disregard to our way of life and Spirituality as individuals, as sovereign people and First Nations people”, tells us Nola High Elk West, a woman of Lakota, Mnicoujou tiospaye from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

 

“We still have a deep and real communion
with the spirit world and Mother Earth”

 

The Black Hills, or Pahá Sápa “the heart of everything that is”, as they are known to the Lakota Nation, are the sacred land of several Native American tribes. It has been a site of profound cultural, spiritual and ancestral importance for 12 000 years, where prayers, vision quests and ceremonies such as the Sundance are practiced to this day. “We still have a deep and real communion with the spirit world and Mother Earth”, says Keith Janis, a Lakota Grandfather and Tokala leader from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

 

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The Sundance is one of the most important ceremony practiced by the Lakota (Sioux) and nearly all Plains Indians, held in the midsummer. It is one of the annual traditional ceremonies currently being held in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Archive Photograph.

 

“The Lakota consider the Black Hills the center of our universe. We begin and return there. Our creation story is that we came out of the caves in the Black Hills, from under Mother Earth. We were star people and Morning star came to Earth to help people on Pe’sla, one of our ceremony sites in the Black Hills. Many of our ancestors are buried in the Black Hills”, explains to us Nola High Elk West.

“Their scouts should have been wise enough to know that the Black Hills is unceded Treaty Territory and our Garden of Eden”, says Joye Braun, a Native activist from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe of the Eagle Butte reservation in South Dakota.

 

“Their scouts should have been wise enough to know that the Black Hills is unceded Treaty Territory and our Garden of Eden”

 

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Artwork by Shepard Fairey, as part of the project ‘Honor the Treaties’ created by photographer Aaron Huey. The project aims to educate the public about Native American Treaty rights. This poster was displayed on the infamous Baracudda wall on Melrose, Los Angeles. In 1980 the U.S. Government recognised that the Black Hills had been illegally seized from First Nations but instead of returning the land, they offered the Lakota tribe $105 million in settlement. To this day, the Lakota continue to refuse the money and are still awaiting the return of their ancestral lands.

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Today, the Black Hills is the site of political and legal confrontation, a casualty of one of the most blatant land grabs in U.S. history. In 1868, the U.S. government signed the Fort Laramie Treaty (pictured right), exempting the Black Hills from all white settlement forever. But “in 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the Black Hills had been illegally stolen from the Lakota”, says traditional Lakota leader Canupa Gluha Mani, headman of the Lakota Strong Heart Warrior Society. “The Black Hills is not U.S. National Forest, park land, public land, or America. The Black Hills is Lakota territory.”

Many Rainbow Family members urged others to stay away from the Black Hills Gathering, or the “(un)rainbow (non)gathering occupation of Black Hills, Lakota Territory”, as some called it. “90% of the family was dead set against going”, says an anonymous Rainbow Family member, who has been attending for 27 years. “I feel that instead of creating unity we brought division among both the Lakota people and the Rainbow Family”.

 

Left: Lakota Notice of Complaint, June 2015. Right: Map to the Black Hills Rainbow Gathering, June 2015.
Left: Lakota Notice of Complaint, June 2015. Right: Map to the Black Hills Rainbow Gathering, June 2015. Below: A sign near the site of the Rainbow Gathering, Courtesy Lakota Strong Heart Warrior Society.

 

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“We publicly offer this apology for this breach of protocol and trespass and the lack of respect that has been shown to the Lakota Nation”, reads a Press Release issued by some members of the Rainbow Family. Many Rainbow Family members were baffled with the situation, which saw “the Rainbow Family in a bizarre argument with the Lakota, supporting the US Forest Service against the sovereign custodians of the Black Hills. Breaking our own traditions to do so”, explains Geoff, a Rainbow Family member.

 

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Circle on the 4th July at the US Rainbow Gathering in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Photo Teryani Lebendig

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On the ground, positive reports were nevertheless being made. “The situation on the land is amazing. The locals and the indigenous welcome us with open arms”, The Shining Light Kitchen told The Third Eye.

“There was a spiritual presence at that gathering that left me in awe”, told us Rainbow veteran Richard Knopf, “the July 4th silence & prayer were wonderful and emotionally moving”.

Some Native people voiced their support for the Gathering and even attended it, such as Chase Iron Eyes, a Lakota writer, activist and co-founder of The Last Real Indians, who called for an alliance between the Rainbow Family and the Lakota Nation: “I feel that it’s time for indigenous peoples, the original nations of this continent, to step up. Instead of creating division, we should be creating alliances and building bridges. […] I hope the Rainbow people stay in the Black Hills until the United States does the honourable thing and returns all federal lands back to the Lakota, Cheyenne & Arapaho & pays us for the 74 Billion taken in gold alone.”

 

“I feel that it’s time for indigenous peoples, the original nations of this continent, to step up. We should be creating alliances and building bridges”, says Chase Iron Eyes, a Lakota activist and writer

 

Lakota writer and activist Chase Iron Eyes at the US Rainbow Gathering in the Black Hills, South Dakota, July 2015.
Lakota writer and activist Chase Iron Eyes at the US Rainbow Gathering in the Black Hills, South Dakota, July 2015. Photo Chase Iron Eyes

 

Speaking of the Rainbow Gathering’s alternative lifestyle, Chase Iron Eyes comments: “Think before you make your mind up about whether we should welcome or demonize the Rainbow Family, they are seeking a new reality just like us.”

 

A view on the US Rainbow Gathering in the forested higlands of the Black Hills, South Dakota.
A view on the US Rainbow Gathering in the forested higlands of the Black Hills, South Dakota. Photo Richard Knopf

 

“There are a number of other long-term plans in the works, all involving strengthening the alliance we’ve now just created.”

 

Some Rainbow Family people report that alliances were created with the few Lakota who attended. “We had everyone from members of the treaty council and regular tribal councils (Pine Ridge and Rosebud) to Grassroots AIM, traditional grandmothers, and many others coming through and blessing our gathering”, says Teryani Lebendig, a Rainbow Family member attending since 1992. “There are a number of other long-term plans in the works, all involving strengthening the alliance we’ve now just created.”

 

Inside a tipi at the Rainbow Gathering in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Photo Chase Iron Eyes
Inside a tipi at the Rainbow Gathering in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Photo Chase Iron Eyes

 

The positive connections that the Family made with the few Lakota who showed up in the Black Hills will hopefully bear good fruit”, says an anonymous Rainbow Family member, who was invited by the Lakota to mediate between the Lakota and Rainbow peoples at the Black Hills Gathering. “Nonetheless, we’ve damaged our relations with all traditional societies by our actions in the Black Hills, by failure to follow protocol. This may take years to repair.”

 

Kiddie Village at Night
Cooking at night at the Rainbow Gathering in the Black Hills, South Dakota. Photo Teryani Lebendig

 

Meanwhile, in California, on July 4th, an echo of the Black Hills Gathering conflict was manifested, as the Winnemem Wintu tribe raised a “Cease and Desist” order, asking the Rainbow Family to leave the Mount Shasta region where a regional Gathering was taking place.

“I hope someday this Family will be less splintered by the deep divisions that plague not just this year’s Gathering, but our larger family of humanity as well”, says Keith Janis, a Lakota Grandfather and Tokala leader from Pine Ridge reservation.

 

Rainbow Gathering in Colorado, USA. Photo by Pierre Blanche.
The first ever Rainbow Gathering in Granby, Colorado, USA. The snow melts to reveal the silhouette of a white buffalo on the mountain. Photo Pierre Blanche
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The original invitation to the first Rainbow Gathering EVER – held in 1972 in Colorado, USA.
 

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