Rainbow Gathering Is Spiritual Pilgrimage, Not Exploitation

Scottie Addison

The July 14 column, "Protect He Sapa, Stop Cultural Exploitation," was harshly critical of the 2015 Rainbow Gathering in the Black Hills.

By then the Gathering was nearly complete, with many good things done and in motion -- but this article was one-sided and strident in opposition, inflaming needless unfair hostilities. Knowing what is at stake in the connection of 'Rainbows' & Tribes, this warrants a few thoughtful factual answers.

Mr. Estes speaks indignation in the mantle of Lakota orthodoxy, as if "cultural exploitation" were the Rainbow Gathering's sole purpose, and desecration of sacred lands the only possible effect. His diatribe is uninformed on the nature of this event, conflated with white aggressions and takings of the past, and continuing racist politics in South Dakota. Some of us are not like that... it seems unfitting to invoke scholarly credentials in aupport of such intolerance, in the name of all Lakota.

It is surely true that the Rainbow Gatherings have been inspired and instructed by Native traditions, and arose mindfully in the long legacy of tribal gatherings on this continent. Yes, at the first Gathering in 1972 a mountainside glacier formed a perfect profile of a White Buffalo overlooking the Main Meadow, and this ancient story was told at the beginning... Rainbows adopted the 'Circle Council' from tribal customs, as a model of participatory democracy among equals... Grandfather David came to the 1977 Gathering with affirmations, and many people have walked in his path... and they have performed the old spiral Rain Dances in times of need, and it has rained.

And it is fair to learn from the ways of others, as has always occurred in the meeting of different cultures throughout human history, apart from the conflicts of their warriors -- and this is all the more meaningful and crucial in these evolutionary times. Rainbows have always engaged Native people and observed their practices, sometimes naively but always respectfully. But this is only one dimension of the Gatherings... there's a lot more to it:

Understand that the Rainbow Gathering is a spiritual pilgrimage open to all, welcoming many beliefs and inclusive of many cultures, and a refuge for some wild young spirits and weary older souls in these hard times. We all DO need "rebalance", and may come to this healing space. Those who attend freely bring diverse ideas and customs to expression, not "exploitation"... Native American traditions are just a part of this rich mix, shared in this unique way like nowhere else.

And realize that this is a true 'peaceable assembly' of citizens on public land, affirmed as a personal right under the First Amendment. By law, the National Forests are recognized as a "traditional public forum" for joining in expression and prayer -- yet in these purposes the Gatherings have endured decades of harassment, obstruction, and oppression. They have their own longrunning fight with the Federal Government, a critical constitutional struggle on the Land and in the Courts, for the Right to Gather in cooperation as a distinct form of speech in-itself, for all citizens. They have persisted against all odds for 43 years, and inspired such free gatherings worldwide.

So Rainbows have a strong common cause with the Tribes in preserving public ceremony and stewardship on sacred common ground, in the face of false proprietary claims to these lands.

This is worthy of mutual respect and support, not petty conflict... upon many good meetings over the years, small problems should be easy to resolve in light of our higher purposes.

Then came 2015 in South Dakota, the long-deferred dance with the Feds and the Lakota, where 'Black Hills National Forest' and 'He Sapa' are one and the same place.

Note that the annual Gathering has never come to South Dakota before: It is because Rainbows have always known the importance of these lands, respected Lakota rights and historical claims; they felt imperfect and unready to gather in the right way, as tribal people would wish and with their sanction. No one ever took this prospect lightly, despite appearances.

Last year's Vision Council focused on Northeastern states for the 2015 Gathering... South Dakota was added to that overbroad consensus, but no one expected to go there. It came as a surprise when trusted scouts surfaced there in late May, and the Deerfield Lake site was chosen in June.

Of course this stirred dissensions on all sides, and I shared some concerns... on 6/5 I wrote to friends and colleagues, wishing this had unfolded gracefully over a full year:

"... I am wary of rolling into the Black Hills as an afterthought or loose backup plan. For the Rainbow Gathering to properly go There, it should move on a clear focused Vision, a full commitment to do it Right, and respectful preparations with local people. This Ain't No Disco."

I now see Spirit moving in mysterious ways: It was absolutely Time for this meeting and the reckonings it set loose, and beneficial both ways... it was good that the situation arose and evolved quickly beyond speculation, and folks were able to stand up as humans and disprove our fears.

This Gathering was healthy and harmonious... Lakota people were welcomed in controversy & heartsong, and saw the work of peace... clean-up was thorough & fast, the site was pristine by July 17, the sacred land was safe. In turn some Rainbows went to the Reservation to help set up sundance grounds & special projects... good people met and shared info, and we learned of new threats to tribal land holdings... simple promises were kept, such that bigger promises might be kept in the future.

In light of the dark history, it is fair for the Lakota to be wary of more comers & takers -- but they are not served by rhetoric disparaging worthy friends. A big lesson of these events is about the divisions they reveal within our circles, and from others of common spirit. The Tribe has suffered its own factions and isolation for too long, impeding needed cooperation... the same is true of the Gatherings, and the work to be done in their evolutionary mission.

True scholars are rightly protective of tribal legacy, but this purpose cannot be solely resentful, reactive or exclusive. The old culture is made alive by enacting it and informing the planet openly... in these times its preservation depends on sustainable alliances with others of like mind, and being informed in turn. Some good people, Lakotas & Rainbows, have already started on this path... let us make the most of the unique talents we can bring together.

All My Relations!


Scottie Addison is a community planner, designer, builder, and rightsworker. He left Yale and went to the first Rainbow Gathering in 1972, and many after. A founder of the 'Free Assembly Project' in 1993, he has served as an observer, paralegal, and policy advocate in support of First Amendment exercise and citizen stewardship on public lands. His old mattock got bent in the Black Hills, at the Gathering 'cleanup' weeks ago—and he has ideas on Native lands & rights on the reservations.


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