Decolonizing the Black Bear Ranch Hippie Commune

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

The social revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s was a time of positive change for American Indian people and America in general. Indians got self-determination as official federal Indian policy, ethnic minorities gained a greater degree of civil rights, and the United States got out of the Vietnam War. On the negative side, hippies flocked to Indian reservations searching for Indian wisdom, in the process committing a form of theft Indian people now refer to as cultural appropriation.

During those turbulent times the hippies literally ran for the hills in their attempts to escape a spiritually bankrupt social system and set up communes, inspired to a great degree by what they perceived to be American Indian lifestyles and values. Many of them, such as Black Bear Ranch in Northern California, still survive today.

In 2006 a documentary was made about BBR.

The communes were well-intentioned enough, fueled as they were by a desire to transcend systems of greed, social inequality, and environmental degradation the hippies had inherited from their ancestors.

But what they also inherited was a sense of settler entitlement to land based on that very system of capitalist greed they were trying to overcome. Most of them hadn’t thought twice that the lands they were buying were stolen from the very people they were trying to emulate; they were just looking for good deals. But what they did in the process was repeat the patterns of settler colonialism they were simultaneously condemning. (For more on the topic of hippie communes and Indians see the book “Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power” by Sherry L. Smith).

Black Bear Ranch was founded ironically on the slogan “free land for a free people,” apparently oblivious to the fact that the land was stolen in the first place. Some of the Black Bear Ranch people are beginning to see themselves as complicit with settler colonialism in their idealist visions.

Recently an open letter was written to the BBR members and “family” from a coalition of former BBR residents pointing out the ways the commune is founded on these contradictions. The letter raises the question, “can it be ‘free land’ if it is stolen land?”

Written by non-Natives calling themselves “Unsettling Klamath River,” the letter skillfully employs the language of settler colonialism:

“[We] are an open community collective of settlers, many us former Black Bear residents, living on the Klamath and Salmon Rivers working to understand and respond to the ‘elephant in the room’: the continued occupation of Karuk, Hoopa, Yurok, Konomihu, Shasta, and Shasta New River Homelands. While we understand that the values of settler society are the problem and not necessarily settler people themselves, we recognize that we have a responsibility to face our position as beneficiaries of settler colonialism (even though we have not intended to benefit in this way).”

The letter goes on to explain the ways the “back to the land” counterculture people built communities that reflected their own values but simultaneously became “part of the same system that created westward expansion, advertised famously with the promise of ‘Indian Land for Sale.’” It describes “portals” that further inundated and displaced indigenous populations with settlers (such as BBR). The letter calls for closing the portals through a process of land repatriation:

“We further believe that it would be a beautiful act for this family to offer to repatriate—return—the land base we call Black Bear Ranch. We can’t say what this will look like, though this is a real conversation happening in these communities. The more voices and creativity that are a part [of] this conversation, the more powerful and possible this healing process will be. We do know that repatriation is a complete release of ownership and control, so it is important that this action is approached in that spirit, without any contingency on what happens on the land after the transfer. There are emerging ideas among Indigenous people about what this land project could become. We feel repatriation would be regenerative, healing and directly responsive to the wounds created by settler colonialism.”

In 2012 scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang wrote a hard-hitting essay called “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor.” The essay reminds readers of the ways the concept of decolonization has been used by non-Natives, losing the core of its meaning—a political process to return land and self-determination to indigenous peoples. The authors talk about “settler moves to innocence” that strive to reconcile settler guilt and complicity and ensure settler future existence.

Tuck and Yang also call for an “ethic of incommensurability,” meaning that decolonization is not responsible for answering the questions of settlers’ futures. Those futures may not be knowable presently, but will reveal themselves in time.

The letter to Black Bear Ranch by the “Unsettling” group is a remarkable example of how some conscientious settlers are attempting to decolonize indigenous lands. It enacts an ethic of incommensurability by not demanding to know how decolonizing the lands will affect their own futures.

There is a non-defensive recognition of themselves as settlers, free of any moves toward settler innocence. It is a small ray of hope that some settlers are capable of standing in solidarity with indigenous peoples in a profoundly meaningful way to break down the oppressive systems that are threatening all of our futures, settler and indigenous alike.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a freelance writer and Research Associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She was educated at the University of New Mexico and holds a bachelor’s degree in Native American Studies and a master’s degree in American Studies. Follow her blog at DinaGWhitaker.wordpress.com.

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Sammy7's picture
I could better understand your position Dina, if this land was being repatriated to Traditional Indian Peoples whose beliefs in cooperation and reciprocity were were intact; however, returning it to assimilated Indian Peoples, whose values are competition and greed seems a one sided exercise that lacks balance and harmony. In sum, it will likely create disharmony.
kenoli's picture
Dina -- I'm sure your intentions are as good as those you describe in your article as being insensitive to the damage they have done in spite of their good intentions; the description you give of the consciousness of the people who bought BBR originally is a bit inaccurate. I also think that, generally, BBR folks don't think of BBR as a "hippy commune" in the manner in which you describe hippy communes. We were and are a conscious group, quite aware of the history of the land and its relations to Native Americans and went to great ends to act in alignment with that awareness. We had connections and relations with various tribes. We had a print shop in Oakland and printed a newsletter for the Indians who took over Alcatraz and were welcomed onto the island as the "Free" tribe. We travelled with Indians to pyramid lake and elsewhere, connecting with and honoring their traditions while sharing each others traditions. We held the land for decades in the name of one person who honored the tradition that those living on land knew best for the land until we discovered a legal means to, essentially, take the land out of private ownership and place it in a legal structure that left the use of the land up to the people who took the time and had the energy to occupy the land and care about it. One of the founders of Black Bear is an anthropologist who has studied, honored and written about Native American matters, as well as working for the Karuk tribe where he is currently employed as a consultant. The "hippy" movement was nowhere nearly the unconscious, unwitting group as your article describes it. In fact, it was about consciousness, about paying more attention to ourselves and the world, about people, nature and land around us, about the systems that had done so much damage to the world, and also about traditions, from which were could learn much. Many of us gave our time, our energy and even our lives to better understand the world and ourselves giving all we could to try to make it a better place. The land has already been given back, but not simply to the Karuk tribe or any other tribe, but to the tribe of humans who connect with the land in a way that expands and grounds our awareness, each other and the world we create together. We are not all mindless people stumbling over our good intentions to damage to ourselves and others; the "hippy" movement of the 60s was much more in ways that still elevate the world we live in. --Kenoli