A Gathering of the Tribes

A report from the 1993 World Peace and Healing Gathering of the Rainbow Family of Living Light

By Lewis MacAdams

Lightning greets us as we roll into Alabama, boiling out of ferocious thunder-storms that swept across the foothills of the Southern Appalachians. By the time our rented Chevrolet climbs the last dusty forest road into the Talladega National Forest, the heat and humidity are smothering the northeast corner of the state like a soggy blanket.

But that's not what is bothering Robbie Gordon. What's bugging Robbie is that we haven't seen any Rainbows. He has been coming to Rainbow Gatherings since 1980, crisscrossing the country in a rusting Ford Country Squire station wagon with a spare tire in the back seat, and he has never seen so few hippies this close to a gathering site.

Finally we spot some likely candidates peering under the hood of an old van parked next to a creek. Robbie leans out to ask directions. "Welcome home, brother," says a guy with dreads and a grease-streaked T-shirt waving us up a rutted side road. Robbie visibly relaxes. "Welcome home, brother," Robbie calls back, "Welcome Home, Sister." A woman with the face of a drinker waves and smiles. After three days of driving, we are nearly home: the 1993 World Peace and Healing Gathering of the Rainbow Family of Livng Light. We arrive at the Welcome Home Gate, which is like a border crossing between parallel universes; longhairs tumbling out of vans and buses with their camping equipment, Alabama State Troopers and Forest Service cops waving the snarled traffic through as rednecks in CRIMSON TIDE baseball caps slow their pickups down to gawk. Arguments flare over nothing. A skinny guy in a loin cloth and a cowboy hat with a hand-painted cardboard sign hanging around his neck reads, I HAVE STAPH, I HAVE AIDS, comes over and gives us a big hug, Robbie knows him.

In the heat and the madness and the dust, the scene at Welcome Home looks like a frieze of wrathful demons and deities that guards the outside of Buddhist Temples.

In front of a canvas-covered lean-to draped with a spray-painted banner reading WE Love ALCOHOLICS, WE JUST DON'T LOVE ALCOHOL, a human chain of teen-agers in Mohawks and tattoos is loading produce boxes packed with fresh sweet corn onto a handcart that disappears down a path, pulled by a pair of half-naked teenage girls already sweating under the load. We stumble after them.

JUST SAY YES is scrawled across another banner, this one stretched above the first bend in the trail. Beside it an American flag flies upside down in the international signal of distress. Just beyond that is another hand- painted sign: PARTICIPATION IS THE KEY.

I look over at my guide struggling down the path. In 1969, two years after he graduated from Princeton with a degrre in Russian languages, Robbie Gordon was the stashmeister at New Buffalo, a hippie commune in northern New Mexico.

One day he took a couple of hits of acid and decided he needed to be alone. He started up a cottonwood tree to a treehouse he'd built for just this sort of occasion, but he never got there. Three hours later, he woke up in the rain with a broken back. On a bad day he's bent over like a question mark balancing most of his body weight on a wood staff. He falls down a lot. It takes three trips and several hours to carry a1l our stuff the mile and a half through the woods to the center of the gathering.

A "trade circle" is going on in the middle of the path - no one is allowed to buy or sell things at a Rainbow Gathering. Rastafarians, Hare Krishnas, Deadheads, dreadheads, people wearing LOLLAPALOOZA T-shirts - and nothing else - loll on blankets strewn along the path displaying their wares. Snickers are being traded for cigarettes, green glasslike shards of a meteorite for a copy of book on Eckankar.

Everybody is smoking humongous amounts of weed, playing guitars, giving each other full-body massage. "Welcome home, brother!" total strangers shout, nodding blissfully. I feel like I'm in somebody else's dream.

As daylight fades, Marianne, a gray eyed Rainbow from Florida, helps us drive the stakes for our tepee. A few minutes later the wind kicks up, and it starts to rain. Robbie tells me that he has lived out-of-doors more than half of the last 10 years. He's crossed the US 26 times on its highways.

On the side of his tepee is painted a Russian bear with a cartoon balloon extending from its lips encircling the words SLAVA BOGU - "glory to God" in old Slavic "This was my vision" he says,"when I went crazy in 1981": an eagle, a bear and the archangel Michael with a flaming sword circling round and round the arch like a diamond ring dripping smoke rings of light.

Fireflies blink in the meadow as the thunder crashes edge closer and closer. Robbie plays his mandolin pensively in the entrance of the tepee. From distant Boogie Meadow, the drummers howl back at the thunder. I wonder if, among the ecstatically chanting Hare Krishnas and the crowds screaming, "We love yooooou!" in the dark woods, anybody is as disoriented as I am.

WAKE UP THE NEXT MORNING TO THE distant thonk of wood being chopped. "Good morning, Sister Rubbing the Sleep Out of Your Eyes," I hear some body call out cheerfully. "Good morning, Brother Laying Around in the Morning Sun," I hear somebody just as cheerfully replies. Our tepee is pitched on the edge of an oval valley perhaps a mile long, divided by little stream beds into several meadows surrounded by wooded hills, in a grove of hickory, ash and red maple. Our floor is a bed of pine needles and honeysuckle vine.

We're "downtown" in terms of the gathering at the intersection of the main path through the valley and the walk into Kid Village. More people are straggling into camp carrying sleeping bags, tents and musical instruments. Robbie is sitting up in his sleeping bag, naked playing an old-timey tune, "Over the Waves," on his mandolin. His back is crisscrossed with scars.

EVERY FIRST WEK OF JULY FOR THE PAST 22 years, the Rainbows have gathered in celebra- tion. They come from Tecumseh Mo, and Sanger, Texas, from Chicago and Boston and Santa Cruz, Calif; from Brazil and Ireland and Russia and Poland and Japan, meeting almost always in a different national forest in a different state - or "bioregion" as the Rainbows prefer. Who are the Rainbows? They are high school teachers and guys who work the freeway on ramps wiggling a cup. They are Christians and Muslims, UFO-niks and anarchists. They are nursing mothers, massage therapists and electrical engineers, fruit tramps and lunatics and enough naked sadhus to staff a kumbha mela (the gathering of Indian holy men that takes place along the Ganges River every 12 years). The average age is somewhere between 20 and 25. Everything is free, and everybody is welcome. This year in the United States there will be more than 100 regional and local Rainbow Gatherings, so it is theoretically possible to spend much of the year living in the national forests with brother and sister Rainbows. Probably 10 percent of the Rainbow Family would be considered homeless except that the Rainbow Family is their home.

Legally, there is no such thing as a Rainbow. There is no office and no officers, no staff and no organization. No 501 c (3) nonprofit status, no one to sign permits or operating agreements, no one to tell anyone else what to do. Everything that must be decided upon is decided on an ad-hoc basis by whoever shows up at the gathering. The Rainbow Family describes itself as "the largest best coordinated nonpolitical nondenominational nonorganization of like-minded individuals on the planet".

A gathering is different for everybody. Some people come once and can't stand it. Others return year after year. To Allan Berger, 35, a Washington low-income-housing developer, the gathering is "a circus, a Boy Scout camp and a commune all at once." Berger, who used to be in the grocery business, finds himself working for Shanti Sena, the gathering's security detail. "It's where I come to be rehippified, to get my yearly requirement of love," he says.

Stephen Principle, 48, from Nacogdoches. Texas, a tough, big-bellied, walrus-mustachioed Vietnam veteran, calls the gathering "a workshop in self-government, a participatory event."

For South African-raised Mareba Jos, 48, who oranizes Earth Day events around Boston, this is a once-a-year chance to work together with lots of other people. She met the father of her 12-year-old son at a Rainbow Gathering. This year she organized a camp-within-the-camp for 8 to 14 year-olds, a safe place away fmm siblings and parents, and she brought in older campers to teach survival skills.

Shiloh (many people in Rainbow have shed their given, or "Babylon," names), a "compulsive organizer" in his early 30s who wears silver rings in his ears and nose and gives off the air of a pirate, is the force behind Sunrise, one of the Rainbows' largest communal kitchens. For him the gathering "is where we demonstrate how we live."

The demonstration's roots go back to San Francisco in 1967, to Haight-Ashbury and the Summer of Love. Barry Adams, or Plunker, as he came to be known, split from a commune on Haight Street and joined a group heading north. They wound up on a farm near the Canadian border, near Marblemount, Wash. They used horses and mules to help military deserters and draft dodgers escape into Canada, and so Plunker's family began to be known as the Marblemount Outlaws.

In 1969, Garrick Beck, 31, only son of Judith Malina and Julian Beck, founders of New York's Living Theater, was a member of the Temple Tribe, a Portland, Oregon group of ecologically minded craftspeople. Standing on the edge of a desert in southern Morocco, he stared into its midnight vastness. "I had a vision of greenery, beautiful water, people dancing and working together." he says now. "I saw that what was needed was a living example of people in harmony with each other and with the earth."

On his return to Oregon, Beck's path crossed Plunker's, and in 1970, the two clans joined forces to work on a free rock festival near Portland that drew more than 50,000 people over the Labor Day weekend. That success gave them the know-how to stage a gathering.

The two tribes agreed to create the first Rainbow Gathering, in 1972. For the next year and a half they traveled around the country, stopping at every commune and co-op they found distributing posters and newsletters. Thev invited every senator, every congressman and every world leader to come to Table Mountain, near Granby, Colo., on July 4 for what was variously described as a gathering of the tribes, a prayer for peace and a change in the world. Over 20,000 people showed up. The governor called out the National Guard. After state police blockaded the road into Table Mountain, some 2,000 people trudged past the barricades and eight miles uphill to pray for peace. The first Rainbow Gathering established a pattern of distrust and confrontation between state and federal authorities and the Rainbow Family that has lingered to this day.

Not that all is constant harmony and bliss inside the Rainbow. Last year, the 1992 Vision Council, charged with choosing a site and a bioregion for the following year, failed.

Meeting at the end of the Colorado gathering in a cold drizzle at 10,000 feet, the council couldn't decide. That meant headaches for scouts like Badjer and Frenchy and a halfdozen others who spent four months sleeping in their vans in poverty so dire that Badjer had to sell his knives and his gun collection. The scouts' mission: to visit as many national forests south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi River as possible. And still, three weeks before the 1993 gathering was supposed to start, they hadn't found a place with "openings" - meadows ample enough for big groups to meet - and pure, plentiful water.

The Kentucky Rainbow Family decided to take matters into its own hands and announced that the gathering was going to be held in Kentucky, in the Cumberland Gap, on the site of an abandoned strip mine in the Daniel Boone National Forest. Two days later. Badjer and Frenchy announced that they'd found the "true" site, in Alabama. Then a Greek guy, Zeus, announced a third non-alcoholic, non-narcotic Rainbow Gathering, in Tennessee. The phone trees and the Rainbow's computer network, Alt.Gathering.Rainbow, were burning with gossip, consternation, charges, and countercharges. Nobody was sure what was happening. The Rainbow Guide, which goes to a mailing list collected at gatherings and has a semiofficial tone, suggested that readers might want to take in all three - they were only a few hundred miles apart - or just figure it out for themselves.

Confronted with a divided - or as Michael John, one of the Rainbow Guide's key figures, insisted - an evolving Rainbow, many people instinctively found themselves asking, "Where's Felipe going?"

Felipe Chavez is a Yaqui Indian who grew up in Chicago. He was drunk on the streets of Santa Cruz Calif. when somebody took him to his first Rainbow Gathering. "It was a vital healing process for me in regaining my spirit," he says. "On my birthday I used to drink a bottle of tequila." Now, on his birthday, Felipe usually sundances, piercing the flesh of his breasts with eagle claws or sharpened sticks, to connect himself to a "vison" tree.

Felipe chose the Alabama site and with his wife, Lynn, and their three kids, set up the seed camp that became Kid Village. A seed camp is the first camp set up by the earliest arrivals at a gathering. Felipe and his family are sometimes called focalizers (those who facilitate the spread of information) in gatherspeak.

Though it serves a thousand meals a day, Kid Village is much more than a kitchen. There are rope swings for kids, a macrame web strong enough for a dozen children to tumble around in at one time, a tarp big enough to provide shade or shelter from the sun for 50 people. Kid Village focuses on chiildren and pregnant or nursing mothers, but everyone is welcome. You only need to bring a cup and a spoon and if you haven't got that at Kid Village, you can eat out of one of the overturned Frisbees that Felipe and Lynn picked up at a Just Say No to Drugs rally.

On the second afternoon of the gathering, in the shade of a great red maple, several dozen mothers and children are moving slowly in a circle, holding hands while two guys bow a fiddle and pluck a mandolin. "We are children of the goddess," they sing together, "to the earth we shall return."

SUDDENLY A CRY RINGS OUT IN the woods. "No guns in the sanctuary!" Then there's a whole wave of cries of "Six up!" traveling closer and closer. A few moments later, looking abashed and blindingly uncumfortable in the white-hot noon sun, five or six Alabama state troopers in black leather gloves and starched navy blues come up the path, surrounded by a troupe of clowns in Renaissance Fair gear cavorting beneath a glass disco ball. Several other jokers toss a naked baby doll named Spudweena in the air and pretend to shoot it to the ground. A coffee-colored African American woman in a buckskin bikini walks beside a Alabama state trooper, openly flirting with him. He's virtually blushing from the attention. Shouts of "No guns in the church" fill the air.

Though police at this gathering rarely venture very far from the main trail, there are at least 10 state troopers in the camp, with their own command post, plus a half-dozen Cleburne County deputies, Alabama Fish and Game wardens and local health-department and animal-control personnel. Even Alabama Beverage Control has people on site.

The United States Forest Service has brought in more than 50 people and set up an incident-command system, the same approach the agency uses for such natural disasters as the Alaskan oil spill and the Yellowstone fire.

According to Dennis Neill, the command system's lead information officer, the Forest Service spent almost half a million dollars to monitor the 1992 gathering in Colorado. "I would bet that - between Alabama and Kentucky - we spend more money this year," says Neill, who has an earring and has been wearing a ponytail, he says, "since long before I ever met the Rainbow Family," and is serving his second year as a liaison between the Rainbows and the Forest Service. (For the entire Alabama gathering there will be a total of 16 arrests, the majority for public drunkenness or for women going without their shirts on the Forest Service road. That comes to about $31,000 per arrest.)

Very few Rainbows seem to appreciate the presence of armed and uniformed "administrators"; the Rainbow Gathering takes care of itself. Rainbow has its own water system created each year on the spot by a young electrical engineer named Hawker and a team of volunteers watched over by a crusty "spring ogre" named John Roadrunner and his crew. A reggae band named Jah Levi and the Higher Reasoning donated the proceeds from a concert to buy 5,000 feet of PVC pipe.

Since the first Rainbow Gathering there have been communal kitchens, individual cooking fires have always been frowned on at the Gatherings, both for political and safety reasons. This year there are six major kitchens - with names like Sunrise (an East Coast kitchen) and Everybodys (the Road Dog kitchen, run by the most nomadic of the Rainbows). The Hare Krishnas have a kitchen. There are at least 25 other, smaller communal kitchens like Tea Time which proudly serves meat (one of the only kitchens that does), and Lovin' Ovens, which specializes in kicking out delicious sticky buns from their four hand made, earthen ovens. All the main kitchens have running water, and Kid Village even has hot water. All of them share in the daily supply runs to neighboring farms and markets and produce stands. All of the kitchens pass the Magic Hat once a day to collect "green energy" - i.e., money. According to Kaba, one of the supply honchos who prefaced his remarks with "I've been taking LSD for 33 years," Allah Bam Ah, as he pronounces it, has been one of the best gatherings ever for food.

"Diamond Dave" Whittaker, a San Francisco pat, passes the battered felt Magic Hat both at Kid Village and at the main dinner Circle, waving a bony finger as he recites his Rainbow rhymes: "How it works: Take what YOU need/ Give what you can/Where you can/when you can/in other words, lend a hand ..."

Each kitchen is responsible for digging its own shitters - slit latrines 4-feet deep by 1-foot wide by 8-feet long with plenty of loose dirt and limestone handy - and when they're filled, covering them back up. John Roadrunner says 100 people will fill up a shitter in two days. A Rainbow joke is that only holy men are allowed to dig shitters. Health needs are handled by volunteers of CALM, the Center for Alternative Living Medicine. There hasn't been an outbreak of anything worse than the Rainbow runs since the 1987 gathering in North Carolina.

When difficulties arise in the camp, Rainbows call in the Shanti Sena. A Sanskrit phrase that can be translated as "peace seeker" or "peacekeeper" or "peace center," Shanti Sena is the name of the peaceful "army" Gandhi envisioned. The Rainbows say "everyone with a bellybutton is Shanti Sena." Shanti Sena operates out of the Cooperations tepee, in a grove of trees central to the main meadow, which is the nerve center of the camp. Dave Massey, a carpenter and martial artist from Washington is Shanti Sena. He's originally fram Fort Worth, Texas, and he knows how to project an air of understated menace if he has to.

Close to the Cooperations tepee are the info booth and Rumor Control, when volunteers deal 24 hours a day with the powerful rumors, or "movies," that sweep through the camp. Many people were mad about the division of the Rainbows into two gatherings (as it turned out, about 10,000 people finally showed up in Alabama and about 3,000 went to Kentucky), and rumor circulated consantly that a caravan of cars was coming from Kentucky, carrying an American Indian "peace pole" that had been in Rainbow hands since the late '70's. The caravan never showed up (though individual messengers were constantly moving back and forth).

THE SECOND NIGHT OF THE GATHERING, word of a more sinister nature began filtering into the info booth that a man in the camp had molested a number of women.

Massey was asked to investigate the situation. "I went to find the guy," he explains evenly, "'physically' chatted with him and talked about the need for him to come with me. Luckily, he was happy to come."
About 30 women crowded into a circle in the Cooperations tepee to await him while another Shanti Sena - a lanky, laconic straw-chewing Rainbow named Duane - guarded the entrance. According to Julia Moon Sparrow, a second-generation hippie in her mid-20s from a small town in Northern California, the confrontation went on for several hours, and as many as 10 different women spoke up. The guy was accused of massaging one woman then fondling her sexually. Another woman said he bragged he could fuck her in two minutes. He tried to pull a third woman into his tent. 'He was in denial," reports Moon Sparrow, who wanted the man thrown out of the camp immediately. "We felt that we did not want to be in constant fear while we were in a sacred place. He was absolutely a threat to our safety."

Other women argued against putting the man back out in Babylon. The guy needed to be healed, they reasoned, and Rainbow women are strong enough to take on the responsibility. Ultimately, they agreed or as Rainbows like to say, "the group mind spoke." The man could stay in the camp for another 24 hours but he would be under 24-hour-a-day counseling and observation. People would be watching him when he took a shit and when he went to sleep. His picture and his MO would be available at the info booth.

A little later, I saw the guy in a big knit cap with dreads dangling at dinner time, walking toward Kid Village with Shanti Sena sisters on both sides. Everybody seemed to know exactly who the guy was. Later that night, Massey got another call on his walkie-talkie. "The women finished counseling this guy at 2:00 in the morning," Massey recalls. "That's when the men were supposed to take over. But he said to me, 'I've had my gathering'; So I drove him into Heflin, to the bus station and that was that."

BY THE THIRD DAY OF THE GATHERING, Robbie and I are being swallowed by the heat. Flies that camouflage themselves as bees crawl all over our peanut butter and jelly but we're too enervated to shoo them off. He lights another smudge stick to drive them away. Robbie makes his own smudge from sage, and cedar, juniper and pinion gum he gathers on the windswept mesa where he usually pitches his tepee, just the other side of the Rio Grande at Taos, NM.

He brought a bag of them here to trade. He's already gotten a beautiful orange carnelian necklace which is hanging from our tent pole and a massage.

Using an eagle feather, Robbie wafts the smoke upward. We watch it drift toward the smoke hole. Robbie tries to do everything involving smoke in a certain manner. When he lights a joint, he touches it to his forehead and toward the sky. He always passes the pipe clockwise, he says, because American Indians saw that the sun moves in a clockwise circle around the sky.

The poet Charles Olson said that an American is a "complex of occasions"--that is we come from every- where. And like America the gathering is a gumbo of religious and cultural traditions. But nothing it seems is more central than the rituals and beliefs of American Indians. In a Rainbow circle, holding the eagle feather signals that the holder has the right to speak.

Circles themselves are the essence of Rainbow. We form circles, Rainbows say, to bring all our relations into a net. Before all meals and all meetings at Rainbow, everybody present circles, joins hands and OMMMMs or observes a moment of silence. Except for the JULY 4 meditation, the biggest circle at the Rainbow Gathering is the daily dinner circle in the main meadow.

The focalizer of the dinner circle is Rainbow Light, an intense, blond, sunburned peace activist with deepset eyes who hitchhikes to the gathering every year from Santa Santa Cruz, where he organizes community gardens for homeless people. Dressed in purple, a big red tie-dyed heart covering his entire chest, Rainbow Light sets a heartfelt emotional tone striding around the dinner circle waving his long arms, directing the people into concentric circles. He then turns people to face one another. Dinner comes out from the kitchen then, brawny servers hefting immense tireens of rice and beans, and is ladled into outstretched bowls.

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