December 2000
Issue 2

Following the Rainbow
Heads makes the gathering.

Paul DeRienzo

It was getting dark as we approached the Rainbow Gathering in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest of southeastern Montana. Driving more than 800 miles from desert casinos of Las Vegas it took us two days to reach the mountain hamlet of Jackson where we turned onto a dirt road that climbed even higher into the mountains. Majestic snowcapped peaks are illuminated in the distance by the setting sun and we drive for a few miles until the remote ranchland gives way to a vast parking area in the woods. Surprisingly, hundreds of cars are carefully parked in orderly rows as we trundle up to a handful of hippies who great us with a hearty "Welcome Home," the catchall greeting of the amorphous, unorganized association of individuals known as the Rainbow Family of Living Light.

Since 1972 thousands of hippies, ecologists, travelers and assorted hangers on have made the summer journey to a national forest somewhere in the United States to create a sacred space, usually based on a circle theme, where folks pray for world peace and harmony. There are no "leaders" at a Rainbow Gathering, but there are "focalizers," who according to an unofficial Rainbow web page "help us to focus on what we as individuals need to do." But there is an amazing amount of organization despite the lack of structure; much comes from years of experience, but also a deep commitment to Native American spirituality among the rainbow people themselves.

Even a cursory reading of the Internet discussion list at alt.gathering.rainbow shows that almost any generalization about rainbow and what it means to be a part of the rainbow family is subject to debate. The first Rainbow Gathering occurred at a sacred Native American space in Colorado known as Table Mountain as a convergence of new age spirituality and 60s anti-war activism. To many the Rainbow Gathering is based on modern interpretations of 400-year-old Hopi prophecies, particularly stories of a new tribe that would right the worlds wrongs. The prophecy as told by one source goes: "There will come a tribe of people from all cultures who believe in deeds, not words, and who will restore the earth to its former beauty. This tribe will be called Warriors of the Rainbow."

Nearly three decades later many of the same folks who faced down gun totting locals in 1972 to sit naked on the Fourth of July at Table Mountain are still going strong at modern gatherings. Although there is less local opposition, the Forest Service, which administers the National Forest System, has been trying to force the gathering to apply for a permit, which the Rainbow’s refuse to do and are battling in federal court (see Feds and Heads p. ).

Fires On The Mountain

Tossing our sleeping bags and tent into the back of a volunteer’s van in the parking area my travelling companion Joanie Moossy and I hopped a shuttle riding a couple of miles to the gathering’s main entrance. It’s the day before the most important event of the gathering on July fourth, when thousands hold hands in a huge circle around a central fire to ask for world peace and the stream of humanity has swollen to a flood. Hundreds of encampments crowd the forests along the hillsides of the Big Hole River valley. Campfires pop up in front of a huge variety of tents, shelters, enormous lean-to and A-frame kitchens. Hundreds of latrines are dug. Hiked in food is prepared for thousands in stone and mud ovens. The most dramatic structures are sturdy temporary footbridges, a sweatlodge and a circle of colorful tipis, all examples of rainbow engineering.

"There will come a tribe of people from all cultures who believe in deeds, not words, and who will restore the earth to its former beauty. This tribe will be called Warriors of the Rainbow."
It’s getting dark as we thread our way through the various paths that lead us to the faerie kitchen, our final destination. Along the way we pass the gathering medical tent, known as the Center for Alternative Living Medicine or CALM. Here everything from poison ivy to an LSD freak-out is treated with alternative therapy, herbs or just a sympathetic ear. Commercial activity is banned at the gathering, replaced by an apparently heartfelt desire to share. Occasionally the "Magic Hat," the Rainbow Gathering collection plate, is passed around to collect a few dollars to purchase coffee or supplies, but for the most part the gathering is a voluntary, money free affair.

After a long uphill walk the fires of the fairie kitchen beckon us. Setting up our tent in the dark among the sagebrush under a crystal clear, moonless night sky washed by a river of stars. Huffing and puffing in the thin air I look up to see an orange ball of flame shoot across the sky, a meteor fireball brighter than we’ve ever seen. Back at the fire drums are pounding and the dark, cold night is parted by the roaring flames, burning in a fire pit dug in the shape of a cock and balls. A very high reveler welcomes us with a joint, "it’s really good he whispers in my ear," and he’s right, it is a very good joint. We turn down the LSD offering though; it’s been a long day and warm sleeping bags beckon.

Quest for Peace

Early the next morning I crawl out of the tent into the cold morning air. We’ve pitched our tent only a few feet away from a precipice over looking a vast forest valley; it’s a birds-eye view of the gathering. The woods are quiet with thousands of people voluntarily keeping a vow of silence on the morning of the fourth. By noon we’ve joined the flow to the central circle, a huge meadow surrounded by high hills and steep ridges. An old sign tells us that the early 19th century explorers Lewis and Clark came this way looking unsuccessfully for a passage west.

In the bright midday sun the huge circular meadow takes on a radically different look with the snow covered Bitterroot Mountains now prominently visible above the encampment. It’s a magical site as hundreds and then thousands of rainbows hold hands in a giant circle that encompasses the high ridge tops that encircle the meadow. It’s still pretty quiet as a parade of costumed children streams out from kiddy village, the gathering’s day care center. The children, some smiling, others a little bewildered enter the circle to whoops and cheers of their elders, for the Rainbow Gathering, these children are the future of the rainbow.

The children, some smiling, others a little bewildered enter the circle to whoops and cheers of their elders, for the Rainbow Gathering, these children are the future of the rainbow.

As the circle disassembles some law enforcement types are on horseback on a distant ridge, it’s a discordant note, more pleasing are a group of three rainbows dressed in day glow orange sweat suits clearly visible in the distance against the multi-hued green background. The gathering really comes into its own after dark on the fourth, when these remote mountain hollows become most like a big city. Following one avenue we come to a large amphitheater, another example of rainbow engineering, its built totally of logs and sticks, yet accommodates hundreds of people. The fare is poetry, speeches and comedy but the most entertaining show are a couple who say they were married at the gathering earlier that day. Wearing sagebrush garlands they blow huge soap bubbles to the delight of several children.

Heading out the next morning we drove a few miles to at the Big Hole Valley National Battlefield, a red dot on a road map. The Battlefield, an Indian Wars version of Gettysburg, is where 800 native Americans from the Nez Perce nation were ambushed in 1877 by a force of army soldiers and local volunteers commanded by Col. John Gibbon. Nearly 70 woman, children and old people were massacred as well as 30 of the several hundred warriors who mounted a counter attack that killed 29 US soldiers and forced Gibbons to retreat. Even in this Garden of Eden the need for world peace was evident, maybe the rainbows are on to something.

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