Rainbow Gathering

missouri rainbow gathering

european rainbow gathering

Rainbow Gatherings are temporary intentional communities, typically held in outdoor settings, and espousing and practicing ideals of peace, love, harmony, freedom and community, as a consciously expressed alternative to mainstream popular culture, consumerism, capitalism and mass media.

Rainbow Gatherings are an expression of a Utopian impulse, combined with bohemianism, hipster and hippie culture, with roots traceable to the 1960’s counterculture. Mainstream society is commonly referred to and viewed as ‘Babylon,’ connoting the participants’ widely held belief that modern lifestyles and systems of government are unhealthy, unsustainable, exploitative and out of harmony with the natural systems of the planet.

The original Rainbow Gathering was in 1972, and has been held annually in the United States from July 1 through 7 every year on National Forest land. Other regional and national gatherings are held throughout the year, in the United States and throughout the rest of the world.

The largest Rainbow Gatherings pose significant logistical challenges, providing up to 30,000 people with food, water, sanitation, medical care, and order in remote settings. Relations with law enforcement and local communities are frequently an issue. Media coverage is often unfavorable, focusing on drug use, nudity, and the countercultural aspects of the assemblage. Nevertheless, the Gatherings have proven durable and international phenomena for 39 years.

Rainbow Gatherings, as a matter of principle, are free and non-commercial. Using money to buy or sell anything at Rainbow Gatherings is taboo. There are no paid organizers, although there are volunteers (‘focalizers’) who are crucial to setting up the gathering site. Participants are expected to contribute money, labor, and/or material. All labor is voluntary and never formally compensated.

Aside from taking up collections (the ‘Magic Hat’ in Rainbow parlance) for essential items purchased from the local community, there is little or no exchange of currency internally at a Gathering. The primary principle is that necessities should be freely shared, while luxuries can be traded. A designated trading area is a feature at most (if not all) US Gatherings. It is called ‘trading circle’ if it is circular and ‘barter lane’ if it is linear. Frequently traded items include sweets (‘zuzus’), crystals, and handcrafts. Snickers bars have emerged as a semi-standardized unit of exchange at some gatherings.

There are no official leaders, no formal structure, no official spokespersons, and no membership. The Rainbow Family of Living Light’s ‘non-members’ also playfully call the movement a ‘disorganization.’ However, there is a changing network of ‘focalizers’ who take responsibility for passing on Rainbow information year-round, and serve as contacts if listed in the ‘Rainbow Guide.’ In Rainbow lore you require only one thing to be a part of the Family – a belly button.

Gatherings are loosely maintained by open, free form councils consisting of any ‘non-member’ who wishes to be part of a council, which use consensus process for making decisions. Talking circles are also a feature of rainbow gatherings. Each participant in the circle talks in turn while all others present listen in silence. A ceremonial stick or feather is passed from person to person around the circle to mark his role as the speaker. If one doesn’t wish to speak, s/he may hold or pass the stick in silence.

One of the central features of the annual United States gathering is silent meditation the morning of the Fourth of July, with attendees gathering in a circle in the Main Meadow. At approximately noon the entire assembly begins a collective ‘Om’ which is ended with whooping and a celebration. A parade of children comes from the Kiddie Village, singing and dancing into the middle of the circle.

The gathering’s greeting to new arrivals is ‘Welcome Home!’ ‘We Love You!’ is often heard as it is melodiously shouted across the site. ‘Nick at Night’ is shouted when one is looking for a cigarette, ‘Six Up’ is shouted at the approach of law enforcement officers. ‘Seven Up’ is used to distinguish forest resource officers.

Many spiritual traditions are represented, often with their own kitchen, from Hare Krishnas to Orthodox Jews to several varieties of Christianity and many others. Spiritually, there is a very strong influence from Native American Shamanism , Neo-Paganism often aligned with free-thought. Shamanism and New Age aspects are apparent in a large portion of the culture, tradition, and every day life for the participants.

Creative events may include variety shows, campfire singing, fire-juggling, and large or small art projects. At one gathering, a cable car was rigged to carry groups of four quickly across the meadow. ‘Faerie Camp’ was ‘alive with hundreds of bells and oddly illuminated objects.’ Musicians and music pervade all Gatherings, at kitchens, on the trails, and at campfires.

Although each event is more or less anarchic, practical guidelines have been reached through the consensus process and are documented in the Mini-manual. Items which are strongly discouraged at gatherings include firearms and alcohol. Other items are also discouraged including radios, tape players, sound amplifiers, and power tools.

Camps and kitchens are the basic community units of the Gathering. Camps may be based on regional, spiritual, or even dietary commonalities. For example, ‘Kid Village’ attracts attendees with children. ‘Brew-Ha-Ha’ specializes in serving herbal teas in a drug-free/smoke-free environment. ‘Bread of Life’ Camp has a Christian foundation.

Not all camps are kitchens, but all kitchens are camps. In addition to feeding passers-by, kitchens send food to the one or two large communal, predominantly vegetarian meals served daily in the main meadow.

Sanitation has historically been a major concern at Rainbow Gatherings. Human waste is deposited in latrine trenches (typically referred to as ‘shitters’) and treated with lime and ash from campfires. New latrines are dug and filled in daily. The 1987 gathering in North Carolina experienced an outbreak of highly contagious shigellosis (a.k.a dysentery) (known at the gathering as Beaver Fever) causing diarrhea.

C.A.L.M., or the Center for Alternative Living Medicine, is the primary group of healers at Rainbow Gatherings who assist people with health and wellness and take responsibility for medical emergencies and sanitation of those who attend these large gatherings. It is an all volunteer, non-hierarchical group encompassing both mainstream, conventional medicine and alternative medicine. It is common to find physicians working with herbalists, EMTs helping massage therapists and naturopaths coordinating with Registered Nurses on patient care.

Within the Rainbow Gathering, security, conflict resolution, and emergency situations are handled by the Shanti Sena (‘Peace Army’). Shanti Sena also sometimes act as liaisons to observers and law enforcement officers who patrol the Rainbow Gathering, often tracking the movements of police and park rangers through the gathering, and overseeing the interactions between officers and people attending the gathering to ensure that neither group instigates or takes part in illegal or inflammatory confrontations.

In some particularly serious situations, Shanti Sena have collaborated with law enforcement officers (although without violating the Gathering’s principle of consensus). For example, a wanted murder suspect and gathering regular, Joseph Geibel, was peacefully approached by Shanti Sena and transferred to police custody at the 1998 gathering.

‘Shanti Sena’ is also used as a call for aid; an individual finding himself or herself in a dispute can shout the phrase. Everyone within earshot is expected to then investigate and reach a consensus agreement to settle the dispute.

Difficulties include: The often unacknowledged class and power structures of the Rainbow community and its events. The phenomenon of ‘Drainbows’—individuals who are perceived to not give sufficiently of their labor or other resources for the common good, but rather are only consuming the social benefits a Rainbow gathering offers. And relationships with both the Forest Service as well as local communities and other stakeholders in National Forest lands.

All major Gatherings in the United States are held on National Forest land, which is under the jurisdiction of the United States Forest Service, a federal agency. The Forest Service has often tried to prevent these gatherings from taking place or insisted that a group-use permit be signed, contending that this is standard practice for large groups wishing to camp on public land and that it is necessary to protect public safety and the local environment. Gathering organizers generally contend that the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights give them the right to peaceably assemble on public land and that requiring a permit would violate that basic right by turning it into a privilege to be regulated.

Consumption of alcohol is generally frowned upon and not permitted at the gatherings. A distinguishing characteristic of the U.S. national gatherings is ‘A-Camp,’ (meaning ‘alcohol camp’) typically located near the front gate, where those who want to drink alcohol can stay. Gatherings in Europe do not have ‘A-Camps.’ Some gatherings in Canada have ‘A-Camps’ and some do not. Wine is tolerated in moderation at some European gatherings, particularly in France, where it is customary to drink wine with the evening meal.


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