The uproar about the Rainbow Family Gathering in the Black Hills reminds us that the counterculture is alive and well in the U.S. Not just a relic of a forgotten era, the hippies of the Rainbow family and their Black Hills gathering are at once a living testament to the ways in which American settler society not only dispossesses indigenous peoples but alienates large swaths of its own population as well. Lillian Moore’s open letter to Indian country makes this alienation clear (in however convoluted a way) by asking Natives for sympathy toward their plight as cultural “orphans.” Lakotas are implicitly expected to be gracious and welcome the Rainbows in their homelands, presumably because both share the commonality of being outcasts in American society.
In contrast, during the 1960’s and 70’s countercultural hippies were important allies who while sometimes antagonistic to Indians, also helped advance the Red Power movement in California, Washington, New Mexico, South Dakota and other places. This history shouldn’t be ignored.
I grew up in Southern California during those hippie days. A product of the federal government’s objective to assimilate Indians into mainstream society by pressuring Indians to leave the reservations, combined with the economic hardships of the Great Depression, my mother’s family first left the Colville reservation to pursue employment under FDR’s Works Progress Administration jobs program. Also the product of ethnic intermarriage, my mixed ethnicity meant that whether or not I wanted to, I could pass as non-Native, which is to say that as a Native person I was mostly invisible. Even though some might argue my invisibility is a form of light-skin privilege, on the other hand invisibility is another peculiar form of discrimination against Natives, especially if you consider that settler colonialism’s prime directive is to disappear Natives into the dominant society.
I spent almost 20 years living in Northern California where most of my friends were old time hippies and counterculture types. Generally more liberal and relaxed, Northern California always felt more comfortable to me, that is until I began to come face to face with cultural appropriators and their attitudes of entitlement to Native culture. Then, when Native assertions of sovereignty began to conflict with white liberal agendas after the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria began plans to build a casino in the town where I was living, many of those Indian-loving liberals showed themselves as the most vicious of NIMBY’s (“not in my backyard”). The line in the sand had been drawn, and my pro-Indian, pro-sovereignty, anti-appropriation politics postured me as the enemy in that predominantly white liberal countercultural community. Visibility or invisibility, I learned, is not always determined by skin color but by allegiances and political oppositions.
In the white liberal left environmentalists are often among the most condescending and judgmental when it comes to Native issues, as are wealthier property owners. Many of these folks are former counterculturists whose upward class mobility has shifted their far left-leaning tendencies toward the center. The more radical element of the political left are those who have consciously disavowed the capitalist imperative by choosing to live more simply and closer to the earth. Their lifestyles often marginalize and alienate them.
Given these distinctions, here’s what I say to Rainbow or other counterculture folks out there reading:
I understand that you are trying to connect with Lakota people because you find wisdom and beauty in their ceremonies and worldviews. But there are right ways and wrong ways to go about making those connections. Understand that coming from a sense of entitlement is the surest way to alienate Native people. Understand that Native people believe that the ceremonies and creation stories (their “Original Instructions”) were given to them by the Creator in the context of their places and worldviews, framed by their unique languages. They are for the purpose of perpetuating indigenous cultures, not to give you personal enlightenment and spiritual growth, or even to save the world.
One of the most important values in Native communities is humility. If you want the respect of Lakota or other Native people, you approach them with humbleness. For the gathering to be held in Paha Sapa (Black Hills), it should first have been given the blessing of the Lakota tribal leadership. If the blessing could not be obtained, it should not have proceeded there. Finally, put aside your Hyemeyohst Storm and Carlos Castaneda books and read up on settler colonialism. Then you’ll have a much better idea about why we’re even having this conversation.