Episode 42: Psychedelic Cults Part 2 - The Rainbow Family

The Rainbow Family has held annual gatherings since the early 70's. These non-hierarchical, non-organizations feature aging hippies mixing New Age spirituality, vegetarian cuisine, and latrines dug daily. Sadly, they also involve hard drugs, violence, and rampant cultural appropriation of Native American beliefs.

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The Rainbow Family

The Rainbow Family is short for the Rainbow Family of Living Light. This psychedelic cult is a counter-culture group of people that have been in existence since the 1970s. They claim to express utopian impulses, bohemianism, hipster and hippie culture. 

As the Vice article explains, they are 

a cross section of fringe culture: bikers, Jesus freaks, computer programmers, naked yogis, and gutter punks looking to escape "Babylon," the Rainbow shorthand for the various evils of modern life.

The cult also claims they have no leader, but are a loose affiliation of small groups with some nomadic individuals. But how does the Rainbow Family define itself? A member of the Rainbow family by the name of Carla says,

First of all, be prepared for a different answer from each person who responds. Rainbow is different things to different people. Most of us, though not all, who consider ourselves part of the Rainbow Family, have attended the Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes, which takes place from July 1 - 7 every year. The first gathering was in 1972, the invitation to it reading as follows: We, who are brothers & sisters, children of God, families of life on earth, friends of nature & of all people, children of humankind calling ourselves Rainbow Family Tribe, humbly invite: All races, peoples, tribes, communes, men, women, children, individuals -- out of love. All nations & national leaders -- out of respect All religions & religious leaders -- out of faith All politicians -- out of charity. 

The cult has an unofficial website run by Rob Savoye that would rival in web design any crystal healing website. The homepage has this quote at the top of the page, 

When the earth is ravaged and the animals are dying, a new tribe of people shall come unto the earth from many colors, classes, creeds, and who by their actions and deeds shall make the earth green again. They will be known as the warriors of the Rainbow -- Old Native American Prophecy

Origin of the Rainbow Gatherings

Each year they host a primitive camping events on public land known as Rainbow Gatherings. The origins of these gatherings stretch back to the Vortex I gathering from August 28 to September 3, 1970, at Milo McIver State Park in Estacada, Oregon (which is about 30 miles south of Portland, Oregon). This gathering was inspired mostly by the Woodstock Festival. 

Garrick Beck and Barry “Plunker” Adams (two attendees at Vortex I) are considered to be the founders of the Rainbow Family. Mr. “Plunker” otherwise known as Barry Adams was the author of the book Where Have All the Flower Children Gone? According to a Rolling Stone article written in 1972, 

Plunker is sometimes difficult to talk to. If you ask him where he lives, he’ll say “Earth.” If you ask him about the structure of the tribe, he’ll mention Tao and liken the way of living light to the highway. And, as befits a prophet, Plunker extemporizes in parables.

According to an ATI article titled, “From Peace And Love To Murder And Drugs — The Story Of The Rainbow Family” the author writes, 

Plunker, who had previously lived in a commune on Haight Street in San Francisco, used various Eastern and Western philosophies to attract members to the Rainbow Family. For instance, he’d mention Tao or the Book of Revelation, quoting sections like “And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and three-score days, clothed in sackcloth. He’d even use Native American folklore to say that the Rainbow Family was, in a way, a reincarnation of dead warriors reclaiming the earth.

Garrick Beck is the son of the founder of The Living Theater, Julian Beck, which is known for their production of Paradise Now! Which was a semi-improvisational piece involving audience participation. It was known for a scene in which actors recited a list of social taboos that included nudity, while disrobing. This led to multiple arrests for indecent exposure. 

The First Rainbow Gathering

The first official Rainbow Family Gathering was held on July 1972 on the Continental Divide at Strawberry Lake, Colorado. It was a four-day event organized by youth counterculture “tribes” based in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. The Rainbow Family original plan was to gather at nearby Table Mountain but a court order was issued against this. A local developer, Paul Geisendorfer offered the site at Strawberry Lake, Colorado. 

According to Wikipedia, 

Twenty thousand people faced police roadblocks, threatened civil disobedience, and were allowed onto National Forest land. This was intended to be a one-time event; however, a second gathering in Wyoming the following year materialized, at which point an annual event was declared. Although groups from California and the Northwest region of the U.S. were heavily involved in the first Rainbow Gathering, the U.S. Southeast was strongly represented as well.”

The Rolling Stone article mentioned earlier titled, “Acid Crawlback Fest: Armageddon Postponed” describes the scene of the first Rainbow Gathering, 

The camp was split into tiny communities, people in biblical robes, naked people, various loners drawn together by some kind of affinity. There were at least five community kitchens – free food from the commune of your choice, and all you had to do was listen to a little chatter and maybe help with some of the work. Just like the Salvation Army. The Denver Post said the camp hosted 15,000 people at its rush hour, but there is no real way to accurately estimate the number of pilgrims. Almost all the tents were set in woods – where aerial photos are useless. Others were strung high in the nearby mountains.

Rainbow Gatherings Today

Since then regional Rainbow Gatherings are held across the globe throughout the year. These gatherings are welcome to anyone who wishes to attend and are non-commercial. Decisions at these gatherings are reached through group meetings leading to some form of group consensus. Traditionally, the gatherings last for about a week, usually from July 1 through 7th every year in the U.S. on National Forest land.

According to Wikipedia,

In 2017, the United States gathering was held near the 1.4 million acres (5,700 km2) Malheur National Forest in eastern Oregon. Between 10,000 and 18,000 attended the multi-day event, near Flagtail Meadow, with the largest crowds expected on July 4th.

At the Gatherings participants meditate, pray, and/or observe silence in a group effort to focus in on attaining world peace. These Gatherings emphasize spiritual focus towards love, peace, and unity.  

Continuing from Wikipedia,

One of the central features of the annual U.S. gathering is silent meditation on the morning of the Fourth of July, with attendees gathering in a circle in the Main Meadow. At approximately noon the 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.

Actually let’s let Rainbow Carla explain this. She does a much better job, 

Picture twenty thousand people in a sunlit meadow, standing silent in prayer, holding hands in one huge, unbroken circle. Picture a parade of children approaching, singing songs, their countenances bright with enthusiasm and face paint, balloons and banners waving in the breeze. Picture the breaking of the silence with a cheer from the circle, then the silence returning once again, to grow slowly into a thrum of voices united in a single OM reverberating through the valley and on to the hills beyond. Hold the OM in your mind. Let it spread through and around and in you. Feel it pass from hand to hand and heart to heart.  The magic, the connection you feel is the essence of the Rainbow Family of Living Light.

There are all sorts of creative events to participate in at the gatherings,

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.

Those who attend the Gatherings share an interest in ecology, intentional communities, entheogens, and New Age spirituality. Often attendees at these gatherings call each other “sister” or “brother or the gender neutral term “sibling”. 

In case listeners aren’t familiar, “Entheogen” was coined by Ruck et. al in a 1979 paper in the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs. They defined it as:

In a strict sense, only those vision-producing drugs that can be shown to have figured in shamanic or religious rites would be designated entheogens, but in a looser sense, the term could also be applied to other drugs, both natural and artificial, that induce alterations of consciousness similar to those documented for ritual ingestion of traditional entheogens.

They came up with this word because they didn’t like “Hallucinogen” or “Psychedelic”.

For the gatherings happening outside of the U.S. they often last a month from new moon to new moon. Of course when do you suppose the peak of the celebration happened? During the full moon of course. The rainbow craze has infected many European countries which host their own rainbow gatherings. The first European Rainbow Gathering was in Va. Camp, Tincino, Switzerland in 1983. The 25th recurrence of the annual gathering was in 2007 and hosted in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

Here’s a breakdown of the European Rainbow Gathering by year and location, in the following years:

  • 2008: Serbia

  • 2009: Ukraine

  • 2010: Finland

  • 2011: Portugal

  • 2012: Slovakia 

  • 2013: Greece

  • 2014: Romania

  • 2015: Lithuania

  • 2016: In the Alps

  • 2017: Italy

  • 2018: Poland

  • 2019: Sweden

But that’s just the European Rainbow Gathering. What about the rest of the world? Well, according to the Wikipedia article, 

World Gatherings have been held in Australia, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Costa Rica, Canada, Turkey, Thailand, China, New Zealand, Argentina, Guatemala, Mexico, Hungary, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Colombia. 2019 World Rainbow Gathering will be in [Chim-E-la] Chimila, in the Sierra Nevadas of Colombia. The 2020 World Rainbow Gathering will be in Siberia, Russia. 

But the majority of our listeners are from the U.S., so I’m sure you’re all dying to know where is the Rainbow Gathering in the U.S. this year?! Well, according to the unofficial official website of the Rainbow Family -- “Ignore all rumors of cancellation or organization! Live Lightly with the Land and People! The U.S. Rainbow Gathering will be held (drumroll please!) near Iron River, Wisconsin. 

The campsite of the Gathering has been referred to as “Rainbowland”. Capitalism is frowned upon. Money is of no use in Rainbowland, except of course when it is used as donations which are accepted. At the Gathering they take up collections or as they call it “magic hat”.  Bartering is preferred as an alternative to cash. According to Wikipedia,

A designated trading area is a feature at most U.S. Gatherings. It is called "trading circle" if it is circular and "barter lane" if it is linear. Frequently traded items include items such as sweets (often referred to as "zuzus"), books, zines, crystals, rocks, gems, and handcrafts. In some rare cases people may even trade marijuana or smoking pipes (usually when no police are in the area). Snickers bars have emerged as a semi-standardized unit of exchange at some gatherings.

The group claims that they are "the largest best coordinated nonpolitical nondenominational nonorganization of like-minded individuals on the planet." The groups “non-members” even jokingly call their group a “disorganization”. The group’s intention is to create an international community which embodies spirituality and conscious evolution, that practices in non-commercialism. 

According to Wikipedia,

Gatherings are loosely maintained by open, free form councils consisting of any "non-member" who wishes to be part of a council,[17] which use consensus process for making decisions. According to the Mini-manual, "Recognized Rainbow rules come from only one source, main Council at the annual national gatherings.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 ritual talking stick, feather or other object is passed around the circle so as to allow everyone the opportunity to speak without being interrupted; this is an appropriation of a North American Indigenous custom.

The Logistics of the Rainbow Gathering

Although each event is more or less anarchic, practical guidelines have been reached through the consensus process and are documented in a "Mini-manual". Items which are strongly discouraged, by some, at gatherings include firearms, alcohol, tobacco and pets. Other items that tend to be discouraged include radios, tape players, sound amplifiers, and power tools.

There are various camps for various needs at Rainbow Gatherings. Kid Village is a camp for attendees that have children. Jesus Camp has a Christian theme to it. Tea Time specializes in herbal teas. There are several kitchens set up for the Rainbow Gathering. Turtle Soup Kitchen serves mostly vegetarian meals. Lovin’ Ovens is a kitchen that uses clay and mud ovens to cook foods such as pizza or bread. Another camp is Nic @ Nite. Rather, it’s a camp that shares tobacco and tobacco related products. According to the Wikipedia article, 

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.”

At the Rainbow Gatherings, drinking water is collected from a local source such as a stream or river. It is filtered through small pump filters and larger gravity-fed devices such as hundreds of yards of plastic hosing that lead to the kitchens. Participants in the gatherings are also encouraged to boil their water on their own. 

Sanitation is a huge problem at Rainbow Gatherings. Hippie human waste is deposited in latrine trenches (which are referred to as “shitters”). The shit is treated with lime and ash from the campfires. New latrines are often filled and dug daily. In 1987 a Rainbow Gathering in N. Carolina was plagued by a highly contagious outbreak of shigellosis (aka dysentery) causing diarrhea.  From Wikipedia,

C.A.L.M., or the Center for Alternative Living Medicine, is the primary group of doctors 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, such as naturopathic healing modalities. It is common to find physicians working with herbalists, EMTs helping massage therapists and naturopaths coordinating with Registered Nurses on patient care. 

There is usually one main C.A.L.M. camp near the inner part of the gatherings and smaller first aid stations set up around the Gatherings. Even those without medical experience are encouraged to help with things such as procuring water and cooking for the healers, who are often too busy to attend main circle or visit other kitchens.

Shanti Sena or “The Peace Army” are the Rainbow Gathering conflict resolution specialists. They respond to emergency situations and security issues. Who is allowed to join the elite Shanti Sena? According to the wiki article, “anyone who is capable of helping at that time.” 

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 1987 at a gathering in N. Carolina the interaction between the Shanti Sena and police resulted in numerous arrests. A number of federal and local officers were assaulted, threatened, and blocked from patrol areas. The police classified the Shanti Sena as a “criminal gang” that were suspected to have collaborated in the assault on an Asheville Citizen-Times reporter. 

Also, apparently several members who were kicked out of the Rainbow gathering by the Shanti Sena called the “Peace Army” the “gestapo” and “thugs.“ 

There are some reported cases of the Shanti Sena successfully cooperating with local law enforcement. One example in 1998, involved Joseph Geibel, who was a frequent attendee at the gatherings; he was calmly approached by the Shanti Sena and escorted to law enforcement. He was a wanted murder suspect.

The phrase is also used as a call for aid. If individuals find themselves in a dispute, they can shout "Shanti Sena". Everyone within earshot is expected to then approach the scene calmly, deescalate where possible, and eventually reach a consensus agreement to settle the dispute.” 

The Conflict with the local community, law enforcement, and local and federal Governments

From the Vice article, 

In preparation for the official start of the Gathering next week, local authorities have told residents to avoid the campsite and start locking their doors. "While many members of the Rainbow Family are upstanding citizens, a small segment of their population have reportedly caused significant and detrimental impacts on nearby communities," the county said in a public letter, warning of possible panhandling, trespassing, public urination, and nudity. 

Representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have also taken steps to avoid the Gathering, including relocating two nearby girls camps, and continue to closely monitor the situation," said LDS spokesperson Eric Hawkins.

For more than three decades, state and federal officials tried to shut down the Rainbow Gatherings, or at least force the "Rainbows" to sign a group-use permit with the National Forest Service, driven by what Savoye said was "permit envy" of the Bureau of Land Management, which exacts hefty fees from Burning Man. 

Just in case you forgot, Rob Savoye is a "Rainbow" who has attended gatherings since 1980 and runs the unofficial Rainbow website as mentioned earlier,

The Forest Service wanted that money," said Savoye. But because the Rainbow Family has no leadership, there was no one for the feds to deal with. "The government always thought that there was a leader of the group hiding somewhere," he said. "So they spent a bunch of years throwing people in jail, trying to find someone to sign the permit.

The Rainbow Gathering prides itself on being unorganized, so we're not going to invest an extraordinary amount of time trying to enforce the permit issue," said Dave Whittekiend, the US Forest Service supervisor for the Uinta-Wasatch Cache National Forest. "We treat it as a special event, similar to a fire."

The Darker Side of the Rainbow Gathering

Cultural Misappropriation of Native Americans

While Rainbows talk about accepting of all forms of spirituality, they have a real penchant for Native American spirituality. But Michael I. Niman in his book People of the Rainbow: a Nomadic Utopia writes, 

Many Rainbows are not satisfied to align themselves with Native Americans, or to try to learn from them. They want to BE Indians. A few even claim to out-Indian the Indians, claiming they are here to teach Indians how to be Indians.

This idea of out-Indianing Indians became popular for the Rainbows (and the wider New Age community) with the 1962 book Warriors of the Rainbow by William Willoya and Vinson Brown. Strangely enough, Warriors of the Rainbow doesn’t promote a return to Traditional Native American beliefs, but evangelical Christianity. The authors assert that American Indian prophecies are actually about the Second Coming of Christ. And, of course, there’s a dose of anti-semitism involved, warning Native Americans not to reject their messiah the way those silly Jews did.

But Steven McFadden, in his Ancient Voices, Current Affairs: The Legend of the Rainbow Warriors, took it a step further and added some racism to the mix:

In  McFadden's Eurocentric fantasy,  "light-skinned people" have " intellect and will," while "red-skinned people" have "intuition and spiritual awareness." "Yellow and black-skinned people," having no real role in  McFadden's story, are simply endowed with "gifts". The "light-skinned brothers and sisters," according to McFadden's fable, are the "reincarnated souls of the Indians who were enslaved or killed by the settlers"

Returning to Warriors of the Rainbow, The “heroes of the new age” are taking on the mantle of “the indians of old”. And just to make it clear that Willoya and Brown aren’t talking about actual American Indians, they also use the phrases:

  • “great Indians of Old”

  • “pure Indians of Old”

  • “glorious Indians of the past”

  • “radiant Indians of Old”

  • “kind Indians of Old”

  • “joyful Indians of Old”

  • “Wise Indians of Old”

But what about those American Indians who are, you know, not so old. Willoya and Brown say they “have been sleeping, physically conquered by the white people.”

This insulting idea has been built directly into the Rainbows “fakelore”. This term, coined by folklorist Richard M. Dorson, refers to "a synthetic product claiming to be authentic oral  tradition but actually tailored for mass edification" Let’s get #FakeLore trending everyone!

According to a “hipstorian” at the 1990 Gathering, a Lakota man came to the 1983 Gathering to reveal a prophecy from Sitting Bull himself:

The children of the whites go back out to the mother, and bring the spirit and live in the tepee, and they bring the spirit back to the sons of the natives who are lost, and they find the spirit together and they become native."

After a brief pause, the Hipstorian continues."We are native. That was, like, an Indian tradition" 

After hearing this totally true story, the Rainbows decided to give back to the Lakotas. At a South Dakota Gathering in 1992, Rainbows decided to team up to teach the apparently hapless Lakotas how to grow their own vegetables. But sadly this project was not to be, as Niman explains,

The facilitators of the South Dakota Gathering, however, never got the gardening project off the ground; Lakota never got to experience the living theater comedy of a bunch of bright- eyed city white folks magically transforming their barren reservation into a fertile valley.

A key component of Rainbow fakelore are “Hopi” beliefs. From the Rainbow Oracle,

Thus it  is Foretold --- The true Light  Family will come, bringing the long-lost Stone Tablet --- symbol of the land, and return it to the Indians" 

Barry Adams, one of the cofounders of the Rainbow Family mentioned earlier, himself heard that along with a sacred stone tablet, he also needed to bring a red blanket and a hat. And he did just that; in 1970, he met with Thomas Banyaca, who was selected by Hopi elders to be a receptacle of Hopi beliefs. Adams told Banyaca, “As far as I know, I’m one of those beings that you’re looking for called the Rainbow”.

As it turns out, Banyaca himself does not remember meeting Adams.

He said a  lot of white people "dress up  in red shirts" and come knocking on his  door, claiming to be the white brother of the  prophecies.

One of these white people was a Rainbow who interpreted “red shirt” to mean “red car”. The Hopi apparently disagreed with this interpretation and sent him on his way. As a result, the would-be savior concluded that the Rainbows were actually the Hopi people all along.

A core “Hopi” prophecy, which can be found everywhere at a Gathering, is the following:

There will  come a tribe of people of 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

But as Thomas Bancaya confirms, this isn’t a Hopi prophecy at all, fabricated out of whole cloth in Warriors of the Rainbow. As Bancaya explains,

[Willoya] came and spoke with  me, then he wrote that book with [Vinson Brown].  They are the ones who put this Rainbow Warrior [concept] out and those people  picked up on it." 

As to their claim that this “prophecy” originates with the Hopi, Bancaya simply says, "It's  not right .... We hope they will  stop it." 

This disrespect of Native Americans has not stopped at their beliefs, but their property as well. Rainbows often try to get approval for the location of their Gatherings from local Indian tribes, treating them as the true stewards of the land rather than officials from the Forest Service. Sounds good, right? Well, they also have a habit of delegitimizing Indian leaders who are amenable to their requests.For example, the 1984 Gathering was in the Modoc National Forest in California, an area claimed by the Pitt River Tribal Council.

The council was opposed to the Rainbows using the area because “[They] are … desecrating culturally significant religious sacred grounds [and] demonstrating blatant disrespect for the Pitt RiverTribe, Tribal elders, and our religious ways and sacred lands.

Garrick Beck, Rainbow Family cofounder, wasn’t convinced: “Yeah, these are  sacred mountains, that's why we're going there." Beck continues,

We found that the Indian  group was divided into different camps. You got Indian groups there that are getting a lot of government money, that elect Bureau of Indian  Affairs-sponsored leaders to negotiate the tribe's resources- mining, cattle grazing, timber- and allow corporate giants to make a lot of money by exploiting Indian lands while the Indians get a little bit of diwy-up,  enough to get a pick-up truck. And it was these kinds of people who ruled in their meetings against us and told us they didn't want us there.”

The 1990 Gathering claimed to send representatives to the Onondaga Tribe to get permission to hold the Gathering at the Finger Lakes National Forest. And they got permission from “elders”. But Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Grand Council of Chiefs of the Haudenosaunee and Onondaga Chief, had no recollection of Rainbows asking for permission at all. And if they did ask, he would have told them to check with the Cayuga Tribe, since Finger Lakes National Forest is on their land, not Onondaga land

The Quebec Rainbow Family set up shop on the Montagnais Indian Reservation, only asking where to set up once they had gotten there. Niman has a beautiful excerpt about what happened next:

The Montagnais sent  them to a contested area that a  local construction company was using as a gravel  mine and dump for construction debris. The Indians used an adjacent area for fishing and  drinking beer, while doing a bit of dumping themselves on the Rainbow site. The Rainbows  believed the area was "sacred" Indian land. A Montagnais visitor told me, however, "No, it is,  how you say, a dump." Despite being surrounded by tons of trash and debris, few Rainbows accepted the  fact that they camped on a dump.


Michael Niman describes the newer look of the Rainbow Gathering,

There's been a crystal-meth problem, a crack problem, a homeless problem. You'll start seeing kids from nearby cities—they have no place else to go, so they'll show up at the Rainbow Gatherings.

Rob Savoye says,

The crowd has changed. Now, we're dealing with kids who come to gatherings and use drugs and incite violence. And the Rainbow Family is not really set up to deal with that kind of behavior. "A lot of these kids end up hanging out more in town and causing trouble with the locals. It's an embarrassment. It's a little bit of a drag that we've sort of become a refugee camp.


At the 2014 Provo, UT Rainbow Gathering, Leilani Garcia was arrested for stabbing a man and charged with attempted murder. Hitler’s attorney, David VanCampen, tried to get her $20,000 bail reduced, but was hit with a surprise in the courtroom from prosecutors. 

“If we're addressing bail, we'll be asking for more," deputy Wasatch County attorney McKay King said, "because we found out today that in addition to stabbing the victim in the crime charged, she also assaulted another individual with a tire iron.”

In the end, while Hitler was charged with attempted murder, that charge was dropped and she pleaded no contest to aggravated assault. She was sentenced to 300 days in the Wasatch County Jail.

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