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Interview with Michael Niman
by John Tarleton
BUFFALO, New YorkMichael Niman has been observing and participating in Rainbow Gatherings since 1984. He is the author of People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia, the first full length book about the Rainbow Family. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the SUNY-Geneseo and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Buffalo.
JT: Mike, you've recently published a book about the Rainbow Family and its Gatherings. Why should a marginal group like the Rainbow Family be of interest to the broader public?
MN: I wouldn't call the Rainbow Family a marginal group. If you start playing with the numbers, there's probably over a half-million people who have been touched in one way or another by the Rainbow Family, either by attending the Gathering as a participant or people who had the Gathering end up in their backyard. So, quite a few people have been through the Rainbow Family.
I think it's really important because the Rainbows are experimenting with a lot of revolutionary concepts. They've applied consensus government. As far as being active anarchists, they have the largest anarchist group in the world that I know of. Having Gatherings of up to 30,000 people governed by consensus is a really important model for us to study when we study/look at consensus building and collective decision making, which is in play in communal households of 3 or 4 or 5 people right on through to Corporate America.
I think that Rainbows are pioneering the use of non-violence in a non-hierarchical fashion. The fact that the Rainbows can have Gatherings of 30,000 people without a police force really is revolutionary. If an American city can do away with its police force and declare all citizens Shanti Sena, I think it would be a really interesting place. There's a lot of stuff going on like that which the Rainbows are working on.
JT: You came to your first Gathering in California in 1984. Before you had the chance to study it academically, what was your first gut reaction to what you saw?
MN: I hardly have any recollections of the Gathering other than people setting up little outposts on the trail to make sure the wayward hiker two miles down the trail would find granola and trail mix. I think what really impressed me was the scenic view; that this Gathering caused me to be in the most beautiful place I had been in my life. That alone impressed me. It was a big Gathering and we were pretty much camped on the periphery of it for about three weeks.
The Anthropologist Who Studied His Own Tribe
JT: Talk a little bit about how your book project evolved and finally came to life in the form that it did.
MN: Well, I was living in Costa Rica and working as a journalist. And, I was thinking about this Ph.D. project that was hanging over my head. I hadn't really selected a field site or a project quite yet. And I started coming into contact with different anthropologists who were in Central America doing field work. And I started thinking about people going off to somebody else's culture and spending a year there and then coming back to the United States or Western Europe and being THE authority on that culture, which they're not apart of at all. They're just an outside observer. I didn't want to do that.
I decided I wanted to do field work in my own culture. So I narrowed it down to either a study of racist violence in the east side of Buffalo or a study of the Rainbow Family, because these were the two cultures I was involved with at the time. Did I want to be taking down testimony about horrible hate crimes for a year? Or, did I want to walk around naked in the woods and basically spend a year going from Gathering to Gathering? That seemed the no-brainer to spend a year going to Rainbow Gatherings.
I started looking to see if there was a need for this kind of work. Everybody I spoke to, especially with the Family, really encouraged me to pursue this project because the Family needed it to be done. One thing you should do when you're doing field work as an ethnographer is to give something back to the communtiy, hopefully more than what you take from the community.
One of Many Rainbow Stories
JT: Did you find it difficult to write about something as complex and multi-faceted; to ultimately be the person selecting what would appear in this story of the Family?
MN: I keep putting out the disclaimer that this is not the book to end all books on Rainbow. This is my book on Rainbow. And that's it. I make no pretenses towards objectivity. I like what I see for the most part and I write in a very friendly way.
There's no such thing as objectivity. So why do we have to pretend to be objective and pull the wool over peoples' eyes? I've encouraged other people to write books about Rainbow. There's so many different ways to approach it. I pretty much have an overview. I hardly touch on the spirituality of Rainbow. There's a whole other book there about the synthesis of religions that is coming out of the Rainbow experience. The unusual level of tolerance you have with people worshipping their different Gods is really interesting. There's a whole book on environmental design, on architecture, on urban planning that should be done at a Rainbow Gathering. There's literally dozens of books that can come out of this. Mine is just one Rainbow story.
The Rainbow Family and Native Americans
JT: Speaking of Rainbow spirituality, you had one chapter called "Fakelore" which strongly criticized Rainbows for being wannabe Indians and for appropriating many Native American beliefs and spiritual practices. One thing I've been curious about since reading that is what exactly would you like to see the Rainbows do differently? Is it stop using the Indian names? To stop doing consensus circles? Or, drumming at night? Where would Rainbow draw the line in borrowing from a culture vs. expropriating it?
MN: There's nothing wrong with borrowing from another culture. You can borrow all you want from somebody's culture and incorporate it into your culture. As long as the appropriate credit is given where credit is due, I don't think most folks would mind.
But what you see going on in regards to Native culture, and it's more so with New Age culture than Rainbow, is that people take it. They bastardize it into something totally different than what it is, which is fine. But then, they sell it to the public as authentic Native culture.
So, I think most Indians would agree that it's great that Rainbows have borrowed so much from Native American culture. It's when you start claiming that it itis Native American culture that it becomes fakeloric.
I've got story after story after story that talks about this being a Native American spiritual event when Native Americans don't condone smoking marijuana through a pipestone pipe and so on. There's many things that go on at a Rainbow Gathering that would be offensive to most spiritual Native Americans.
In the book I spent a lot of time trying to trace the origins of the myth of the Rainbow Warrior. The whole thing is obfuscated in the passive voice: "It is said there will be a timed when the trees are dying, blah, blah, blah. There will be a tribe of people who come and save the Earth and they will be called the Rainbows." Ancient Indian philosophy. Different Rainbow literature says it's an ancient Hopi prophecy or an Ojibwe prophecy or whichever is convenient. In fact, it's not.
The roots of that myth go back to a book called Warriors of the Rainbow. It was basically an evangelical Christian tract which was published in 1962. If anything, it was an attack on Native culture. It was an attempt to evangelize within the Native American community.
I think that Rainbows need to shed that because there's so much associated with the Rainbow Gathering that is real, that is legitimate. You don't need to say that it's an Indian prophecy. And Rainbows are picking up on this and are sensitive to it and I don't really see much fakelore compared to a few years back, which is impressive. This is an ongoing, evolving culture and it can adapt and clean itself up.
"There Seems to Be a Consensus That Sexist Behavior Is Wrong"
JT: The interaction between men and women is one of the most fascinating aspects of a Gathering. How well has Rainbow done at fulfilling its ideal of creating a non-sexist, non-patriarchal community? And, what will it take for the Family to achieve this vision in the future?
MN: The Family should be credited for mounting at least what is a rhetorical introspective attack on its own sexism. There is still a long way to go.
Male Rainbows need to be cogniscent of their own volume, not only in council but throught the Gathering. Male voices, by sheer merit of their volume, often dominate. For this reason Rainbow councils have experimented with different tools to counter this male energy. One experiment involves lining up speakers by sex and rotating male to female to male, and so on. While these responses demonstrate a commitment to transcend sexism, by their very nature they also stand as a testament to the fact that the problem exists.
Still, the Family is way ahead of mainstream American society. There seems to be a consensus that sexist behavior is wrong. I don't think "Babylon" has reached that point. There are factors inherent to the Gatherings that maintain male domination. Foremost is the fact that road dogs and hobos often dominate seed camp. This is due to the reality that single women can not hitchhike and ride the rails without fear of attack. Hence, most hobos and road dogs are men and in turn, male energy dominates early stages of Gatherings when the tenor of the event is established.
JT: I agree with you about the tone of early seed camp and how it spills into the rest of the Gathering. Yet, at this point, there would be no Gathering if these road dogs didn't show up early for seed camp and stay late for cleanup. The question to me seems to be, how do we chamge this dynamic?
The Gathering is a rugged, intensely physical experience. And while many women work very hard at a Gathering, I've noticed that men, as a whole, do a disproportionate share of the hard labor--hauling in kitchens, digging shitters, laying water pipes, building bridges, running supplies--that it takes to make a Gathering happen.
But what, for instance, would it do for the Gathering if a core group of determined, highly motivated sisters showed up on Day 1 of Seed Camp and worked as hard, or harder, than the road dogs? And what if, after a decade of doing some very necessary consciousness raising work, Sister Circle gave birth to Sister Kitchen (serving food to all but run 100% by sisters). That could be truly empowering. For now it seems like it's easier to make passionate speeches, in council or at dinner circle, denouncing the evils of patriarchy.
MN: A small group of highly motivated sisters have always worked side-by-side with men during seed camp--but after a quarter of a century of this, they still have to put up with shit from men. This makes their work harder and the seed camp experience less rewarding.
The reality also exists that in the USA, solo women do not have the opportunity to live the road dog life the way men do. There is an epidemic of violence against women in this country which makes it more dangerous for women to live alone or on the road. So seed camp will always be overwhelmingly male.
If Rainbow was truly a Utopia, there wouldn't be a need for a sisters' kitchen. Until then, there IS a need to denounce patriarchy. That's what makes Rainbow strong--the fact that folks can challenge institutions and encourage debate. Saying that women aren't working hard enough during Seed Camp is just blaming the victims.
Subverting the Dominant Paradigm
JT: These Gatherings have been going on for 27 years now in spite of a lot of hassles and heavy-handed treatment by the US government. You wrote a chapter about the government's attempts to suppress Rainbow. Do you think what the government is doing is driven by a bureaucratic logic going out of control. Or, do you think that the US government is actually concerned that Rainbow could become a larger force in society with its ideas of sharing and non-violence?
MN: It's a little bit of both. One thing that is threatening to people in authority is Rainbow's lack of authority. When the police look at Rainbow, they are staring into the face of their own obselesance. The fact that Rainbows can get together and have such large Gatherings and not need a police force and to show time and time again that the Babylonian police force is a hindrance not a help, I think they see how useless they are. And it's frightening.
If mainstream Americans, conservative Americans who are a part of local tax revolts, got wind of the fact that they don't need to be policing themselves so heavily, that they don't need to be spending so much money on this paramilitary force to be policing their communities, that they can police their communities together beginning with communal Shanti Senas. What's threatening is that we don't need government. Here's an example: 20,000 people getting together and showing that we as human beings don't need governments, that government gets in the way of things.
A lot of Rainbows are paranoid that the government is there with satellites following the Family and they're going to throw us all in concentration camps. I don't think that's happening.
The government doesn't really give a damn about Rainbow. There's no real threat that the Rainbows are going to get together and levitate the Pentagon or anything like that. I think the biggest threat is that the Rainbows are providing an example of an alternative that is viable, which is why the government likes to see the Rainbows fuck up.
"A-Camp Is a Babylonian Attack on the Rainbow Family"
JT: Speaking of Rainbows fucking up, what would you say the greatest challenge facing the Rainbow Family is at this point. A lot of people have been criticizing A-Camp.
MN: One of the beautiful things about Rainbow is that it is a non-exclusive community. Every other Utopian community I know of has put up a boundary as to who is a member of the community. Rainbows say anybody with or without a bellybutton is a Rainbow. So, you're going to have some problems.
A-Camp is not really a part of the Rainbow Gathering. There are a few things that are longstanding consensuses about Rainbow Life. You don't do alcohol. You don't do hard drugs. You have a commitment to non-violence. You don't buy or sell things which means you don't extort money from people. A-Campers don't respect any of the ongstanding Rainbow consensuses. And they don't really come into the Gathering. They are the last outpost in Babylon before you get to the Gathering. They come from the same culture the police come from. They are all about authority and machismo. And Rainbows need to realize that that's not the Gathering. That's Babylon.
The Rainbow Gatherings would be huge. You'd have so many more people participating if they didn't have this hassle of the last stop being this gauntlet they have to go through, this A-Camp thing.
So, Rainbows really have to face up to the fact that this A-Camp is a Babylonian attack on the Rainbow Family just as is the police. The police are a challenge. But A-Camp is more of a challenge because the outside world sees them and Rainbow as being one and the same.
Wannabe Cops, 12-Volt Appliances and Laughing Circles
JT: How do you look at the role of Shanti Sena in Rainbow, especially the elder Shanti Sena, the kind of people who were up on Telegraph Hill this year? Where do they fit in the picture in a group that supposedly has no hierarchies?
MN: Everybody is Shanti Sena except for somebody who claims to be Shanti Sena. The long-standing consensus is if you need help, you call and whoever responds is Sshanti Sena. Everybody should be on Shanti Sena duty whenever Shanti Sena is needed. You don't just call Shanti Sena. But, you become Shanti Sena.
Now, you have a bunch of people who seem to be more Shanti Sena than others. They call themselves Shanti Sena and that's their whole trip.
They're the wannabe cops. These are the people with the exception of a drug bust in their history or some juvenile delinquincy, they would have been police officers. They would have been out there in state trooper cars. They just want to order people about. So you have to treat them the same way you treat police officers; just like an injured brother who might need a little bit more love.
It may be that things aren't working out and everybody isn't acting as Shanti Sena in the way they all should be, which leaves only a few people acting as Shanti Sena. If that's the case, then the Rainbow Family needs to clean up its act because they are creating a police force through their own apathy.
Since it seems to be the same people playing the same roles year after year, either the Family has a lot of difficulties policing itself, or you have a few people who like to walk around with walkie-talkies. In that case, they really need someone to take them by the hand and bring them down into the Gathering.
They need to spend a day or two stripped of all the accoutrements of Babylon which includes 12-volt appliances. They need to spend a day naked at the swimming hole. They might need a laughing circle. There's got to be a creative way. Before that can happen, you really need a commitment from everybody to take responsibility.
If you see somebody who's not using a latrine properly, you as the next person need to gently explain how it's done. If you see somebody who's about to chop down live wood, you don't call Shanti Sena. You are Shanti Sena. You just need to reason with people and explain to them the error of their ways. There are no rules that are cumbersome. These are all natural rules. It makes total sense to not shit where you eat. It makes sense not to kill live wood in the cathedral of nature.
An Evolving Movement
JT: Looking back over 15 years of going to Gatherings, would you say the Gatherings on the whole have improved or degenerated? Which way do you see the process evolving at this point?
MN: It goes up and down. I don't see it improving. I don't see it degenerating. I see good Gatherings and I see Gatherings that aren't as good as they could have been. It goes up and down like that.
I've seen some great leaps forward with infrastructure. I've also seen a few falls backward. In all, things tend to leap more forward than fall backward. This year the shitters didn't have the wooden covers that were standard in Minnesota back in 1990. On the other hand, they were all well far from kitchens and ashed regularly and dug fairly deeply. So it's six and one half-dozen of another.
I think Rainbow is very fluid and changing, unlike the media image of the Rainbows as anachronisms somehow kept intact from the 1960s. The Gatherings of today look nothing like the Gatherings of 10 years or 20 years ago. I think the Counterculture has changed its face. I think the people we call hippies at 1990s gatherings are very different animals from 1980s hippies or 1970s hippies. The dress is different. The style is different. There's a harder edge on things now. Less hug patrols, more tatoos. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just we have a different way of communicating in the '90s than we did in the '70s.
I like to see this movement evolving. The fact that most of the people at a Rainbow Gathering are below the age of 25 is a promising sign. I think we need to concentrate on retaining people who have been to 10 Gatherings, keeping more elders in contact with the Family. But, the fact that the Rainbow Family keeps attracting younger people shows it's not a throwback to a bygone era. It's a very fluid, very much alive, evolving movement. And, each Gathering changes. We need to keep the whole project on track. But unlike the Forest Service propaganda I've seen, this Family is not eroding or devolving. There's a nasty A-Camp situation that needs to be dealt with. But, that problem has been going on for 10 years or more.
Tasting a Different Way of Life
JT: In your book, you describe the Rainbow Family and its Gatherings as being one part of "the race to save the planet". Taking a longer view into the next couple of decades, where do you see both Rainbow and the Counterculture in their relationship to society.
MN: Well, I think one of the most important things Rainbow does is it gives people a taste of a different way of living without forcing them to make a commitment. It's the only communal experience you can get for a week. You opt in, opt out and still keep your BMW in the parking lot. I think a lot of people sample a different lifestyle and eventually change their own lives.
Some people might give up on homes and go on the road indefinately. Other people might quit the job they hate and take a lower-paying job they like and wean themselves off materialism. Other people might just start recycling. Or, maybe make less needless car trips, or buy a smaller car or in some way bring home a value they gained at a Rainbow Gathering. Some people may develop spiritually because of an influence at a Rainbow Gath.ering. I think that's how the Rainbow really affects us.
I don't think Rainbow is going to be viable as a land-based movement. I don't think we are all going to demolish our cities and start living off the forests, because it hasn't proved sustainable. It's just a temporary thing. If we can create more of these temporary spaces, the world will be a nicer place. And, we can glean things from those temporary spaces that we can in fact preserve in our permenent spaces.
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