Reprinted with permission

by Mark Swaney
Copyright 1996, Ozark Gazette

The Rainbow Tribe, a.k.a the Rainbow Family of Living Light, or just "The Rainbows", will be having their annual Gathering of the Tribes in the Ozarks, July 1-7. And once again, the U.S. Forest Service has written a new permit regulation that the Rainbow Family says is specifically aimed at them. Two previous regulations were struck down by Federal courts as unconstitutional violations of the First Amendment right of citizens to peaceable assemble.

The United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service was surprised to learn of the decision of the Rainbow Family to hold their annual Gathering in the Ozarks bioregion. In March of this year, the U.S. Attorneys office filed suit against the Rainbow Family in Federal Court on behalf of the Forest Service. The Rainbow Family ignored the new Special Use Permit regulation during a regional gathering in February in the Osceola National Forest. US Attorney Thomas Millet told the Ozark Gazette that while he could not comment on the anything to do with the outcome of the suit, it was possible that the Forest Service would again attempt to enforce the new Permit Regulation at this year's planned gathering in the Ozarks.

The Rainbow Family History

The Rainbow Family has its origins in the counter-culture of the sixties. The first Gathering was held in Colorado in 1972. In 1975, the Rainbows held their annual gathering on the Buffalo River, near Mountain Home on National Park property. This will be the first time in 21 years that the Gathering will be held in the Ozarks, although in 1987, the Gathering was held on a site near Mena, AR.

The Rainbow Family is a loose assortment of people with no organization and no leader that has every year for the past 24 years announced a "Gathering of the Tribes". Gatherings in previous years have been attended by as many as 20,000 people. Every year, at the end of a gathering, the Rainbow Family holds a "vision council" and chooses a new location for the next year's Gathering. The site of a gathering is always on public land, usually in a remote area of a National Park or a National Forest.

The gatherings tend to be controversial in the areas where they are held, because a Rainbow Gathering is very much like Woodstock, minus the amplified music. Many people who attend the Gathering go every year, almost as if it were a religious event, and they were pilgrims. And, certain members of the Rainbow Family insist that that is exactly what it is. For many of the Rainbows, the gatherings are distinctly spiritual.

Over the years, the Gatherings have developed certain traditions which have become almost rituals. The peak event of a Rainbow Gathering always occurs at 12 noon on the Fourth of July. From dawn until noon, everyone observes several hours of silence in honor of the Earth. At noon, the crowd begins a long "OM" chant. Later, hundreds or thousands of Rainbows chant, sing, dance, and play instruments. The Rainbow "religion" (a word they would almost certainly reject) is characterized by a spiritual relationship with the Earth, and a belief in the power of peace and love to transform the world.

The Rainbows are nature lovers, and feel very close to the land they camp on. The specific site is selected months before the annual Gathering takes place. A group of advance "scouts" will meet in a location, and travel throughout the bioregion looking for a site. The site is generally remote and located in a clearing with water nearby. This year, the scouts will leave from the site of the 1987 gathering near Mena, AR.

A good deal of work, all volunteer, goes into the selection and clean-up of a Gathering place. Teams of Rainbows will stay on after a Gathering, sometimes for weeks, while restoring the site, hauling away trash, filling in latrines, and seeding new grass. Even the Forest Service has acknowledged that the Rainbows are very conscious of the environmental impact that a Gathering has on a site.

Discussions are held at the councils, and anyone who holds the "talking stick" has the right to speak. In many ways reminiscent of Native American tradition, the Rainbows rely on group consensus as a way of making decisions, although they also have "elders" (people who have attended many Gatherings) which are sometimes derisively referred to as "the High Holy Hippies". The Rainbows are diverse, but they all seem to agree that no one person can be a leader and speak for the group or be made responsible for the group. Because the Rainbows reject leadership, there is no one to sign a permit. Besides, the Rainbows also agree that no permit other than the First Amendment is necessary.

The Forest Service, the Rainbows and the Constitution

Perhaps it is the Rainbows looseness that seems to irritate the government so much. A Gathering is an uncontrolled spontaneous event for which no can be made solely responsible. It just happens. Because the Rainbows have no leader or true organization, there is no one with whom the Forest Service can negotiate. The Rainbows refuse to ask permission to do what they believe is already their right. And so far, the Federal courts have tallied the score at Rainbows, 2, Forest Service, 0.

But this year, the FS believes they have a new play which is even now being tested by the referees. A new permit regulation on non-commercial uses of the National Forest was put into effect in September of 1995. The new regulation has been tailored to fit the court's findings in the previous two cases (1984 and 1988) in which the permit requirements were struck down. The new regulation requires a Special Use Permit for non-commercial uses (camp-outs, picnics, parties, or Gatherings) which will be attended by more than 75 people. While the Forest Service insists that the permits are already deemed granted, the regulation also says that the permit might be refused by a local Ranger or FS employee. Which is sort of like saying "I'll let you do it, unless I decide you can't".

The new regulation has already spawned a court case in Federal court in Florida. In February, a group of about 300 local Rainbows held a gathering in the Osceola National Forest. They had no permit, in spite of the signs which the FS had posted at the site informing the people of the need for a permit to be there. After the Forest Service deemed that there were more than 75 people present, certain inquires were made of the attendees.

The result of all this was a lawsuit in Federal Court that reads, "The U.S. Government vs The Rainbow Tribe, a.k.a. The Rainbow Family, a.k.a. The Rainbow Family of Living Light, a.k.a. Gathering of the Tribes, etc. etc,". The list of defendants in the suit also includes various people who either did or did not have identification. Some of the names included "Two Bears", "Butterfly" and "Wakeem".

The lawsuit asks the Court to declare that the new regulation is constitutional, and to issue an injunction against the Rainbow Family (as a class!) from gathering on public land without a permit. If the new regulation is found to be constitutional, the Forest Service may again take names at this year's gathering in the Ozarks, and those people may find themselves charged with a crime for going to a party in the woods.