33rd Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes
July 1-7, 2004, Modoc Forest, California
"We each speak our piece; that's our duty to our people.
That's why each of us is a leader. That's Indian Way.
That's true democracy, not a dictatorship of the elite
and powerful who get themselves elected and then make
secret deals on their own behalf behind the people's backs."
—Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings
My candleflame burns serenely
at the center
of a vast spinning pinwheel of planets and stars—
campfires, lanterns, flashlights
twinkle through the woods
and across the meadow,
carrying the holy burden of light
On the road up this mountain
we passed miles of old clearcuts,
acres of fire-blackened trunks,
one silver sports car spun sideways
into the ditch . . .
At the end of the road we hiked down
into a valley of delicate streams and wetlands
littered with cowpies,
invaded by sagebrush,
surrounded by hillsides of aspen
and Washoe pine
under towering purple outcrops of volcanic stone
graven by the wind
into abstract images of time.
The birthing stones.
This place has ghosts!
Not just artifacts— a hasty
government archeological survey
carted off a truckload
just before the Gathering, lost arrowheads
of legendary hunters
which the local tribes may get back one day—
No, the prehistoric memory of this place
whispers of hungry winters,
of herds that no longer came,
fences, cattle, drink and disease,
assimilation by massacre,
a people hunted almost to extinction
like so many indigenous
others . . .
The burial grounds.
Between the birthing stones
and the burial grounds
a tribe of palefaces
with suntans, born-again Indians,
visionaries and contraries—
to learn this year's
It's our annual Spirit Hunt.
My pen-tip scratches at the silence
in the center
of an enormous nonstop merry-go-round of noises—
drums, dogs, laughter,
far-off horns and nearby guitars,
murmurs of gossip or philosophy
from the camp next door,
distant shouts of desperation or joy
awakening the sacred power of sound
long after midnight . . .
"No yelling in the woods!"
I wake in bright daylight
surrounded by miles of silence, camp after camp
after camp, as far as I can hear
(ignoring the interruptions, as always—)
But once again I've drawn the morning shift
on Independence Day: a fresh latrine
that should have been ready yesterday.
Digging into rich black dirt
with my borrowed spade, I hear their voices echo
across the valley of silence
like grieving ghosts of some lost language:
This valley is sacred,
This soil is home
to our ancestors' bones.
Right now on eBay, a Modoc skull
They can't even tell us where not to dig.
This was a summer hunting camp once,
sacred ceremonial ground,
gathering place for many tribes
over many millennia.
One week after we gather here,
the sheep and cattle will return
for a Forest Service demonstration project:
Our Silence this morning
This valley is sacred.
But scraping and chopping at that Silence,
one end of my long narrow trench
already three feet deep
and open for business, I remember
countless holes I've dug,
every one of them in sacred ground,
disturbing somebody's ancestors.
How can we honor those sleeping spirits
of defeated warriors,
the widows and orphans of this land?
How can we honor our own ancestors
who innocently murdered them
like so many buffalo,
who burned their villages
to save their souls,
whose own bones lie in stolen ground?
Our Modoc and Paiute elders
want us to haul in chemical toilets.
To dig a hole here, any hole,
they have to wait months for a permit!
Of course, if anyone
had ever struck gold here,
oil or uranium, by now this entire valley
would be one big hole.
And if anything could be more absurd
than squatting over a slit trench in paradise,
it's trucking tanks of excrement
preserved in chemicals
back to civilization for "treatment."
No matter where
they dump that weird blue solution,
it was somebody's paradise once . . .
Scooping out another shovelful
of my Mother Earth,
alert for artifacts,
I look up to see a silent sister
smiling. I point to the open end,
but she shakes her head
and takes the shovel from my hand.
Before our new neighborhood latrine
is complete, three silent brothers
have arrived to take their turns
digging into the rich dirt,
the sacred Earth,
the holy morning of Silence.
Sanitation is sacred, too.
Cleanliness is godliness.
Keep the children healthy!
Health is wholeness is holy.
Like a circle of tipi poles
but leaning together in the center,
withstanding the winds,
our nation is gathered
in circles within circles within circles
within the circular horizon
of the round Earth,
linked hand to hand into something
that soars invisibly
skyward . . .
Everyone saw the brother on stilts
and the rainbow kite
that spun on its axis over our heads.
Did anyone but me
see the white-painted mime
gliding in slow motion around the circle
as the Silence broke?
And how many trustworthy eyewitnesses saw
the golden eagle
that circled once
above our radiant rippling song
and flew north?
The Om dies away, wave after wave
washing up the mountainsides
that rim this valley,
subsiding as the next arrives.
But the ripples that carry the sound
from our hearts to our throats,
expanding out of Silence
to the Six Directions,
pass through walls of hardened lava
and armored steel
and calcified childhood fear
to engulf the living planet in a radiant
"You can't start a war over love."
Hippies reinventing the wheel!
bicycles, wheelbarrows, carts and wagons
navigating the trails
after so many years of lugging it all—
Jazz combo in the kitchen, bluegrass at Info—
A queue with a view—
That game of remembering names
The green lighter that traveled around the world—
A six-foot pedestal of stones balanced on stones
that sprang up beside the trail—
Free sandal repair and footwashing at Jesus camp—
Hug vortex on the trail, every long-lost
just another eddy in the flow—
"I actually went to a barber— I know it looks like I cut it myself . . ."
It hurts to see our Grandmother Earth
trod to dust, her summer adornments
broken under blind feet
It's hard to watch these Grandfather Rocks
with their ancient psychedelic lichen
worn away by children's shoes
But it heals to hear the Water Child
slip away through her meandering channels,
only to bubble up from the spring,
always laughing, young again
Wandering our nation of neighborhoods,
slowly learning the trails,
I come limping along
in the footsteps of the first explorers
looking for kitchen sites, amazed
at the power of the place
"Well, my cat destroyed my air mattress, but that was inevitable . . ."
It's our annual summer
No matter how good we get at
gathering, every year
the spirits conspire to teach us something.
It's a hard lesson sometimes,
often humbling, always
And every year it leaves us stronger.
Each one of us imagines we know
why we traveled here.
But once we arrive
in the forest, a Silence begins to grow
inside. An emptiness.
A listening . . .
though sometimes the voices that instruct us
crack like thunder's whip,
impossible to ignore.
the whole encampment carries on all week
where the native elders spoke:
in campfire debates,
kitchen-talk and trail-colloquies,
a vast circle of separate views
all turn to face one center: the grief
that soaks this continent's soil,
the weight of our footprints here, the healing
this land has given us and the honoring
we owe in return.
How many centuries will it take
to heal the centuries of heartache?
Some brothers and sisters
among us, both Native and paleface,
have spent most of their lives beginning it
or seeking a place to begin.
How many of them have found it here
in this valley between birth and death?
That we won't know
until next summer,
in some other valley.
But be warned.
The spirits delight in playing trickster,
planting spores in cracks
where we won't spot them till we're
by the mysterious mycellium of love:
and love, in the right conditions,
can sprout overnight
its mind-altering mushrooms of hope
and purpose in the brain.
Your life may change
if we can keep the children healthy
and the memories
of these elders alive, we may serve
as a bridge between generations
where the spirits of this valley may walk
safely across the abyss
of five hundred years.
And like the final elder who spoke,
his anger spent, surrounded
by circle upon circle
of respectful listeners, some
may the children of the palefaces
receive them with a simple prayer:
"You are welcome here."
and the mossy pines,
the yellow and purple flowers
of this mountain
the dirt road underfoot
and my bag of
last trip out.
Bless this land for giving us so much!
Bless the elders who came
to teach this tribe of orphans!
Bless the spirits who brought us together!
Forgive us, Mother,
for our footsteps here.
Thank you, Creator,
for those selfsame steps
on the long trail home.
Hippy New Year!