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People of the Rainbow

A Nomadic Utopia

Michael I. Niman

Publication Year: 2011

Since 1972 the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a loosely organized and anarchistic nomadic community, has been holding large gatherings in remote forests to pray for world peace and create a model of a functioning utopian society. Michael I. Niman’s People of the Rainbow, originally published in 1997, was the first comprehensive study of this countercultural group and its eclectic philosophy of environmentalism, feminism, peace activism, group sharing, libertarianism, and consensus government. It is a book yet to be superseded. This second edition of Niman’s compelling and insightful work brings the Rainbow story up to date with a new introduction and two extensive new epilogues. While the big annual Rainbow “Gatherings” have drawn fewer numbers in recent years, Niman notes, the Rainbow ethos has in many ways migrated to the mainstream, as Rainbow notions about alternative medicine and environmental sustainability, for example, have gathered wider acceptance and influenced the national dialogue. Meanwhile, Rainbow movements in other regions, from Eastern Europe and the Middle East to Asia and Australia, are thriving. In addition to addressing changes within the Rainbow Family and its complex relationship to “Babylon” (what Rainbows call mainstream culture), the book’s new material explores the growing harassment Rainbows now face from U.S. law enforcement agencies—especially those associated with the National Forest Service. As Niman contends, this particular saga of a U.S. bureaucracy at war with its own citizens is a subplot in the larger—and disturbing—story of how the relationship between Americans and their government has changed during the first decade of the twenty-first century. In its nuanced portrait of an intriguing subculture, its successes, and its limitations, People of the Rainbow remains a significant contribution to the study of utopian communities in the United States and their ongoing legacy.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x

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Introduction to the Second Edition

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pp. xi-xvi

American media often anachronize the Rainbow Family as a sort of cultural Jurassic Park where an isolated band of hippies “romp” around a wilderness enclave frozen in the 1960s. People of the Rainbow challenges that myth with a comprehensive ethnography of a dynamic and evolving culture. Today’s...

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pp. xvii-xviii

The Rainbow Family of Living Light, also known as the Rainbow Nation and the Rainbow Family, is committed to principles of nonviolence and nonhierarchical egalitarianism. They have been holding large noncommercial Gatherings in remote forests since 1972 to pray for world peace and to demonstrate...

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pp. xix-xx

I would like to offer a special note of appreciation to Laura J. McClusky for the unwavering support and inspiration, both intellectually and emotionally, which she provided during the six-year gestation of this book and which she continues to provide today. I would also like to thank Dr. Robert Knox Dentan for...

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1. Sunflower’s Day: July 3

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pp. 1-30

At around 10 A.M. Sunflower looks out of his tent and examines the cold morning mist. He's on Rainbow time. He doesn't really know it's ten. He just knows it's still morning and it feels like time to get up. He knew it wasn't time to wake up a few hours ago when the mechanical thunder of a police chopper ripped through the forest air...

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2. Roots, Rock, Rainbow

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pp. 31-37

The Rainbow Family of Living Light is an "intentional group" whose members purposefully gather together to enact a supposedly shared ideology (Erasmus 1981 ).1 The Family follows a strong utopian tradition in North America that dates back almost to the time of Western conquest. and it has emerged as the largest...

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3. “The Way We Make Decisions Is More Important Than the Decisions We Make”: The Rainbow Family Council

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pp. 38-59

The Rainbow Family's governing body is a "Council" (with a capital C) whose membership is open to all interested persons. It strives toward being nonexc!usionary and nonhierarchical. In Rainbow jargon, when two or more people meet for discussion, they are "counciling." Hence, the Rainbow Family has numerous Councils, each with authority to make decisions...

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4. The Nuts and Bolts of Making a Rainbow: Rainbow Infrastructure

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pp. 60-98

Rainbow Gatherings represent an effort to realize a utopian libertarian-anarchist vision. They serve as trial runs for a new society based on cooperation and nonhierarchical organization rather than on competition and hegemony. An examination of the nuts and bolts of Rainbow infrastructure offers insights into...

Photo Gallery

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pp. G1-G14

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5. People of the Rainbow

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pp. 99-113

It takes all sorts of folks to create a Rainbow. Members see themselves as forming "a tapestry of humanity cutting across lines of class, race, religion, ethnicity and gender." They see the Family as "a working model of multiculturalism; a society where differences are celebrated and unity achieved" (Wetmore interview 1990)...

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6. Violence and Peace

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pp. 114-130

Rainbow Gatherings are seldom the cohesive respectful utopian societies many Rainbows envision. They are rife with contradictions and conflicts. How the Family deals with these contradictions provides insight into the difficulties of maintaining a nonhierarchical, nonviolent, nonsectarian spiritual and political community...

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7. Fakelore

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pp. 131-147

The Rainbow Family, as a spiritual manifestation, often carries neocolonial baggage. Rainbow spiritual practices frequently involve the mimicking, perverting, or outright ripping off of Native American religious rituals. As ersatz Indians, Rainbows range from silly to offensive...

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8. The Mediated Rainbow: The American Media Look at the Rainbow Family

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pp. 148-169

People learn about the Rainbow Family and vicariously experience the Gatherings through the media. Since most people who read articles, watch television, or listen to radio news reports about the Family never attend a Rainbow Family event or even talk with a Rainbow Family member, their perception of the...

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9. Leave Only Smiles: Land Stewardship and Community Relations

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pp. 170-183

Rural communities faced with the prospect of a Rainbow Gathering or, as the first media reports usually portray it, an "onslaught" of "hippies" "invading" their area, are understandably apprehensive. They fear bad physical, social, and economic impacts, ranging from the destruction of the forest...

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10. The Rainbow and the U.S. Government

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pp. 184-201

In the United States, almost all Rainbow Gatherings are on public land, usually U.S. National Forest Service land. While Forest Service land is relatively abundant and often beautiful, Rainbows gather on public land as a statement, sustaining a bond to the land and exercising their inalienable right to peaceably assemble...

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Conclusion: Endless Summer

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pp. 202-215

The Rainbow Family is a growing and evolving contemporary movement, not the anachronism that press reports imagine. It is an idealistic utopian movement with a vision of a world driven by love and cooperation, free of violence and competition. It is an egalitarian vision of a world without leaders, without oppressors...

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Epilogue 1: A Global Movement Faces a Changing World

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pp. 217-237

The years since publication of the first edition of People of the Rainbow have proven tumultuous for “Babylon.” The movement for global economic justice came of age in Seattle and London in 1999, with the “Battle in Seattle” becoming a new generation’s Woodstock. George W. Bush came and went, but...

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Epilogue 2: Freedom to Gather in the Twenty-first Century

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pp. 239-258

In 1972, when the Rainbow Family held its first Gathering in Colorado, only a few countries in the world allowed such autonomous celebrations of freedom. In the 1980s, when I began field work among Rainbows, many countries that now regularly host Gatherings were under the control of authoritarian...


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pp. 259-271


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pp. 273-282


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pp. 283-297


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pp. 299-326


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pp. 327-336

E-ISBN-13: 9781572338029
E-ISBN-10: 1572338024
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572337466
Print-ISBN-10: 157233746X

Page Count: 370
Illustrations: 28 photographs
Publication Year: 2011

Edition: 2nd edition