The planned Rainbow Family of Living Light gathering (herein Rainbow) in He Sapa, the Black Hills, has caused serious tensions within the Oceti Sakowin. Many of us see the Rainbow gathering as engaging in cultural exploitation, and some of their activities as desecrating our holiest site by appropriating and practicing faux Native ceremonies and beliefs. These actions, although Rainbows may not realize, dehumanize us as an indigenous Nation because they imply our culture and humanity, like our land, is anyone’s for the taking. As outsiders to our Nation and struggles, the Rainbow gathering has caused and will cause more harm than good.
Some argue that Lakota and Dakota nations need to choose sides on whether or not we should support the gathering. These same people have also attempted to form an “alliance” with Rainbow attendees by publicly welcoming their presence and supporting their encampment in the hopes of facilitating an occupation that would in turn demand the return of stolen treaty lands in He Sapa.
Other Lakota activists have set up a protest camp and have called for the eviction of the Rainbow camp over fears of desecrating a sacred site, the cultural appropriation of sacred Native ceremonies, and the violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, which reserves exclusive use to He Sapa for the Lakota, Dakota, and Arapaho nations.
Many Lakota and Dakota peoples have weighed in. Some express sympathy for allying with the Rainbows. And some, like us, express serious reservations about the Rainbow gathering including critiques of the tactics of certain celebrity Lakota activists who ally with the Rainbows. A majority of Rainbow members have also decided to respect the wishes of Native opponents to the gathering by not attending. Those who have consciously ignored the divisive chaos that has ensued after Rainbow plans to gather in He Sapa and calls to boycott the gathering have begun setting up camp regardless and are aligning themselves with sympathetic Lakota “allies.”
While sympathetic Lakota “allies” and supporters are concerned about making the Rainbow attendees feel comfortable, a simple fact remains: the tens of thousands of Lakota and Dakota people currently living in He Sapa and those who make annual pilgrimages for ceremonial and cultural obligations are not made to feel comfortable, at all.
Those Lakota and Dakota people who live in Mni Luzahan, Rapid City, a notoriously racist border town, for example, experience the highest rates of poverty—nearly fifty percent—more than any other urban demographic in the nation, and higher than many American Indian reservations. Natives also make up twelve percent of Rapid City’s population but account for three-quarters of the homeless population and half the county jail population.
Paradoxically, Rapid City economically depends on Lakota and Dakota business from surrounding communities and reservations. The annual Lakota Nation Invitational basketball tournament, for instance, is the second largest money-maker for the city, next to the Sturgis Bike Rally and the He Sapa Powwow. Yet, the history and pervasive anti-Indianism directed at Native people who visit, shop, and live in Rapid City is nothing short of an outrage.
As a Nation of intellectuals, writers, artists, professionals, and educators, the Oceti Sakowin has much to celebrate in our achievements and contributions to our national culture and to politics. Aligning with the Rainbow Family, a group that cites a fictitious “Native American prophecy” as informing their self-identification as “warriors of the rainbow” and willfully appropriates Native cultural practices, is not only adventurist and dangerous, but offensive to many of us who advance and continue to defend the spiritual, the cultural, the sacred, and, most importantly, the political vitality and vision of the Oceti Sakowin.
In a recent letter to the editor in Indian Country Today, one Rainbow member justifies Native appropriation: “I see how cultural and spiritual appropriation is disrespectful and harmful but I also see how the actual practices heal and rebalance everyone,” as if “everyone” is in need of rebalance. The sense of entitlement to Lakota and Dakota spirituality and culture illustrates a common belief of white settler society: like it was entitled to our land, it is therefore also entitled to our culture and our humanity for its own benefit. The U.S., a settler nation, was built violently upon this myth: white people who feel they lack meaningful ancestral ties and relationships to this land turn to new forms of theft. Our remaining land, sacred sites and cultures are open for plunder and theft as whites seek spiritual meaning and personal self-actualization. They may need “rebalance” after the colonial atrocities of white society. We need what we have always wanted, the dignity and right to exist as an indigenous Nation in our homelands. How does Rainbow further this other than to mock and appropriate our culture?
White settlers who appropriate Native cultures for their own benefit do not advance nor align with the values of Wolakota, the Lakota and Dakota way of living, values that have been passed down and protected by our ancestors. In fact, it furthers the belief that Native peoples and cultures exist for pure entertainment and ownership for white settlers, a belief that saturates the popular imaginary in the form of racist sports mascots and other dehumanizing caricatures, and fantasies of perceived or fabricated Native ancestry. The appropriation of our sacred spaces, practices, and our very identities violates us as a people, a nation, and it violates our sovereign right to determine for ourselves who we are in this world and this universe. It jeopardizes our legal, political, and spiritual claims as rightful caretakers of the land and He Sapa.
As Dakota and Lakota nations, we have been tolerant to other worldviews and have even come to accept some of them, as taught through Wolakota. This has been our greatest strength and our greatest weakness—because it is often exploited. In the past and currently, we strategically align with other Native and non-Native people and causes when it is in the best interest of our nations and the land. These alliances are necessary for our continued survival and for seeking justice for historical and ongoing wrongs. There are non-Natives who are sympathetic to and allied with our causes, but who do not find it necessary, nor should they, to appropriate and distort our cultural practices, and traditions for their own benefit.
When Ptehincala Ska Win, the White Buffalo Calf Woman, gave us the canupa, the pipe, and our sacred ceremonies, she gave them to us, the Oceti Sakowin, not to anyone else. She gave it to us specifically as a burden to bear, that we as a people should guarantee our survival and continuance as a Nation in our own lands. Ptehincala Ska Win’s message was for us to stand as one nation, whether we disagree or not. When the U.S. and occupying forces ripped us from our homelands, forced us onto reservations, and attempted to destroy us as a people, those burdens of genocide became ours, and they also became everyone’s responsibility to help right these ongoing crimes against humanity. Appropriating our practices and sacred spaces does not right historical wrongs. It adds to them.
Uniting with the Rainbow people, whose gathering in our most sacred site promises only further cultural and spiritual exploitation, has fractured us. It has sown seeds of disunity at a time when we desperately need unity to combat the exploitation and violence against our land, water, youth and women, and the continued desecration of our sacred sites at places like Mato Paha, Bear Butte, where hundreds of thousands of mostly white bikers gather for a week of debauchery at the Sturgis Biker Rally during our ceremonial season. Do they understand the power of these hills, of this place? Or is it simply a piece of earth they roar into once a year and which they objectify for their pleasure? Although the Rainbow gathering has a veneer of “spirituality” one could ask the same question of them. And we do, as individuals whose peoples arose as peoples in this place, and who have been powerfully connected to it for millennia.
Let’s use our hearts, minds, and bodies towards continuing these struggles instead of aligning ourselves with cultural exploiters and those who detract from the long, hard task of unity as a Nation.
Nick Estes (Kul Wicasa Oyate), PhD candidate, University of New Mexico
Tasiyagnunpa Livermont (Oglala Sioux Tribe), writer and blogger
Kim TallBear (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate), Associate Professor, University of Texas, Austin
Richard Meyers (Oglala Sioux Tribe), Assistant Professor/Director of Tribal Outreach, South Dakota State University
Joel Waters (Oglala Sioux Tribe), poet and writer
Taté Walker (Mniconjou Lakota), social service/justice professional and human rights activist