Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lending Rainbows

With all the rainbows lighting up the world it is strange to suggest that all in rainbow land is not sparkling in the afterglow of universal love, since such a condition is not uncommon in true rainbow land even when the rainbow nozzles are not turned up full power. The SCOTUS has re-affirmed marriage as a gender-combination-independent Right. Facebook profiles have been rainbow hued to celebrate the SCOTUS decision as the direct result of an app that only colors photos in rainbows. Flags festooned with rainbow-colored bears have sprung up in unlikely places to announce the “final” concert celebrating 50 years of music by the Grateful Dead. Rainbows are everywhere these past few weeks; good rainbows.

The finality of the Grateful Dead concert is hardly the cause of the rainbow problems. Age has unsurprisingly set the parking brakes on the Magical Grateful Dead Bus. Baby-faced Bob Weir will be 68 in October, bass guitarist Phil Lesh celebrated his 75th birthday back in March, and Jerry, who died a couple of days after his 53rd birthday in 1995, would have turned 73 on the first of August. I predict that, within the coming decade, some former deadhead will get a walker and name it “roll away the dew”.

The rainbow problems I speak of are happening within the rainbow family of living light whose annual gathering ended today. It was held this year in the Black Hills National Forest near the Pine Ridge reservation. The Black Hills have been identified as sacred land by members of various Native American tribes; most notably Lakota Sioux from the Pine Ridge reservation. All of the black hills (including almost half of South Dakota, and large chunks of Wyoming, North Dakota, and Nebraska) are also identified as belonging to Native American interests by the treaty of Fort Laramie which was signed in 1868.

In 1980 SCOTUS (United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S. 371 ) awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to the fort Laramie treaty signatories for the land (and years of compound interest at 5%) illegally confiscated since signing the treaty. They did not give the land back, and the bulk of the money has been sitting in an account unclaimed since the award as a statement towards promoting the return of the land.

Due to continually compounding of interest it is estimated that the settlement amount is now worth just north of a billion dollars. This makes the Lakota some of the wealthiest Native Americans in North America. Unfortunately the fact that they do not spend any of the money does little to improve the living conditions on Pine Ridge, and it continues to be one of the poorest places in the United States. Needless to say the decision to keep a billion dollars locked up while many people who could lay claim to the benefit of that money live in extreme poverty is not a universally supported decision.

Days before the Rainbow gathering was to begin a handful of Lakota headed by James Swan and Duane Martin served a legal-looking document to members of the rainbow family claiming that they were not to be allowed to gather in the sacred black hills as defined by the Fort Laramie treaty. This came as a bit of a surprise as Rainbow representatives had gathered permits and permissions from recognized representatives of the Lakota as well as the Forest Service (which currently administers the land).

There are undeniably sacred sites in the black hills. The big ones, like devil’s tower, are on protected federal lands. There are also many little ones; like individual burial sites. However, the Fort Laramie Treaty land mass is huge (millions of acres) and most of it is not a specific sacred site. The Rainbow Family gathering site had no specific sacred sites on it, and so may not have been any more sacred than anywhere in Rapid City or the town of Sturgis (where, for the past 75 years, there is a huge motorcycle rally in August).

It may actually trivialize the problems in the government of Pine Ridge to state that there are long-standing and severe divisions and disunity within it. However, it is difficult to really map the frontlines of the internal political struggles as the federal government is called upon as the root cause somewhere in almost every discussion on the topic. The fact that the federal government’s special relationship with Native American Reservations often makes it the root cause of very local issues does not help defuse those instances where paranoia or simple scapegoating uses the spectre of the “Feds” to displace blame.

In most of the world even the most severe of local political infighting does not usually involve death squads. In 1973 a group of activists took over the historical site of the Wounded Knee massacre in the Pine Ridge reservation. Some were protesting the Federal Government, but most were attempting to oust the tribal president (Richard Wilson). Wilson held the office using actual paramilitary GOONs (Guardians of the Oglala Nation ) to intimidate and even assassinate opponents. Many Lakota died in unexplained car crashes, and as many as 60 of Wilson’s opponents were violently murdered between the Wounded Knee incident and Wilson’s re-election in 1974. To put this into perspective it is more than ten times the violence rate per capita as that seen at the height of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The Pine Ridge Reservation was at war with itself. Many blame the federal government for either not doing anything or instigating the problems to begin with. The conflict did not go unnoticed by the Feds, and the United States Civil Rights Commission stated that Wilson’s 1974 re-election was invalid because of widespread fear, abuse, and intimidation.

In order to fight in and survive the war that the Pine Ridge reservation was in the mid-70s took conviction and an ability to be violent. It was probably inevitable that the violence from one of the sides would strike out at the Feds. On June 26th 1975 two FBI agents who were performing what regular police would perform anywhere else (attempting to locate a robbery suspect for questioning) were ambushed on the Pine ridge reservation. The two agents radioed in that they were taking automatic rifle fire and were unable to defend themselves adequately with their 38 special revolvers. When their bodies were recovered there were over 125 bullet holes in the agents’ cars. FBI agent Jack Coler was killed by two execution style bullet wounds to his head received after being incapacitated by other wounds in the gunbattle. Agent Ronald Williams had powder burns on his hand where he attempted to shield his face from the gun muzzle from which came the bullet that killed him.

It took hours for the Feds to put together a force of sufficient strength to approach the ambush site. They came under fire, but most of the ambushers had already fled. One ambusher died, and his body was discovered clothed in one of the dead agent’s jacket, which he presumably took as a souvenir. The dead shooter was not one of Wilson’s GOONs. He was a member of AIM (The American Indian Movement). AIM, with its actual movie-star leaders, was the major opposition to Wilson, and lead the Wounded Knee takeover. Suspicion was immediately cast upon Leonard Peltier who coordinated some aspects of AIM security.

Leonard evaded authorities until February 1976. In September of 1975 he narrowly avoided being caught when his RV was pulled over in Oregon. After a brief gun battle Leonard ran away on foot; Jack Coler’s service revolver was found under the front seat of the RV. In his 1999 memoir (I have not actually read the memoir) Leonard admitted to firing on the two agents, but denied firing the close up shots that killed them.

Leonard Peltier’s 1977 trial is widely denounced as a sham. Amnesty international called it an “Unfair Trial” as late as 2010.

Just a few short days after Leonard was apprehended a badly decomposed body of a woman was discovered on the Pine Ridge reservation. It would eventually be identified as Annie Mae Aquash; the highest “ranking” woman in AIM. She had been killed by an execution-style 0.32 caliber bullet to the back of the head. The federal trials of the two men who would ultimately be convicted of Annie’s execution stretched from 2003 to 2006. In 2012 what may be the last state trial for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of Annie upheld the conviction for John Graham; formerly a member of AIM. Annie was allegedly on her knees praying for mercy when the bullet entered the back of her skull.

It is widely believed that Annie was either killed by secretive government agents who framed AIM, or conversely, that she knew too much about Leonard’s involvement in the 1975 ambush. Several people have testified that Annie was with them when Leonard allegedly boasted about his involvement in the FBI ambush by saying: “The mother f***er was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.”.

Out of this madness of violence sprung a collection of –now aging- young activists who are formulating their positions now that the actual leadership of that time are aging out of power. Any threats of violence coming from these people, even indirect threats (like: “If you don’t do what I say I’m not responsible if something bad happens to you”), cannot be easily ignored as bluster.

At the same time that Pine Ridge was experiencing some sort of modern gangster version of the old west the Rainbow Family of Light was beginning to develop. The first national gathering was held at Strawberry Lake Colorado over July 4th weekend in 1972; over 40,000 hippies showed up to that event. First approximations suggest that only a couple thousand may have braved the threats of violence to attend this year’s gathering in South Dakota; better numbers will take a bit of time to develop.

Hippies have even been a part of the evolution of Pine Ridge from hyper-violence to the current status of more simplified abject poverty. The Rainbow Family gatherings are always alcohol free, and hippies helped block roads during protests of reservation border liquor stores (the reservation is removing its anti-alcohol laws). The last treaty council Epyapaha (I think Alex White Plume was the last as it does not appear as if Epyapaha is an official position) famously leveraged the “Lakota Nation” status of the Pine ridge reservation to begin the commercial growing of marijuana.

Native American culture has been an integral part of the Rainbow family since it emerged from the vortex. Teepees are iconic location points at the gathering sites, and many rainbow children profess a strong, if only imagined with good intent, bond with what they think Native American spirituality is. The rainbow gathering is a gathering of tribes, and those tribes are a lot like a conceptualized image of Native American tribes. If there was an actual threat to a real Native American sacred site most rainbow people would walk the long way around.

None of the potential violence materialized. The most vocal Lakota aggressor –Duane Martin- spent a bit of the weekend in jail for unpaid child support. Many more level-headed Lakota activists, a couple wearing t-shirts advertising for the release of Leonard Peltier, actually attended the gathering to build the bridges which will probably result in the kind of non-violent activist alliances that will benefit the future. Unfortunately however, the family’s light was dimmer that it could have been. Many actively avoided this year’s gathering in South Dakota because of the intimidation, or because they did not want to accidentally trample a sacred spot.

Or…. maybe the real reason that so many avoided this year’s gathering was to lend the family’s rainbows to the rest of the country which so desperately needed to borrow them for a bit?