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In Northern New Mexico, Some Seek The End of the Rainbow Gathering


Published: July 2, 1995

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Long before the county control movement or the Sagebrush Rebellion, the people here in Rio Arriba County in northern New Mexico considered the Federal Government an occupying power that stole their birthright -- old Spanish and Mexican land grants absorbed by the United States Forest Service.

The Nortenos, or people of the north, as they call themselves, have also long been suspicious of outsiders, particularly long-haired Anglos like the people who arrived en masse in the late 60's ad early 70's, setting off a series of skirmishes known locally as the Chicano-hippie wars.

Now, many here feel a nightmarish sense of deja vu.

Residents learned in recent weeks that as many as 15,000 to 20,000 reincarnated flower children -- members of a loose-knit confederation known as the Rainbow Family -- planned to converge on Forest Service land north of the tiny village of Tres Piedras for their annual Fourth of July celebration. The Volkswagen minibuses with their Day-Glo peace signs were returning for a celebration, subsidized by taxpayers, on land that many Rio Arribans consider their own.

"The people of northern New Mexico shouldn't have to pay for a party in our own forests," said Antonio (Ike) DeVargas, a resident of nearby La Madera, who organized a demonstration of some 50 local residents in Tres Piedras on Friday night. "Some of these are good people praying for peace, but we didn't invite them to the party."

By Saturday morning, rangers estimated that 6,000 to 7,000 Rainbow people had arrived at the Carson National Forest northwest of Taos. Thousands more are expected before the gathering ends on Friday.

Organizers of the event say they sympathize with the Nortenos' grievances against the Forest Service. But they say they are not going to let anyone spoil their party, which will climax on Independence Day with a silent prayer for the peace and healing of the Earth.

"We're an open culture trying to live in a peaceful way," said Barry Adams, a Rainbow camper from Montana. "The only time in this country that we have any voice is at this gathering."

Since 1972 the Rainbow Family has annually disrupted life in the remote areas where they have descended. Last year about 14,000 people flocked to the lands surrounding the small town of Big Piney, Wyo.

This year the Rainbow Family picked a particularly volatile site. This is the country immortalized by John Nichols in "The Milagro Beanfield War," his 1974 novel about deep-seated tensions between native New Mexicans and outsiders.

"Northern New Mexico is in essence a picturesque rural ghetto with enormous socioeconomic problems," said Mr. Nichols, who has lived in Taos since the late 1960's. "To thrust 10- to 15,000 people, some of whom also have enormous socioeconomic problems, into the area is asking for trouble."

For weeks poor residents have been competing in the food stamp lines with arriving Rainbow people, who have also overtaxed the emergency room of the local hospital in Taos seeking health care. Panhandlers camp out on the town's streets, stirring the kind of passions that caused some locals in 1970 to shoot out storefronts of hippie businesses and burn communes.

"Most people I know are befuddled and distressed by the Rainbow invasion," Mr. Nichols said. "It seems like a quasi environmental disaster."

After the United States won the Mexican-American War in 1848, it agreed, in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, to recognize the lands that had been granted to villages by the governments of Spain and, later, Mexico.

In the days when this land was called New Spain, families were granted homesteads and villages got communal lands, called the ejido, which were reserved for hunting, grazing and wood cutting. But the concept of the ejido did not mesh well with the American notion of private ownership; the communal lands were lost, sometimes stolen, many of them absorbed years later into the public domain as Forest Service property.

Old resentments were reignited by news that the Rainbow people would be camping, free of charge, in an area where local residents must pay fees to hunt and fish.

The Forest Service insists that it has no choice. The agency's regulations on public gatherings were challenged by the Rainbow people and declared unconstitutional in Federal court rulings in 1986 and 1988.

Until new rules can be written, the Forest Service treats the Rainbow invasions with the same administrative apparatus they use to fight forest fires: They establish an "incident command team."

Gary Schiff, the deputy commander of the team for the New Mexico event, estimates that the Forest Service will spend $180,000, bringing in 30 to 40 extra law-enforcement officers and 15 health, logistics and communications workers.

Many of the people at the Friday night demonstration belong to La Compania Ocho, a cooperative of local loggers who say that because it is elk calving season, they have been barred from the same area where the Rainbow people are camping. Some have been out of work since a local lumber mill temporarily closed several months ago because of logging restrictions imposed at the behest of environmentalists to protect habitat of the Mexican spotted owl.

Mr. DeVargas, the leader of the protesters, said he could not understand why environmentalists were not equally worried about the sudden establishment of a temporary city of thousands on the very lands they are trying to protect.

Sam Hitt, leader of a Santa Fe environmental group called the Forest Guardians, said he had visited the Rainbow camp and had found little cause for alarm. "It's like a big herd of elk moving through," he said. "They'll trample the vegetation and cause some soil erosion, but I don't think the damage will be significant."

Forest Service officials say the Rainbow people have a good record of cleaning up and reclaiming their campsites.

Like many environmentalists, Mr. Hitt said he sympathized with efforts to revive the communal spirit of the 60's counterculture. "I was back with that crowd," he said. "I would prefer that this was not happening, but we do have a Constitution and people are guaranteed a right of assembly."

While the people of northern New Mexico are trying to hold on to a culture they see eroding year by year, the Rainbow people are trying to create one of their own. Visitors arriving at the end of the long dirt road leading in from the main highway are confronted with a small city divided into neighborhoods.

Closest to the parking area is the "A" or Alcoholic camp, a combination skid row and "Animal House" populated by a few belligerent drunks and walking wounded and a larger number of people whose main goal is to party. Beyond the A camp is the Faerie camp, for homosexuals. Another camp is reserved for followers of the Grateful Dead rock band.

At the end of a three-mile hike, in a beautiful green valley, sits a timeless Shangri-La where clusters of campsites surround a village of tall white tepees. The sounds of drums, guitars and singing fill the air along with wood smoke from kitchens providing food paid for by donations to the "Magic Hat," which is passed around for offerings.

"We're kind of what America started out to be," said Brian Michaels of Eugene, Ore., as he stood by a fire in the center of one of the tepees. Sitting on the floor, several others passed a marijuana cigarette, which they called "partaking of sacrament."

At the end of the gathering, the Rainbow Council (anyone is allowed to join) will meet among the tepees and decide which part of the country will be the lucky host next year.

Correction: July 9, 1995, Sunday

A map last Sunday showing the site of a gathering of hippies who call themselves the Rainbow Family misspelled the name of the locale and the name of a nearby town in some editions. As noted in the article, the site was Carson National Forest in New Mexico, not Carlson, and the town was Vallecitos, not Vallectos.

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