A counterculture gathering on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest intended to celebrate peace and inclusion is instead sowing the seeds of discord and division.
By one estimate, as many as 500 people have congregated at Iron Phone Junction near the top of the ridge that divides the Snake and Salmon rivers north of Riggins to take part in the annual Rainbow Gathering. The communal campouts that are held at a different spot each year can attract as many as 10,000 people, and feature a mass prayer for world peace July 4.
But the latest rendition is rife with controversy. Many members of the loose-knit Rainbow Family of Living Light are boycotting this gathering and trying to persuade others to do the same because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The point of the gathering is for people to connect with each other and be close and share space and hug each other and sit in circles, and those things just don’t work with COVID-19,” said Karin Zirk, a longtime participant from San Diego who is part of the no-gather faction.
Those moving forward with the event have angered the Nez Perce Tribe and its members, who fear campers will damage edible and medicinal plants at the site, harm wildlife habitat and even disturb unmarked graves of their ancestors.
“I let them know there is a lot of people who are angry and want to go up there and confront them,” said Anthony Capetillo, a member of the tribe who has been to the site.
Layered on top of that is the presence of armed, militia-like individuals patrolling the area.
“They are driving around on their four-wheelers and making a presence,” said Julie Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service.
It all adds up to what could be a volatile Fourth of July weekend.
In an attempt to manage the event, the U.S. Forest Service has deployed an incident command team consisting of many law enforcement agents who are assigned the duty every year. On Wednesday, Cheryl Probert, supervisor of the 4-million acre forest, closed the Cow Creek Road near Lucile, cutting off one of the main routes into the area. The 241 Road in the Race Creek drainage remains open.
Capetillo is leading a small group of tribal members calling themselves the Nez Perce Defenders who have met with the campers and attempted to persuade them to leave for another site. He said the campers don’t appear to be following the latest health protocols and have dug six latrines, constructed about 40 fire pits, cut down live trees and dammed a small stream.
Although he said some campers are sympathetic to the tribe’s concerns, others are not and have instead said they are being victimized by being asked to relocate. The discussions have turned heated at times, and Capetillo said he feels the tribe is being disrespected.
“We just feel like we are being taken advantage of. We feel like we are being oppressed and colonized all over again,” he said. “I started this group so I could come out here and let people know these are our concerns. We brought salmon, we brought elk and deer burgers. We tried everything we could to be peaceful and met with them three or four times. Every time it fell on deaf ears.”
Capetillo is working with members of the Rainbow community who are staying away and participates in regular phone conference calls with the “om from home” faction. Some have donated money to his cause, which he is using in part to help campers who agree to leave with expenses, such as gas money.
Donald Joseph Arceneau is a longtime participant in the Rainbow community who is staying home this year. He spends much of his time in Moscow and lives in rural Benewah County. Since he is close, he agreed to visit the site Sunday on behalf of concerned members of the no-gather faction.
“I was the only one wearing a mask. The campers weren’t social distancing. I don’t think they were practicing the hygiene we normally do at gatherings,” he said.
The lapse in hygiene he witnessed may be because many of the most experienced in the community are not attending, said Gary Stubbs, of Napa, Calif.
“A lot of the infrastructure — the folks who make things happen — just decided it was unsafe and irresponsible to have a gathering during a pandemic,” he said.
Zirk, who maintains a blog on the gatherings, said 90 percent or more of longtime participants are staying home. She said the strife with the Nez Perce people is likely because many of the most experienced gatherers, those who scout locations and communicate with local tribes and governments, are not participating. Instead the effort is being led by people with much less experience.
Arceneau said that the diplomatic process started prior to the onset of the pandemic but was later abandoned when most family members decided not to gather this year.
Both he and Capetillo estimated the size of the encampment at less than 200 people.
No matter what happens, Stubbs, Arceneau and Zirk said the site will be restored. Those who have decided to stay home are fiercely protective of the Rainbow name. In fact, many like Stubbs wish it not to be associated with this year’s event.
“That land will be cleaned up even if people who didn’t go to the gathering have to travel 1,000 miles to clean up after them. It will be done,” Stubbs said. “Because if we don’t clean up this year, they will have every right to tell us we can’t do it next year.”