James Swan parked his old Dodge alongside the South Dakota visitor center, where grungy hippies were sprawled on a lawn and passing around a feather. The two-dozen vagabonds are planning to unleash thousands of their brethren into the Black Hills for prayer and free thinking. But Swan wasn’t feeling the peace and love.
“We don’t want you here. You have no f—king respect for Lakota people!” the 54-year-old Native American yelled into a mic attached to his truck. His T-shirt bore another message: portraits of warriors who had shellacked the U.S. Army in the Battle of Little Bighorn, alongside the words “Original Homeland Security.”
“They aren’t listening to anybody,” Swan told The Daily Beast of the phalanx of graying flower children and their next-generation recruits. “This might work for them everywhere in other states, but they’re dealing with Lakotas now.”
“We’re a warrior society,” he added. “We don’t want violence, but this is our culture, our sacredness and we will protect it.”
Swan is not a tribal council representative and does not speak for the Sioux. That isn’t stopping him from fighting the Rainbow Family of Living Light, a counterculture group that’s held annual gatherings in national forests every July since 1972 to pray for world peace—and deliver drugs, nudity and sometimes murder and other crimes in their wake.
To some Lakota, the love fest threatens to desecrate the sacred Black Hills National Forest, where 5,000 to 20,000 hippies are expected to dig trench latrines, fire pits and kitchens. Swan and his band of activists with the United Urban Warrior Society say they’re planning a blockade and will remove the bums.
Swan said Rainbow Family adherents tried to soften him up by saying, “We’re just like you, [but] the government doesn’t recognize us as a tribe.”
“You’re not a tribe,” Swan added. “You’re fricking fruitcake people.”
The Rainbow Family is in the midst of “Spring Council” meeting to decide where they’ll set up camp this year. On Monday, Sioux tribal leaders met with a Rainbow members and the USDA Forest Service—a talk to which Swan was not invited.
Leaders of the Rosebud Sioux and Oglala Sioux tribes did not respond to the Daily Beast’s requests for comment. Neither tribes have approved of the Rainbow plans.
Swan protested against the unkempt wanderers for several hours, he said. After the interaction became heated, the Rainbow Family crew pulled back, held hands and formed a circle, the Rapid City Journal reported. Then the Rainbows chanted, “We love you!”
A week before their camp-out, the Rainbows are already in trouble with the law. On Wednesday night, five of the clan fell prey to South Dakota’s harsh marijuana laws and were arrested on felony charges. After a citizen reported aggressive panhandling, the suspected beggars fled in a car. Cops pulled them over after their vehicle ran a red light.
Police found two ounces of pot, paraphernalia, marijuana wax and open liquor containers during a consensual search, the Rapid City Journal reported. The visitors’ urine tests were positive for THC.
One Rainbow, who goes by “Bajer,” was defiant to the Rapid City Journal —or what Swan’s club has dubbed the ‘Racist City Urinal’ for what they call biased reporting.
For the record, executive editor Bart Pfankuch disagrees with Swan’s moniker.
“I support the right to free speech of James Swan and anyone else,” Pfankuch told The Daily Beast. “Our newspaper coverage is out for all to see. I think we cover things in a fair and balanced way, and people are free to make their own calls about that.”
The Journal reported that Bajer, whose name is actually pronounced “badger,” lashed out after prodding by Swan.
“We didn’t ask [Swan’s] permission to be here, and we aren’t going to ask his permission to be here,” said the man. “This is land that belongs to him, us, everybody.”
Swan and his supporters disagree. They say the Black Hills really isn’t federal land because of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that granted Lakota ownership. The ownership of the Black Hills has been disputed in court for decades.
In Facebook groups, the Black Hills appears to have caused a schism among Rainbow devotees, some of which are still trying to get the blessing of the tribes. Others say they’re heading to Michigan instead.
“I really wanted to go to SD,” wrote Jordan Anthony, a Rainbow man from Michigan. “I thought we could do some great things there for the locals, natives, and ourselves. But this thing has gotten out of hand. We should have done our research and gotten permission first.”
Joelle Clark, 53, a Lakota activist in Gainesville, Florida, told The Daily Beast that native people from across the country plan to head to South Dakota to stop the Rainbow Gathering. “There are times when you have to make a stand,” she said, “and this is one of them.”
The free spirits are planning to dig toilet trenches and occupy the Black Hills at the height of the Lakota ceremonial season. “I’ve talked to several Rainbow people who I believe try to be decent human beings,” Clark said. “And then there’s a whole messload of them who—pardon my language—are totally freaking whacked.”
Swan and Joelle say it’s particularly disturbing that the Rainbow Family has no leaders, and no one is really accountable. They pointed to reports that one of the group’s hippie pow-wows cost taxpayers $500,000 in law enforcement and forestry management in 2013.
To prevent any waves of destruction, the Forest Service sends incident management teams from Washington, DC to the Rainbow Gathering every year to supplement local law enforcement.
Scott Jacobson, a Black Hills National Forest spokesman, said because no Rainbow individual is in charge and will sign an event permit, officials have a special operations plan. “We’re looking forward to a hopefully peaceful gathering,” he said.
Meanwhile, native activists published a June 16 letter to the Forest Service, Office of Tribal Justice and Department of Justice warning Lakota warriors would remove and confiscate any Rainbow encampments.
Swan’s online petition to keep Rainbow out of the Black Hills was signed by more than 2,200 people.
“We don’t want your drugs, alcohol, nudity, using parts of our spirituality in your rituals!, your free love, your lingo, your fashions, etc.,” Swan wrote on the site.
“I will say this!” he continued. “I have met a bunch of you and do find some of you to be legit. As far as the rest of you … you can burn in hell for all I care! I can handle it and encourage it! Bring whatever you think you got!”
The happy Rainbow camp has often displayed a dark side. Earlier this year, the Rainbows’ pacifist playground at the Apalachicola National Forest in Florida turned deadly.
Clark Mayers, 39, of Georgia was recording people burning tires at a regional gathering when someone slapped his camera into the fire, the Apalachicola Times revealed. He went to his car, got a gun and returned to the camp to allegedly fire three bullets into 24-year-old Wesley Jones’ back, lung and spine, paralyzing him.
When Jacob Cardwell, a man in his 20s from Arizona, tried to intervene, officials say Mayers killed Cardwell with two shots to the abdomen, the Times reported. Mayers has been charged with first-degree murder and aggravated battery.
In summer of 2014, the Rainbow Family gathered at Uinta National Forest in Utah, prompting a nearby summer camp for Mormon girls to scatter. “You’re a rainbow family. He’s a rainbow family. People in the White House are a rainbow family,” one reveler named Novel announced when he arrived.
“It’s about world peace,” Novel told FOX 13 in Salt Lake City. “But I personally believe it’s like a very excellent place to meet people, to network, to become the true you.”
But by the end of the event, a woman with black dreadlocks whose hippy name is “Hitler” had stabbed a man in the head and shoulder.
Leilani Novak-Garcia was charged with attempted murder, but prosecutors reduced her charges to aggravated assault after she pleaded “no contest.” The victim told police Hitler’s freakout was “out of character and likely the result of “taking some bad drugs.”
“We’ve gotten some [Rainbow people] saying you need to come out here and experience the hippie love,” the Lakota activist Clark told The Daily Beast. “Peace, love, we want to be your friend and respect your people. No, we don’t trust you any more than the government—possibly less.”