The Rainbow family tribe

“WELCOME HOME!” Those are most likely the first words you will be greeted with when entering a Rainbow Gathering. Now a global phenomenon, Rainbow Gatherings take their roots in the counterculture of the late Sixties. A Rainbow Gathering can bring together anywhere from a few hundred people to tens of thousands for the larger ones, particularly in the United States. This is Freedom’s home!

Brewing with the colourful energy of people from all walks of life, Rainbow Gatherings are all at once an event, a process, an experiment, a way of life and a state of mind. Here you will find Punks, Hare Krishna devotees, Conspiracy Theorists, Druids, Bikers, Ecologists, Nomads and Radical Faeries joyfully co-existing in a truly alternative reality.

If you have a belly button, you’re a Rainbow… so goes this Rainbow proverb. And with that, all hopes for an official definition of Rainbow fly out the window. Rainbow celebrates diversity, uniting individuals of all colours, cultures, creeds, nations, shapes, and sizes. There are as many views and opinions of what Rainbow is as there are people attending the Gatherings.

Something of a contemporary reworking of the hippie movement, Rainbows are a consciously expressed alternative to mainstream culture, forming intentional, non-hierarchical communities in the middle of nature every so often.

Today, Rainbow has become the point of convergence for a multitude of different subcultures – and something of a Holy Grail for anyone genuinely interested in alternative living. As issues surrounding the sustainability of our modern civilisation multiply every day, if there ever was a time to get inspired by the Rainbow spirit – it’s surely now. In the face of advancing environmental destruction and social inequality, the Rainbow spirit resonates in today’s burgeoning anti-capitalist sentiment.


The original Rainbow Gathering was held in 1972 on National Forest land in Colorado in the United States. “For me, the first Rainbow Gathering was in Woodstock…It was the same vibration”, asserts Fantuzzi, a charismatic Rainbow veteran and musician. Since the Seventies, Rainbow Gatherings have spread their seed throughout the world, in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and in countries such as Israel, India and South Africa. It is said to be the biggest non-organisation of non-members in the world.

Coming together for at least one moon cycle every year in nature to celebrate, love, create, teach, discover, dance, Rainbow Gatherings take place regionally, nationally, continentally and globally.
 “We get together to heal ourselves and heal the planet. It’s a bit utopian, of course”, says Quebecan photographer Benoit Paillé, who has been attending Rainbow Gatherings for the past seven years and documenting them for the past five. Over the years, Paillé has been creating intimate photographic portraits of both his friends and the people he meets at Rainbow. His series chronicles the modern-day Rainbow Family of Living Light or Rainbow Tribe, from Mexico, Guatemala and Spain to Quebec.


Rainbow has no leaders. This isn’t a cult, as some who first hear of Rainbow might be inclined to think. It is anarchy in practice. Everyone is expected to take communal responsibility. “If you see a job, it’s yours”, such is the philosophy of Rainbow. Rainbow Gatherings are initiated through the efforts of a “Vision Council” – an advisory circle that anyone can join. Like all Rainbow Councils, it has no authority although its decisions are generally honoured.

Deep in the wilderness, Rainbows create an ephemeral, autonomous space. It’s a world outside of the capitalist “Babylon” (in other words: the system). All decisions are made upon consensus. There’s also no money here: Rainbow is a sharing economy in practice. What you will find are things like “the magic hat”: a special system to collect communal funds to buy food for the whole Gathering.

Scouting for land for the Gathering generally happens a good few months before the scheduled start of the Rainbow. Anyone can volunteer to help scout for land. Once an appropriate site is found, Rainbow scouts typically negotiate with the land-owners or town councils in order to be granted permission to use the land.

One month before the beginning of the Rainbow, there is a “Seed camp”, where people are invited to help set-up, build infrastructure, camps and areas such as Kid Village, the Main Circle with its very own “Sacred Fire” (a central location for meals, celebrations, music and ceremonies), the Main Kitchen, etc. Tap water is provided for from a source such as a spring or stream, often running hundreds of yards to the main kitchens in the Gathering via hosing.

Some rules exist, mostly relating to hygiene and respect. Communication is key. As Paillé says: “You can experience a real micro-society. All views are gathered in a reduced space-time, within a smaller geography. We experience all these differences and confrontations, and experiment in matters of conflict management. We learn to talk, look, understand, to become more tolerant. All ideologies and beliefs coexist in harmony. At Rainbow, we often say “We are one.


Walking around, you could meet anyone from the likes of a hippie fairy or elf, a fabulous astrologer striding with a wizard staff, wearing nothing but a purple turban, a cosmic gypsy, a mystical wood-gatherer, a tattooed punk pirate, as well as some prophet types floating in long robes who seem to exude an ancient, Messianic quality. There are also some that are plainly, deliciously mad – such as an Israeli man with a sombrero wearing a T-shirt with the words “JUST TRIP IT”, carrying a rainbow-coloured parasol for his black puppy. This is THE place to unleash your freak spirit!

Many prefer to free themselves from clothing altogether. Being naked is equally welcome. Colourful feathers, beaded necklaces, crystals, macramé jewellery, hand-crafted clothes, turbans and embroidered tunics are in much as favour as becoming one with the mud. No one here will judge you!


Operations at a Rainbow are all at once chaotic and organised. Everyone is essentially free to lead an activity. It is called “Focalising”. Inspired to do an African Drumming workshop? Or build a mud oven? At Rainbow, participation and collaborative action are essential. Dreams and ideas get translated into action – whether that’s a full moon ceremony, meditation, the building of a temple, a Tantra workshop or cooking the spiciest chilli sauce ever for your new family of 3,000 people.

Meals are usually served twice a day, with everyone coming together to form a circle and hum the “OM” mantra in unison before eating. Cooking and serving food for thousands of people is an extraordinary feat of the Rainbow – you really have to see it to believe it. Rainbow kitchens are one of the liveliest places at the Gathering, always full of music and people chopping away at mountains of vegetables and fruits. Cooking happens on wood fires or in clay ovens, in huge pots.

There’s no Rainbow initiation, per say. Being at a Gathering is usually enough. A first Rainbow might feel like finally coming home; to others, it might seem more like a freak circus. Regardless, Rainbow is a kaleidoscopic new world with its own traditions, codes, songs, rituals, and upon occasion, its own dogma.

On the practical side, here’s what you need to know: you should bring something to sleep on: hammocks, tents, tipis work great or just a sheepskin under the stars can work. You should also bring things like a plate, bowl, fork, knife, spoon and cooking utensils to lend to the kitchen, and organic soap. Bathing usually happens in a lake, river, or waterfall – and sometimes, a Rainbow luxury taking the shape of rustic open-air shower is installed, tapped in from a stream. Makeshift toilets take the form of the not so glamorous “shit pits”, which need to be dug and filled in daily.


At the same time, Rainbow isn’t Utopia 24/7. There are “Rainbow Politics”. There are also the odd “Drainbows” – those who come to Rainbow and don’t contribute. On occasion, you may come across some form of Rainbow fundamentalism: “Rainbow Nazis”. And there’s even the “Rainbow Police” (although don’t worry – they don’t come armed with batons or tear gas. At the most, you might get brushed with a fern leaf).

Tolerance, then, with a sense of humour, becomes vital in enjoying Rainbow. As Tommy, Co-founder of the eco-porn organization Fuck For Forest says, “If you understand that there’s different qualities of people at the Rainbow, you don’t need to listen to the people screaming ‘OM’ loudest”. Rainbow makes no discrimination. The most marginal characters are welcome!


Symbolic of the celestial, rainbows have been significant for many different cultures and nations of the land, from the Aboriginal to the Mayans. The Native American prophecy of the Rainbow Warrior, variations of which can be traced to the Cherokee, Sioux, Zuni and Hopi, is often recounted at Rainbow Gatherings:

When the earth is dying
There shall arise a new tribe
Of all colours and all creeds.
This tribe shall be called
 The Warriors of the Rainbow
And it will put its faith in actions not words.

Nature is highly sacred at the Gatherings. Rainbow spirituality is founded upon a deep reverence for the Earth, and many ceremonies at the Gatherings often revive elements of different pagan, shamanic and druid traditions. On a practical level, Rainbow has been extremely active in pioneering sustainable practices and environmental action, notably making innovative use of available resources on site to build temporary living structures, for example. Once the Gathering is over, the location is returned to its natural state, leaving no trace. All of the food is vegan. “Rainbows are provided for by local grocers who donate organic food, lentils, oats, etc… Other Rainbows organise “dumpster divings”: all the food comes from stuff wasted and thrown in the bins in cities”, says Paillé.


While Gatherings continue to attract many through a word-of-mouth basis, self-published leaflets and hand-printed maps once mailed and circulated around the world have largely been replaced with a more web-savvy Rainbow communication network. It’s a controversial topic. And it’s to the dismay of many, who argue that Rainbow should renounce technology altogether. Nevertheless, numerous Rainbow websites, forums and Facebook groups now exist with active discussions, introducing Rainbow to a new generation of digital natives, for better or for worse.

Paillé’s portraits, then, offer a particularly rare photographic document of the Rainbow. Technology, cameras in particular, are frowned upon and generally banned at Gatherings. “There is a conception of magic and the sacred that is more important in Rainbow than in our society” says Paillé, “photographing or recording the magic means desecrating it. So I try to recreate the magic in my photos, to make photography sacred. (…) The fact is that if these images were to be presented out of context in the media, it would look like a festival of freaks, drug addicts with naked people and all that. This is far from the truth. But we are prejudiced”.


Rainbow Gatherings don’t have the pretention to be a fully-fledged model for society. It’s experimental in nature. Rainbow celebrates the grassroots spirit, cultivating many elements that today inspire networks of decentralised movements both globally and locally. Current offshoots from Rainbow notably include many off-grid communities around the world, The Rainbow Peace Fleet sea expedition and The Rainbow Crystal Land project. Different groups also join in, such as Nomads United, an environmental NGO and the world’s largest multi-cultural horse caravan, who regularly attend Rainbow Gatherings.

It’s about reconnecting with Mother Earth, living in and caring for nature, an appreciation of indigenous knowledge, personal growth through spiritual practice and the expression of life as art. It’s about the freedom of each and the unity of all. It’s about sharing. It is the literal belief that we are all brothers and sisters”, reads a manifesto in The Alternative: Rainbow Crystal Land, a new side-project of the World Rainbow Family. The vision is to create a network of open and ownerless permanent sustainable communities that will be the homes of all people, whether sedentary or nomadic.

The challenge, then, unless you’re making the leap into a fully off-grid lifestyle, is how to apply Rainbow experience into society. Is it even compatible? Some people at Rainbow assert that fighting what is seen as a decaying, corrupt system is wasted energy; that change can only come from outside the system.

But Rainbow is also a transportable state of mind. Being Rainbow is about having a certain consciousness and responsibility about the world, and building democratic and ecological foundations through community, co-operative action and sustainability. As Paillé says: “You return from a Rainbow with ideas, ideas for changing your life… And it is clear that when you return, you judge much more severely the society you live in”.

Overcoming materialistic values, and the celebration of love, equality, tolerance and openness are surely not exclusive to Rainbow – they’re vital elements for the transition towards a more harmonious and co-creative state of existence for humanity at large.


In the search for alternatives, isn’t dreaming important? Outside of the system, Rainbow gives birth to a new narrative where imagination has free reign. Everyone here can become a participant, a sculptor of reality. This coming into awareness can be a transformational process, or “healing”, as Rainbow devotees, say. For many, Rainbow Gatherings are a profoundly spiritual experience.

And no matter how you write about it, Rainbow ultimately has to be experienced. Rainbow creates new visions, possibilities and values. This is Rainbow at its most powerful. It is a catalyst for change, a messenger for an Alternative… whatever that may grow to be.