The social revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s was a time of positive change for American Indian people and America in general. Indians got self-determination as official federal Indian policy, ethnic minorities gained a greater degree of civil rights, and the United States got out of the Vietnam War. On the negative side, hippies flocked to Indian reservations searching for Indian wisdom, in the process committing a form of theft Indian people now refer to as cultural appropriation.
During those turbulent times the hippies literally ran for the hills in their attempts to escape a spiritually bankrupt social system and set up communes, inspired to a great degree by what they perceived to be American Indian lifestyles and values. Many of them, such as Black Bear Ranch in Northern California, still survive today.
In 2006 a documentary was made about BBR.
The communes were well-intentioned enough, fueled as they were by a desire to transcend systems of greed, social inequality, and environmental degradation the hippies had inherited from their ancestors.
But what they also inherited was a sense of settler entitlement to land based on that very system of capitalist greed they were trying to overcome. Most of them hadn’t thought twice that the lands they were buying were stolen from the very people they were trying to emulate; they were just looking for good deals. But what they did in the process was repeat the patterns of settler colonialism they were simultaneously condemning. (For more on the topic of hippie communes and Indians see the book “Hippies, Indians, and the Fight for Red Power” by Sherry L. Smith).
Black Bear Ranch was founded ironically on the slogan “free land for a free people,” apparently oblivious to the fact that the land was stolen in the first place. Some of the Black Bear Ranch people are beginning to see themselves as complicit with settler colonialism in their idealist visions.
Recently an open letter was written to the BBR members and “family” from a coalition of former BBR residents pointing out the ways the commune is founded on these contradictions. The letter raises the question, “can it be ‘free land’ if it is stolen land?”
Written by non-Natives calling themselves “Unsettling Klamath River,” the letter skillfully employs the language of settler colonialism:
“[We] are an open community collective of settlers, many us former Black Bear residents, living on the Klamath and Salmon Rivers working to understand and respond to the ‘elephant in the room’: the continued occupation of Karuk, Hoopa, Yurok, Konomihu, Shasta, and Shasta New River Homelands. While we understand that the values of settler society are the problem and not necessarily settler people themselves, we recognize that we have a responsibility to face our position as beneficiaries of settler colonialism (even though we have not intended to benefit in this way).”