Origins of "Rainbow Family" and related terminology

This is a combination of my recent postings on the meaning of such phrases as "Rainbow Gathering" and "Rainbow Family." These terms are often used incorrectly by the Forest Service, the courts and news media to refer to an organization, or an activity sponsored by that purported organization. The purpose of these articles is to show that these are commonly used phrases which have well-established generic meanings in the English language.

To understand the meanings correctly you have to know either the common generic usage of the phrase, or else its etymology. I've not been able to locate an origin for the phrase, but it may have originated from the world-wide '60's counterculture. One possible origin is from the legend of the "rainbow peoples" from various North American indigenous tribes. Historically there were at least two groups called "Rainbow Family" connected to the original Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes in Colorado, 1972. (This is from word of mouth from original participants I've spoken to, and the people involved were not aware of each other's usage of the name.) One was an Oregon commune, and the other was a drum circle in Los Angeles' Griffith Park. In both cases the name was used in connection with the symbolic "mass adoption" of the hippies and their "families" or "tribes" (i.e. communes) of the counterculture world of the 1960s, so the "Rainbow Family" theme of tribal unity was apparently a common one and it's probably safe to assume there were a number of "Rainbow Families" during that era that may or may not have been connected to the first Rainbow Gathering of Tribes.

The name "Rainbow Family" is therefore little more than symbolic name used as a unity theme, and this usage has spread into general English language usage. All the following web sites illustrate the common and correct usage of the phrase "rainbow family":

Mike and Michelle made a rainbow family through adoption, legally as well as symbolically: "THE MAKINGOF A RAINBOW FAMILY, OUR STORY"

The Barron family adopted Vietnamese orphans to create their rainbow family: "We are going to be what is referred to as a 'rainbow family.'"

That this usage is common among adoption circles is illustrated by the title of a lecture given by the Adoption Resource Center of Connecticut, entitled "Building a Rainbow Family."

The phrase appeared in an interview with playwright Ritva Siikala: interviewer: I hear you call your family a "rainbow family"? Siikala: Yes, I have used the word a few times. My son was born in Ethiopia and I have two grandchildren whose father comes from Gambia.

In their book "Women and Stepfamilies," editors Nan Bauer Maglin and Nancy Schniedewind include chapter 12, "A Rainbow Family in the Deep South," by Yandra Soliz.

Adoption is not the only way to make a rainbow family: "Each year approximately fifty-thousand births arerecorded to black and white couples. My own family of brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, niecesand nephews is a Rainbow Family."

This statement refers to hereditary ethnic diversity: "My family is a Rainbow Family with a mix of European-Slavik-Asian-African-American Indian with a variety of religious beliefs that would be toolong to list."

There are many usages combining the unity-among-diversity theme, with religion: A number of Rainbow Gathering spin-off organizations use the phrase, described on a concert promotion web site as "a Rainbow Family of Light which embraces every race on this planet" .

A reply to a family discussion forum uses a generic definition of Rainbow Family with religious overtones common among Rainbow Gathering participants. Note how it contrasts with the narrower, exclusive usage by the government, in describing more of a creed or sub-culture, than a group or organization:

"My family is my Rainbow Family, the ones who support me in all that I do. I met my Rainbow Family in Illinois and reunited with them here in Cali. My family is extremely important to me. I'd do anything for them and I know they'd do anything for me. A Rainbow Family is a group of people who praise Jah love, get in touch with Mother Earth, and keep a view of peace, trying to spread it through education. With the Rainbow Family you let no one fall, you always strive to lift them up. -Erika a.k.a. A Star G-2"

The Poor Clair nuns in Wales use the phrase on their web site: "We are a rainbow family, children of the wounded, singing Saint Francis."

The Unification Church ("Moonies") reports that: "Father Moon had many members of crowd of over 300 shouting words of agreement as he stressed the need for good families led by men and a rainbow family of mankind led by God."

The phrase appears often in New Age philosophy: "Love of the unknown is a Spiral Order, a Rainbow Family. "

This example is from another New Age web site: "From the ancient traditions grounded in the ancientstones of earth to the knowledge given to us by cosmic messengers from the stars we are being asked torealize humanity as a rainbow family."

The phrase is frequently used to describe "New Age-style" gatherings, like Burning Man: "Many people hadgathered [at Burning Man], for countless reasons and needs, a rainbow family."

The Whole Earth Festival web site uses the phrase with its typical generic counter-culture connotations: "So just what is this festival anyway? It is a vegetarian music festival and crafts and entertainment fair, itis a political activism, love-in where many a rainbow family friend you will meet."

There are many other political or social connotations of the phrase "rainbow family": On a health-related NGO web site, South African Thekiso speaks of the scourge of AIDS in his homeland, and says "I representa rainbow family that is slowly being wiped off the face of earth."

A student in the former apartheid nation writes of a new teacher: "She will make St Mary's feel not like a schoolbut more like a family, a rainbow family."

The unity-among-diversity theme was behind the adoption of the rainbow flag as a gay pride symbol: "...themost colorful of our symbols is the Rainbow Flag, and its rainbow of colors - red, orange, yellow, green, blue,and purple - represents the diversity of our community."

The phrase "rainbow family" is also used to describe gay events. The Family Pride Coalition's web site makes note of a "rainbow family swap meet."

In regard to a story on a Gay Pride march, this site elicits hundreds of reader responses to "Discussion Topic:What's A 'Rainbow Family?'"

The phrase has become generalized to include other type of groups of, apart from any of the original religious or philosophical connotations:  This article applies the phrase to a group of work associates. Lee H. Goldberg, Senior Technology Editor, ChipCenter/eChips, writes: "Since Catherine, Anwyn, and I comprise what we like to call a 'rainbow family' (Episcopal WASP, African- American, and Russian Jew), we usually have a great time during December as we celebrate Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa."

The catchy phrase is becoming so common that it's already becoming watered down in common usage: A UK bus company web site notes that a new style of its buses "will be branded in what has now become a 'Rainbow family' style, with green as the background colour."

One web page even applies the phrase to pet cats: "I also adopted a rainbow family that has one adult, named Prism, and two kittens (left to right) Cascade and Swirl."

Like rainbow family, the phrase "rainbow gathering" is also used generically in the English language, meaning a diverse association, and therefore the annual "North American Rainbow Gathering of Tribes" is just one of many different types of rainbow gatherings.

From an article about Paul Allen's rock-'n'-roll museum in Seattle: "Its name is a reference to Jimi Hendrix's idea for a metaphorical "sky church," a rainbow gathering of people of all ages and races who would congregate in the name of music.

A conservation web site applies the phrase to animals: "We are on a journey together with all creatures of the Earth. Our collective welfare is closely linked with them, a rainbow gathering of many species."

The phrase is used to describe various types of political rallies: "While anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators clashedwith police outside of the Larcom Municipal Building Saturday, a rainbow gathering of more than 500 peoplepeacefully celebrated cultural diversity and unity several blocks away in Wheeler Park."

This example is in the context of race relations: "Two weeks later, 700 people came together at a local college forthe city's second annual Summit for the Healing of Racism. It was a "rainbow" gathering of people joined by acommon desire to eliminate racism in their community, their churches, their media and their places of business."

In this article it appears in an activist political context: "... a rainbow gathering of radicals from throughout the continent crawled through the Lacandon rain forest on reluctant buses to reach this remote jungle clearing which has become the most public site of EZLN activities since the February 1995 military offensive ordered by Zedillo pushed the rebels into deep cover."

Like "rainbow family," this type of generic usage is international, as in this example from an Indian web site describing a political rally in New Delhi: "The meet turned out to be a rainbow gathering of reds of every hue,greens of varying shades, and the blue and white collars of activism and academia."

Here is another example of generic international usage, from a semimar about about South Africa, on a HongKong university web site: "For decades this had been the seat of white supremacy, and now it was the site of a rainbow gathering of different colours and nations for the installation of South Africa's first democratic, non-racial government."

This article uses the phrase to describe the bohemian clientele of a restaurant: "It was a little LA Alexandria, a miniature California Florence, a rainbow gathering of individuals who didn't dwell in the infinite possibilities of the spectrum, but who sought the pristine and sole source of invisible colorless light."

Conclusions: "Rainbow Family" and "Rainbow Gathering" are phrases that imply, even in the most common generic usages, the same philosophy that caused the participants and organizers of the original North American Rainbow Gathering of Tribes to to favor these terminologies. These meanings represent the ideals of free assembly of diverse individuals and groups, whose association is as loosely defined as possible, such that the potential participants encompass the whole of humanity. Attempts to narrow the definitions to a single group or event, or to force it to become a sponsored event, misrepresent and contradict the historical meaning and purpose of Rainbow Gatherings.


This section is about "Rainbow people(s)" in Native American mythology (also "rainbow tribe(s) and "Rainbow Warriors" or "Warriors of the Rainbow."

Disclaimer: Unfortunately a large number of "New Age" articles on the rainbow peoples legends merit the following warning: " denying the spiritual and political autonomy of Indian people, the New Age 'rainbow' people subvert whatever good intentions they may have about multi-cultural community. What gets created is multi-cultural white middle class dominance in yet another form."

My purpose is not to address this controversy, but merely to establish the etymology of the phrases "rainbow family" and "rainbow gathering" as they apply to the North American Rainbow Gathering of Tribes, with its dominant theme of inclusiveness, or unity among diversity. For that reason I am not addressing the validity of any purported "religious" connection between Rainbow Gatherings and Native American legends, but only attempt to establish a possible historical connection between Native American legends and the terminology adopted by the '60s counterculture, and subsequently by the Rainbow Gathering participants. I am citing only those sources which appear to come from authentic native sources. I cannot vouch for their factual correctness nor authenticity, however.

These are quotes from some of the articles I located by a web search:

Sia tribe sacred text:
"Now all the Cloud People, the Lightning People, the Thunder and Rainbow Peoples followed the Sia into the upper world. ... The priest of the Cloud People is above even the priests of the Thunder, Lightning, and Rainbow Peoples. ... The Rainbow People were created to work in Tinia to make it more beautiful for the people of arts, the earth, to look upon. The elders make the beautiful rainbows, but the children assist. The Sia have no idea of what or how these [rain]bows are made. They do know, however, that war heroes always travel upon the rainbows. ... Let the white floating clouds - the clouds like the plains - the lightning, thunder, rainbow, and cloud peoples, water the earth. Let the people of the white floating clouds,- the people of the clouds like the plains - the lightning, thunder, rain bow, and cloud peoples -come and work for us, and water the earth."

This site describes one Native American's rediscovery of his cultural roots. While it does not mention the ancient legends, it demonstrates a contemporary Native American use of the word "rainbow" which is consistent with the legends: When his family moved, he learned of a Rainbow Tribe, a tribe any Native American could join. There he learned about his past and decided to work toward educating future generations about Indian culture.

Submitted to a New Age web site:

This site refers to the rainbow peoples legend of the Navajo, a common theme of Navajo sand paintings: Navajo Ceremony- sand painting, Rainbow people [in a chart of native customs and beliefs]

In "Listening To Native American Prophecies" author Lissa Weinman writes:

"The hippies who embraced Native American teachings, and preached a gospel of peace and love were part of the "awakening" or "Seventh Fire," according to Vernon Harper, a Northern Cree elder, medicine man and spiritual leader. Harper believes the Seventh Fire occurred in the 1960s because Cree prophecies said that it would be "a time when the Rainbow People and the People of Color would appear and be like children." He believes these people were the hippies."

I did not find a primary source on Vernon Harper, but other sites describe the Cree rainbow prophecies. This one is about the Cree "Warriors of the Rainbow" prophecy by Eyes of Fire.

A similar prophecy is attributed to chief Seattle: "When the Earth is sick, the animals will begin to disappear, when that happens, The Warriors of the Rainbow will come to save them." - Chief Seattle, Dwamish

Some Hopi and Navajo elders consider Rainbow Gatherings to be a fulfillment of their ancient tribal prophecies: Hopi elder Grandfather David delivered this prophecy to the Rainbow Nation of Living Light at their world gathering in New Mexico 1977. He spoke, "I am here today to tell you people that you are the Rainbow people and you will make the bridge between the two hearts and the one hearts."

Posted to alt.gathering.rainbow:
"I am Hopi and Apache out of Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico. ... The correct Hopi Prophecy by Grand Father David of the Hopi tribe taught to the Rainbow Family is: It is said: When the earth is weeping and the animals are dying a tribe of all people will come, who care. They will be called Warriors of the Rainbow Hoka-hey-ho Hopi Prophecy: The Earth is your Mother, She holds you. The sky is your Father, He protects you. The Rainbow is your Sister, She Loves you. The Wind is your Brother, He sings to you. Never a time this was not so Hoka-hey-ho."

Although more research is needed to verify the connection, it seems likely that the Native American rainbow legends conveying a multi-tribal unity theme predate their association with the 1960s counterculture, suggesting a common origin for the current usage of the term. This origin appears to correspond to the current usage, which conflicts with an interpretation of phrases like Rainbow Family as referring an a single, exclusive group or organization.


Free assembly in the US is under attack by the goverment co-opting the meanings of the words of gathering participants, then used to mean the opposite of what participants mean. The deceptive meanings, through constant repetition, are used to confuse the public and create fear and hostility against free assembly participants. They are also used to confuse novice participants and even some long term participants as well. Here's my own attempts at definitions, based on the research I've done here:

rainbow family (n.) : 1) A union or collection of diverse people. 2) People who advocate the unity of humanity as a philosophy or creed. 3) (proper n.) All peoples, tribes and nations; the whole of humanity. Etymology: First used by 1960s hippy communes, called families. Probably derived from Native American rainbow peoples legends.

rainbow gathering: 1) (n.) A free assembly (q.v.) of diverse individuals or groups. 2) (g.) Participation in such assembly. Etymology: First used in the 1960s to describe gatherings of counterculture communes. Probably derived from Native American rainbow peoples legends.

free assembly: n. Assembly of individuals or groups in a public forum, without formal leadership, sponsorship or predefined agenda.