There was supposed to be a "private" Burner party last Saturday night at the Bordello in Oakland, complete with three hundred guests, twenty DJs spinning thumping techno and bass, dancers, a fashion show, micro-massages, raw food, an absinthe bar, and coconuts. Instead, the event ended in tears.
More than fifty Bay Area Native American rights activists converged on the historic East Oakland property at 9:30 p.m. to ensure the shutdown of popular Burning Man group Visionary Village's "Go Native!" party. The fired-up Hopis, Kiowas and other tribal members spent more than four hours lecturing the handful of white, college-class Burners about cultural sensitivity until some of them simply broke down crying. The emotional crescendo capped a month-long saga that started with a tone-deaf dance party flyer, led to an Internet flame war and a public excoriation of Visionary Village's young, neo-hippy leaders before real tribal elders in the East Bay demanded a cancellation of the event.
The strange saga all began in early February when Visionary Village — a loose group of artists and other young people who enjoy the annual Burning Man arts festival in Nevada — began routine publicity for a Burning Man-style "private event" at the Bordello on E. 12 Street in Oakland. The online flyer circulated on Tribe.net read: "GO NATIVE" in an Old West font set against a desert sun, and the dance party was advertised as a "fundraiser for the Native American Church." Native-rights activists got wind of it and publicized additional text from the VisionaryVillage.org web site indicating four "elemental rooms" would be themed: "Water: Island Natives (Maori); Air: Cliff Natives (Anasazi); Earth: Jungle Natives (Shipibo); Fire: Desert Natives (Pueblo)." Ravers were offered a discount off the $20 door fee "if you show up in Native costume," and the money would fund "neurofeedback research demonstrating causality between medicinal use [of peyote], improved brainwave patterns, and heightened mirror neuron activity in users." The 140-year-old Bordello property abuts Interstate 880 and an ancient Ohlone Indian site dated to the 12th century B.C., which was also promoted.
By Wednesday, March 25, Native Americans across the country were seething on the comment boards, especially IndyBay.org — a popular web destination for alternative news and culture. American Indian Movement West member Mark Anquoe, a 39-year-old San Francisco resident, said he'd never seen such a swift reaction. The Burners touched a third rail when they invoked the Native American Church, which has had to fight for legal status from the United States for years. The costume discount, lumping distinct tribes in with each other and the promise of debauchery next to sacred Ohlone land, only added gasoline to the inferno. Commenters demanded that the event be canceled, started a petition amongst rights groups, and some began threatening Visionary Village with arson and rape. Among the most incendiary comments received by the Village: "YOU FUCKING CRACKKKERS[sic] ARE THE REAL DEVIL AS SPOKEN IN THE SCRIPTURE! SHIT LIKE THIS DOES NOT SUPRISE ME ONE BIT, ... I PRAY TO THE MOST HIGH THAT A METEOR WILL FALL OUT THE SKY AND HIT ... E. 12th Street AND ALL YOU FUCKING DEVILS WILL BE BURNING MEN ALRIGHT!!!!"
Anquoe said the sum of the Burners' actions turned them into a focal point for latent Indian rage over things as broad as the Cleveland Indians mascot and the Boy Scouts. "This is so many different levels all at once that the whole community from everywhere went up in flames all at once," he said.
The Burners quickly backpedaled online, signing a petition to distance the event from any Native themes and stating: "The decorations in the Air Room include a parachute. Our organizers are dressing as time-traveling aliens, Nickelodeon cartoon characters, and fire-dragons because that is how they identify their native identity. That is their NATIVE ATTIRE/COSTUME. ... Please stop slandering our event and misleading people."
But the bonfire was too big. Real Native Americans promised to protest the event and some DJs egged them on. On Friday, March 27, IndyBay reporter and UC Berkeley attendee Hillary Lehr proposed a meeting of both sides in Mosswood Park to work out their differences. Visionary Village leaders "Caapi" and Byron Page attended the meet with Anquoe and others. The Native Americans persuaded the Burners to come to the Intertribal Friendship House on International Boulevard in Oakland that night. There, they got blasted by Natives young and old for their party idea.
"They were brave for even coming," said Anquoe. "They saw the real tears of the people there and saw the heat of people's anger. The Village Elders demanded a cancellation. There was a ten-year-old girl sobbing in front of them."
Caapi and Page offered to cancel the event to wild applause, but the Native Americans planned on showing up Saturday night anyway. The event had been promoted for a month and they wanted the chance to talk to whoever showed up dressed in "native costume." More than twenty partygoers would arrive Saturday night, some in pattern-printed Hopi T-shirts or rustic, Andean fabrics and cuts, but all of them fled after hearing what was transpiring inside the Bordello.
Within the dark, labyrinthine walls of the 140-year-old former brothel, old Native Americans were lecturing young Burners on what it meant to be Indian. Lit by dim lamps under red glass lampshades, tribal elder Wounded Knee DeOcampo — wearing a black T-shirt that read "original landlord" — stood over performance artist "Cicada" in her sparkly, sheer scarf and layered hipster garb, lecturing her about his grandmother's forcible kidnapping and rape at white hands.
"There's a lot of pain," he said. "I don't want you to agree with me, I want you to understand!"
IndyBay reporter Lehr was nearby saying, "I've never seen anything like this. Their grievance is very real and it wasn't reconciled, it was escalated. We're starting to go down a long road now. It's not like everything's going to be okay. We're not going to sit around singing kumbaya."
At 10 p.m., activists and party planners sat cross-legged in a circle in the main room, lit by a lone spotlight and led by stern Intertribal Friendship House director Morning Star Gali. Native Americans vented and asked questions, while twentysomething Caapi — dressed in a Baja surf sweater — apologized profusely along with his crew. Byron Pope — noted for his Asian-Native American heritage and piercings, said he recently moved from his native Canada and was stunned at the response to his flyer. "I offer my sincere apologies. It's a different world here and I'm really learning that."
Caapi said his team's hearts were in the right place and they did not intend to steal Indian culture. "I think everyone here and inside of our community at large know how poorly promoted this event was in its iconography, in its text, in the affiliations and implications. I think perhaps after tonight the intent will be recognized for the good heartedness it was and the absence of anything resembling cultural appropriation."
But for every apology, the group often inserted a foot into its mouth. Some Burners said they'd been trained by shamans to build altars, others sang racist childhood songs, or noted the lack of Native Americans at Burning Man (which occurs on an Indian reservation). Others asked for Indian help with their Burning Man projects, prompting a Hopi woman to go off.
"I'm trying to articulate my feelings as best I can without completely losing it," she said. "What we do is not an artistic expression. And you don't have artistic license to take little pieces here and there and do what you want with it. That's something you people don't understand, probably never will understand.
"Name your little villages whatever you want, but don't ever associate it with Native Americans. Call it the Crystal Ranch or something. Call it the Mars Ranch. If you want to be spiritual — go be a Druid or something."
The back and forth went on until 1 a.m. and everyone was emotionally beaten, exhausted, and silent. No further reparations are planned, but the topic still smolders on places like Tribe.net. The organizers lost thousands of dollars in party planning fees, and face the continued ire of the Natives as well as their own Burner peers.
"Elaine" on Tribe.net writes: "Dude, don't kiss anymore ass! [Visionary Village] did nothing wrong in the first place. This whole thing is blown completely out of context and out of control. The public apologies shouldn't have to be made. Its not like the theme camp was screaming some Michael 'Kramer' Richard shit at the tribe. Sorry this is just ridiculous."
Anquoe says the non-party was a rare example of effective conflict resolution that is unique to the Bay Area, and he commends Caapi for their actions. Those bystanders who claim overreaction should reverse the situation.
"If Indian people put together a fund-raiser advertised to benefit the Catholic Church where we did our version of a Catholic Church ceremony and there wasn't actually a fund-raiser — you know what the reaction to it would be in the white community!?" he asked. "People would take legal actions against us, it would be crazy, it would be far beyond not having a party. As it is, these kids didn't get to have their party and they had to listen to Indian people being angry and that's about right for the injury they caused the Native community."
Caapi maintains that the fund-raiser for the Native American Church was genuine, and will be providing the names and phone numbers of the event's beneficiaries as soon as he can collect them all.