Burners Torched Over Native Party

Local Native Americans go to war against insensitive Burners and win.

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.

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