On the occasion of the August 21 solar eclipse, a handful of festival organizers set up an event in an Oregon forest to bring together ravers, thinkers, and spiritual leaders from across the globe. Michelle Lhooq went there looking for resistance against white nationalism and the American right but instead found cultural sharing to be the highlight.
Despite having zero camping experience or proper gear, last week I trekked to a 55,000-acre prairie in the Ochoco National Forest — a place so rural it lacks cell phone service — to revel in the awe of a total solar eclipse at Oregon Eclipse Festival. The event was a first-time collaboration between 14 of the biggest transformational festivals in the world including California’s Symbiosis and Lightning in a Bottle, Canada’s Bass Coast, and Australia’s Rainbow Serpent.
A week before the eclipse, the Unite the Right white nationalist rally and their counter-protesters erupted into violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia. The horrific sight of hate-spewing neo-Nazis marching bold-faced in the streets was still dominating the news cycle when I left for Oregon a week later. I had come to to the festival because I hoped it would be my generation’s Woodstock: a form of resistance, or at least a cathartic antidote, through community and music to the shroud of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The symbolism of more than 30,000 people sharing a mystical experience during a time of intense socio-political conflict did not escape the attention of the festival’s organizers either. “The goal is not to collect names for a poster, but to create a new collaborative environment transcending nation, language, and creed,” the event’s website reads. “In a fragmented world, creating opportunities for the gathering of community is the most noble task we can think of.”
Eclipse chasing is a global phenomenon. Enthusiasts flock to different corners of the globe to bear witness to these celestial spectacles fostering an industry of music festivals (and those dorky cardboard sunglasses) that has sprung up around them. This year’s solar eclipse, the first in 99 years to cross the width of the United States, felt special beyond its expansive reach: the American public imagination was finally obsessing over something that had nothing to do with Trump.
Symbiosis co-organizer Kevin KoChen said that Oregon Eclipse Fest is an opportunity to “sit back and respect that there is awe and beauty in the universe,” and not necessarily a form of active political resistance. “People are always on their phones and going to work,” he said. “[Eclipses] remind us that, holy shit, we’re humans on a earthen ship flying through the galaxy. You get that magical moment.”
In the days before the epic interstellar showdown, there were workshops, lectures, and other events. I attended talks led by academics on the new psychedelic renaissance and the history of sandalwood; took naps in a tent owned by a coven of witches; and watched amateur chemists compete in a cook-off to make different kinds of lube.
KoChen told me that a third of the event’s 30,000 attendees came from abroad, but I quickly notice after my arrival that the crowd seems predominantly white. Racial homogeneity also plagues similar transformational events like Burning Man, where, according to a Black Rock City census, only one percent of attendees in 2014 were black. Despite the presence of Native Americans and other people from all over the world sharing their cultures and spiritual interpretations of the eclipse, I cringed at the sight of festival-goers decked out in feather headdresses, tribal facepaint, bindis, and other culturally appropriative costumes.
At night, I wandered around the seven stages stacked with dizzyingly diverse musical lineups. During the festival’s seven-day span, you could booty drop to the frat house trap of Dirtybird’s Justin Martin, groove to String Cheese Incident’s jam band guitar noodling, head bang to Bassnectar’s low-frequency wobbles, or light up a (legal!) spliff to Nicola Cruz’s dreamy tribal techno. I found myself drawn to the outdoor Sun Stage where grizzled men with white beards and striking resemblances to Santa Claus danced barefoot to buzzing, insectoid psychedelic trance.
On the morning of the eclipse I headed towards the far-end of the prairie where indigenous groups from all over the world had set up a camp at the invitation of festival organizers. Elders from each tribe, many of them female, formed a circle as one after another, they chanted ancient prayers and offered blessings.
A 60-year-old elder from Arizona’s Gila tribe named Pete Jackson later told me that, starting in the early 1800s, the US government started issuing a series of “civilization regulations” that outlawed Native American ceremonies and other religious practices—an infringement of their First Amendment rights that was only reversed in 1978 under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Sharing the spiritual wisdom of these ceremonies is one of the reasons why he helped organize all of the indigenous tribes at the festival. “My sense is that young people are not interested in going back to organized religion,” he says, “and are looking for a way to better communicate with their spirituality.”
As the grand occasion we have all been waiting for ticks closer, a Shinto shaman chants a throaty song in Japanese as she lifts a string of white beads to the sky. A shaman from Peru produces an ayahuasca plant from the jungle as an offering. Then, the sky turns black and cold, and everyone bursts into ecstatic howls and song. Without really understanding why, I find myself crying while staring at the sun.
Later that day, sitting under a temple crafted from dozens of wooden spires, I realized hadn’t heard Trump’s name or movements like Black Lives Matter evoked a single time throughout the festival. But beyond the undeniable majesty of a grand cosmic alignment, I had found what I had been looking for in the indigenous tribes’ ceremonial rituals. Watching these historically marginalized people create their own spaces and share their sacred histories was both poetically profound and politically resonant.
On the way back home from the airport in Los Angeles, I shared an Uber with a 23-year-old white girl named Cherys who also attended the festival. We compared our experiences, and when I noted my annoyance at the abundance of white people dressed as shamans, she offered a counterpoint: “The festival had a profound effect—a lot of people left knowing more about the struggles of Native Americans and feeling fired up, wanting to defend these issues. I really respect that they created spaces for these issues in the middle of what a lot of people consider a giant party.”
She turned to me, eyes wide with enthusiasm. “Did you hear that they played ‘Here Comes the Sun’ right after the eclipse?” she asked. “It was amazing, like the start of a new year.” The car stopped and she jumped out, lugging her bags to the curb. “I am really hoping this festival goes down in history as the start of a movement,” she said, beaming. “Maybe it will be the next Woodstock after all!”
Michelle Lhooq is on Twitter.