The Rajneeshis in Oregon
One of my favorite reads is Frances FitzGerald’s Cities on a Hill (1987), which explores five diverse communities in the United States, including the town in Oregon that became headquarters for the Rajneesh community.
A new documentary, called Wild, Wild Country, tells the story of the community and its rural neighbors, and is now airing on Netflix.
Wild, Wild Country explains how a large gathering of followers of a spiritual leader from India (Bagwan Shree Rajneesh) made Oregon home in the 1980s.
Some 2,000 devotés took up residence in the community near Antelope, according to the Oregonian newspaper.
When I tuned in to the documentary, I was struck by the long-time residents of Antelope, whose worries sounded familiar.
When asked about their community before the Rajneeshis arrived, one offers:
“Everybody knows everybody else, and everybody got along.”
Another remembers getting a phone call from someone who urged him to “keep those guys from getting in” to the community, once news leaked that an 80,000-acre ranch had been sold to the Rajneesh commune.
“We wondered who these people are, why are they here [and] how long are they going to be here,” says another inhabitant.
Their anxiety sounded familiar because I had heard about it from Native Americans perplexed by the influx of visitors to our communities.
Before the arrival of the Rajneeshis, Oregon inhabitants worried about “bearded, hairy” strangers–who looked like bears–arriving unexpectedly.
In their “perfect paradise” at the mouth of the Columbia River, the Clatsop people treated the hirsute Russian traders with courtesy, and traded fish for furs.
Then the Russians packed up and shoved off in their boats.
But in the early 1800s a new group of strangers arrived without invitation at the Clatsop homeland.
The Clatsop treated Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (and their team) with the same courtesy they offered the “Bear People.”
But, unlike the bearded men who came from the sea, the new arrivals wore thin, cloth garments and hated eating the salmon, which upset their guts.
And they refused to leave.
The travelers who accompanied the Lewis and Clark brigade remained.
Their presence meant that more than three-quarters of the Native people along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers would die of malaria, smallpox, influenza and measles over the next two decades, and that more travelers would arrive, followed by more and more, until the Clatsop lost count.
And by the middle of the 1800s, the Native residents would lose their lands because of something called the “The Donation Land Law of 1850.”
The Act proffered land to non-Natives who wanted to set up stakes in Oregon.
No surprise that homeowners in Antelope would be troubled by the flow of thousands of strangers into their rural Oregon landscape nearly 180 years later.
Like the Bear People of old, the newcomers earned a moniker from local denizens, who called the outsiders the Orange People because of their orange, red and pink clothing.
And while the Rajneeshis would wreak havoc on the local townsfolk for years (as highlighted in the Netflix documentary), the interlopers would eventually disperse, their leaders jailed or deported.
But no such luck for the Natives of North America, who failed to escape the ravages of the settlers.
26 April 2018
The story of the Clatsop people is taken from James P. Ronda’s story, Coboway’s Tale: A Story of Power and Place Along the Columbia, from the 1999 book , Power and Place in the North American West, edited by Richard White and John M. Findlay