When the Tower card appears in a spread it is not greeted with cheers and smiles. Although Pagans recognize the cycle of destruction must happen in order for new growth to thrive, it isn’t an enjoyable process. It’s painful. At times it can be downright ugly. While a group or organization is in the midst of conflict and tearing down of the old, it can be difficult to manage the process in a way that achieves a positive outcome.
Local festival in crises
For the last year Harmony Tribe, the group that produces the Sacred Harvest Festival, has been dealing with the aftermath of the Tower. Shortly after last year’s festival the board, Tribe members, and festival attendees became embroiled in a serious conflict. Tensions came to a head after a controversial move was initiated by Harmony Tribe to ban two Tribe members and the walls came crumbling down as the entire board of Harmony Tribe resigned en masse early last fall. A rift formed and community members began to choose sides. To make a painful situation worse for all involved, this played out in public.
For many in the wider community, the escalating conflict and subsequent rift struck from out of the blue. “This entire episode was so hurtful and angry. It wasn’t anything like the community I had come to love,” said one attendee who asked not to be named. “I was stunned. I shut down. I almost didn’t come this year.”
Current Harmony Tribe Board member Tasha-Rose Mirick said she feels last Fall’s conflict was many years in the making, “Just like in any kind of relationship, when the bad things happen, it doesn’t just happen in one fell swoop. It is the little things over time that etch away at the relationship. Resentments build, fears build, resistance to change happens and everyone is scared to talk about it. It ends up looking like a lightening bolt for that very reason, because no one is talking about it. From my perspective, that’s what happened. A whole bunch of different things happened and came together at one point.”
Crystal Blanton, author, mental health counselor, and High Priestess in California says it isn’t uncommon for groups to allow small conflicts to build into larger ones. These larger conflicts then blow up into what the Pagan community calls ‘witch wars’ and they are one of the main reasons Paganism is finding a path to sustainability difficult. “Part of what takes away from the Pagan community’s ability to sustain are these rifts and conflicts and miscommunications and lack of skills in certain areas,” says Ms. Blanton.
She wants to help Pagan groups and communities learn the skills needed to prevent these larger conflicts from becoming destructive, “We have the most beautiful people with the most beautiful intents. All of us really want something valuable for ourselves and our children and in our community and these things happen and we don’t know how to get from one space to another while holding our values close in the process. I’d love to help support in some way so we don’t have to keep tearing down and rebuilding every time something comes up. That we can find a way to get through that moment and make it something valuable and positive for everybody’s growth verses people walking away and feeling hurt or scorned or making a divide where we can’t celebrate life together.”
For Harmony Tribe, it was too late for prevention. A deep and painful rift had already formed within the community. Long time friends were no longer talking and another festival, headed by the former board of Harmony Tribe, was announced – Summerlands Spirit Festival. This very inharmonious turn of events could have been the end for Sacred Harvest Festival were it not for nine people who stepped forward during this time of turmoil to make up a new Harmony Tribe board.
“There weren’t alot of people lining up to jump in. [The festival] could have easily died right then,” says Travis Haage, current Harmony Tribe board member. “There were just enough people willing to serve and jump into this thing to fill the 9 board positions that we had established. We were 9 people who wanted to make sure this thing happened because it was not going to otherwise. We wanted to make sure SHF stayed because it was so important to us.”
New board faces challenges
The board faced several challenges in producing this year’s festival. A wounded community tired of drama, continuing board attrition, and lack of board continuity and experience. The majority of the surviving new board of 5 members, down from 9, had less than 5 years combined experience on Harmony Tribe board.
Harmony Tribe board President Izzy Ray said it was a very emotionally challenging 10 months, “The biggest challenge was not freaking out, shutting down, and saying fuck it. I’m not a nasty person and I don’t like to hear nasty things because it hurts me. It taints everything.”
Not only was the atmosphere in the community difficult, she also faced an emotionally draining personal situation, “My mother died in September, which is right when I was elected to the board. All of this was going on at once. I had no mentor, the old council was like I’m not going to help you, I can’t do it. Then some of [our new] board members starting having problems at home and everyone starting leaving [the board]. The turmoil just did not stop.”
Ms Ray says a general lack of trust in the community added to her burdens, “ Nels (former HT board member and editor at PNC-Minnesota) is inundating me with information and I kept thinking “Do I trust him?” Everything was going sideways in my head. The challenge was, for me, to just keep talking and not close up because I was afraid. To not let fear get in the way.”
Mirick agrees the board faced emotional and operational challenges in preparing for this year’s festival, “It was an intense year. I cried a lot. But it was really part of the growing pains and learning to work with people you hadn’t worked with before. We had many adjustments to make for many reasons. Lack of information. Lack of experience. It was frustrating a lot of the time. As we got closer, as egos got out of the way, we came together and accomplished a lot.”
Fortunately, the board was able to seek assistance from past board members. “Really big has been having our council mentors. Nels [Linde] and Judy [Olson] have been huge. They’ve been a part of this. Both have been council members many different times. Judy has been ritual director many years. Nels has been doing web stuff and knows how registration works. Not only does he know those logistics, he feels all the different beats and rhythms that go through every aspect of the festival. He knows the wisdom about all of it,” said Haage.
Mirick says she found Judy’s advice to focus on the fundamentals particularly helpful, “Judy sat me down a few times and said you’re doing things you don’t need to do. Focus on this instead because you have a festival coming in x number of days and you need to be ready for it.”
Additional challenges faced this year included a ban on drumming after 10pm on week nights and 1am on weekend nights. This necessitated hosting the popular Rangoli and the spiritually and physically demanding Hunt on the same day. The shower situation was another issue to be addressed. Showering at Harmony Park costs $5 and the solution the board came up with last year, setting up flash water heaters, was not allowed this year. The board was able to negotiate the price down to $3.
When the effort of putting on the festival during this stressful time felt overwhelming, Mirick says thinking of her children kept her motivated, “My main motivation is my kids. The world outside of here isn’t always their friend because of what they are raised with. Here they aren’t the odd one out. Here they aren’t made fun of for believing in whatever they want to believe in or nothing at all. To give them the experience of living in an actual village, and having an actual community and not just neighbors who mow their grass at 6 in the morning.”
A return to roots
The new board had a vision of what Sacred Harvest Festival should be about, a vision rooted in the festival’s history. Izzy isn’t just the current President of the Harmony Tribe board, she was was part of the group that predated Harmony Tribe. She remembers the festival being created as a place where people of different spirituality can come together and hold sacredness.
Haage, who has attended every year of the festival, says part of the conflict may have stemmed from competing visions of the festival, “I do think there was a bit of a shift in the focus and the general intention of the gathering. The main concept being one of a vacation and a get away verses an opportunity to come together and work as a community and build something together that everybody is a part of and is expected to be a part of and everybody has to work rather than something that people can just come and relax and whatever. Yes, everybody should get a chance to relax, but it’s through our contributions that we see that community grows and we find value and a place within our community. I think there was no longer a focus on that, at least not to the same extent as before.”
Haage says he knows from personal experience that active contribution by attendees is key to the festival experience, “That’s how I grew up and learned many of my values as a person from being here at Sacred Harvest Festival and working to create community in the little stuff and the big stuff. From the silent meditations during the rituals to pounding in stakes for a community event. People have a desperate need for that opportunity to serve and and feel connected through service and find a purpose. I’ve seen people have total shifts in their life through that.”
The feeling of connection through service Haage describes was experienced by the board during the past year. “I feel really good about this year,” says Ray, “I feel like the support of the council has been tremendous. Tremendous festival, truly because of them. I feel warmth and more connected to my people than ever before.”
Healing community and rebuilding trust through Restorative Justice
Not only did the board work to return to what they considered the roots of the festival, they also wanted to use the festival as a place for healing the trauma the community experienced in the past year. The board invited Crystal Blanton to be the featured speaker. Crystal not only hosted workshops on topics such as parenting, leadership, and spiritual topics, she also held a Restorative Justice Circle during the festival. Restorative Justice removes focus from placing blame and assigning punishment and shifts it to healing harm and restoring trust.
Crystal arrived at the festival on Sunday and found she had her work cut out for her, ”When I got here it felt as if people were in a whole myriad of positions in how they felt about being here at the festival. The tone felt to me as if people didn’t really know what to expect or how much they should put in. They were very guarded. Friendly, extremely friendly, but you could see that people were holding back.”
Looking around the festival and noting the attendance numbers, just over 150 attendees, it was obvious many long time festival attendees were missing. Some didn’t make it because of economic conditions, some because of the conflict. “We knew we had this rift,” said Ray, “and we said if we have 50 people that’s great and we got more than we expected. And yes, I can tell there is a decline in numbers.”
The lower festival attendance didn’t translate to a lower number of people attending the Restorative Justice Circle facilitated by Blanton on Tuesday. Festivants were eager for the opportunity to find healing and Blanton was nothing short of a miracle worker. (An article detailing the Restorative Justice Circle at SHF is forthcoming at PNC-MN)
After the Circle, Blanton noticed a change in the community, “I’ve seen a lot of differences in the tone from when I came on Sunday all the way up until this [Saturday] morning. … As the festival has progressed I have seen more and more talking, more genuine interaction, more displays of affection and a willingness to be vulnerable. Moments of trust. All of these things that shift a tone in a community. There’s been incredible movement and healing. I have really felt the shift of people all being on the same page of progressing beyond wherever it was that they were before.”
Blanton says this is just the first step in a larger process to restore what was lost to our community and must include community members who weren’t at the festival, “The wider community can come together again. We do heal. We do recover. We have to believe that and we have to honor the fact that it is a process and this is one phase of a process and we’ll move to another phase of the process with the hope that one day we will all be able to celebrate together.”
The answer to the question that loomed in everyone’s mind before the festival, “Will the festival survive?” seems to be a resounding yes. Over and over attendees I spoke with praised this year’s festival. Alana expressed a common sentiment when she said, “At first I was worried about [the low attendance], but this was my favorite festival ever.” Attendee Domino said, “The community coming together so strong that I was inspired to write my first song for them.”
(For more quotes, see The best thing about Sacred harvest Festival was…)
The pain caused by The Tower is beginning to heal and a new foundation of trust, love and caring has been laid. A positive feeling of regeneration and growth permeated the festival by Friday, “It actually feels like next year we will have a big amount [of attendees] because of this work,” said Ray.
Mirick, a huge smile lighting up her face, agrees, “It feels so good here. Look at what everyone has done. This is great. I feel so happy to be here. I feel so blessed to be here. I feel like we have a really good footing to go forward now, not just to heal from the past calamity, but to grow. I’m very inspired for next year.”
Editor’s note: All interviews were conducted on site during the festival.