Cargo Cult is a daring – and dangerous – theme. Get it right.

A ceremony raising the John Frum flag on the island of Vanuatu

I belong to a large but informal group of Burners whose unofficial motto is:  “Fuck the theme.”

We came to Burning Man for Burning Man:  the theme added nothing to the experience.  All it did was give complete strangers license to tell us things we already knew about Evolution, or to go off on predictable rants about the American Dream.

If Burning Man was Santa Claus, we felt, the theme was an icicle on Blitzen’s ass.

Not this year, though.  This year’s theme is a mind-fuck.  Because … well … let’s talk “Cargo Cult” through.

What’s very likely to happen this year is that:


  • tens of thousands of Burners
  • in flashy costumes
  • who are attending a ceremony where we burn a 40 foot tall wooden man and dance around him

are going to create camps and installations satirizing Cargo Cults because they:

  • dress in costumes and
  • build sculptures of air strips and bunkers
  • to dance around.


There’s a kind of subversive genius here:  Burners who take “Cargo Cult” at its easiest, laziest interpretation – look at those crazy people who have bizarre beliefs and perform useless rituals – are inadvertently putting themselves in the cross hairs.  Judging strictly by the superficial, the difference between “Burning Man” and a “Cargo Cult” is the difference between ABC and CBS.  They’re not the same thing, but a casual observer might never notice.

What makes this theme distinct from any that we’ve had in the post-“Helco” era is that there is no easy way to approach it.  That’s never been true before, at least in my tenure as a Burner.   There was always a safe position, hip and liberal but never out on a limb, that you could take on the theme.

And most of us did.

We all knew the platitudes we were supposed to mouth about “evolution” – we all knew the secure tropes everybody repeats about things that are “Green.”  Metropolis?  Of course we’re in favor of cities, and more efficient cities, and yadda yadda yadda.

Past themes made it easy to know what the general consensus was, which made it easy to play along with a smug grin of moral superiority.

“Cargo Cult” puts that attitude of moral superiority, of easy answers, on trial.  The potential to say something stupid about the legitimate struggles of people we do not understand is enormous.

Because, and I mean this with absolutely sincerity, we can learn a lot from John Frum – but we have not earned the right to take his name in vain.

That may sound odd.  Would I really suggest that a bizarre deity who is supposed to be an American soldier, for crying out loud, and who promises his devotees riches from America if they just pretend to run fake airports, has something to teach us?  Is worthy of our respect?

That’s an easy question to ask if you don’t know what John Frum, and his family members, have accomplished.

His family?  Yeah, John Frum belongs to a globetrotting tribe.  Cargo Cults emerged as part of a new era in global culture – and share DNA with some of the most significant revolutionary events of the colonial era.

By the 19th century Western colonialism had conquered the world.  There were differences, of course, between Catholic colonials and Protestant colonials, between Dutch colonials and British … but to some degree every other culture in the world had to kneel and kiss the ring of a Western power.    This was simply an accepted fact, and a not uncommon theory at the time was that gradually every other way of life would disappear after being confronted with Western culture’s obvious superiority.

The islands on which the Cargo Cults emerged were not exceptions:  the people who lived there when Europeans arrived were expected to Christianize, to leave their traditional culture and religion behind, and be second-class citizens toiling for the economies of some far off empire.  And if they wouldn’t do it voluntarily, they would be forced to.  The whole world would be forced to.

John Frum’s family is the reason that didn’t happen.  Before we can answer the question “Who is John Frum?” we need to meet his older brothers.

Who is Handsome Lake?

In 1799 Handsome Lake, a leading member of the Iroquois nation, grew terribly ill.  The historical records estimate him to have been 65 years old.  We know he was an alcoholic, and that he had seen his once powerful nation devoured by the United States, forced on to reservations, and put at the mercy of Christian missionaries who were intent on stamping out their traditional religion and way of life.

On what relatives expected to be his death bed, Handsome Lake was seized by religious visions;  spiritual messengers from another world told him that he must deliver his people a code to follow so that they would survive this dark time.

Handsome Lake preaching his code at the Longhouse. (Image courtesy of the Rochester Museum and Science Center)

He recovered from his illness, gave up drinking, and introduced what came to be known as “The Code of Handsome Lake” – and it caught on, becoming the dominant spiritual tradition of the Iroquois, which it remains to this day.

Now, a casual perusal of the Code of Handsome Lake suggests that its official tenants bore a stronger resemblance to the teachings of the Quaker Missionaries who were a constant presence on the Pennsylvania reservations than it did to the traditional spiritual practices of the Iroquois people:  its prohibitions against drunkenness, witchcraft, sexual promiscuity, abortion, gay marriage, single parents, and gambling, for example, do not conform to what we know of Iroquois culture prior to 1799.  It also codified the notion of a single “great spirit” above all others – a notion which a review of the (admittedly sketchy) records of Iroquois religion written prior to 1799 do not indicate was an established belief.  So it has been easy for critics of Handsome Lake to write him off as having introduced Christianity to the Iroquois by other means.

But such critics miss an important point:  the Handsome Lake religion was a key driver of a revival of Iroquois culture that is largely responsible for preserving it as an independent and vital force for the next 200 years (and counting).  He, and his new religion, are a key part of the reason Iroquois culture did not disappear the way so many other tribal cultures teetering on the brink of dissolution did.  For a native culture to have survived American manifest destiny was no small accomplishment.

Did Handsome Lake appropriate from western/Christian culture and offer it to his people?  I think it’s an undeniable conclusion when you look at the record.  But that he used the appropriation as part of a campaign to preserve the Iroquois way of life is equally undeniable.  His calling was to turn the tools of the colonials against them in order to keep his native culture alive, and he was successful.  Scratch beneath the surface of Handsome Lake, and you’ll find an astonishing amount of pre-1799 culture relatively intact.

Handsome Lake is John Frum’s brother, because they shared a mission.  It didn’t always go so well.  Sometimes the mission failed, but even then it still inspired others to pick it up down the line.

Who is Hong Xiuquan?

In 1837 Hong Xiuquan had failed repeatedly to pass the imperial examinations of China’s Qing dynasty – civil service tests which limited access to elite positions.  The exams required an extensive formal education to take, and so his peasant family had made tremendous sacrifices to pay for his studies.

Now a 37 year old failure whose potential had kept his family mired in poverty, Hong collapsed, took ill, and had mystical visions.  He only recovered after Christian missionaries (who were all over China at the time, protected by the Western powers who had vanquished China militarily and were essentially occupying its major cities) dropped by his family’s house and left pamphlets behind.

The pamphlets provided the key to the visions Hong had been having:  he realized, now, that he too was a son of God – Jesus Christ’s younger brother – and that he had been given a mission to rid China of both its foreign occupiers and the Qing dynasty.

It seems crazy on its face, but don’t laugh.  Take Hong seriously:  he damn near did it.  The civil war he began – the Taiping Rebellion – was the largest military conflict in the 19th century, lasting from 1850 – 1864 and killing some 30 million people by the time it was done.

That’s right:  30 million.  Take that number in.

Holy fuck.

Drawing of Hong Xiuquan (from approximately 1860)

There’s no way not to view the Taiping Rebellion as a tragedy, but it wasn’t a farce.   Hong’s grievances were legitimate:  the occupying Western powers were rapacious, with no concern for the well-being of the Chinese people.  Missionaries were trying to destroy Chinese culture.  The Qing empire was corrupt by this point, and besides:  who are we to suggest that a man who doesn’t want to live under a monarchy hasn’t got a case?

The fact that he failed … in no small part because he tried to replace a corrupt monarchy with a tyrannical theorcracy … doesn’t mean his initial complaint wasn’t just.  Sun Yat-Sen, who truly liberated China if anyone did, looked upon Hong as a forbear and the Taiping Rebellion as an inspiration.  His message has resonated in China for 150 years.

And that message was?  Hong (let’s spell this out) was a member of a colonized group who had a religious vision that used elements of the culture of his oppressors to create a legitimate liberation movement.  That the specifics of his vision seems crazy to us today, living in freedom and plenty, is beside the point.  It wasn’t for us – and it certainly wasn’t for our amusement.

It’s no accident that the revelation of Hong Xiuquan took place in the same historical era as the revelation of Handsome Lake:  the vile oil of western colonialism had seeped into the world’s native cultures, along with epic historical injustices, and the result was an explosive alchemical reaction. The particulars of the religious symbiosis might strike us as absurd (Christ’s younger brother?) but the fact is that cultures and religions change through exposure to one another:  we’re all familiar with the way Christianity absorbed pagan rituals that became Christmas and Easter, or the way Catholicism absorbed many of the Gods of South America as saints.  This happens – and it doesn’t automatically disqualify the religious experience that results.  And for a period of 150 years it was happening all over the world.

If the Taiping Rebellion is the worst case example, here’s my candidate for the best – and after that, we’ll get back to Burning Man, I promise.

Who is Anigarika Dharmapala?

Handsome Lake died a year after Hong Xiuquan was born, and the man who would become Anagarika Dharmapala was born just three months after Hong passed away in June of September, 1864.

He was born to one of the richest families in Sri Lanka, then under British control, where he was christened Don David Hewavitarane.  He received a classic British education at missionary schools with names like “C.M.S. Boys School (Christian College)” and “St Benedict’s College.”  He reputedly learned much of the Bible by heart, even as his sympathies were with a struggling movement to revive traditional Sri Lankan Buddhism.

In 1883 a mob of Sri Lankan Catholics viciously attacked a Buddhist procession.  The injustice inspired Don David to turn down his spot in the family business to become a Buddhist activist.  It also brought two of the westerners most interested in Buddhism, Theosophical Society founders Madam Helena Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott, back  to Sri Lanka to file suit on behalf of Buddhists who were injured in the attack.  (That’s right, white people had to come from New York to sue on behalf of injured Sri Lankens.)

Anagarika Dharmapala

Don David, soon to become Anagarika Dharmapala, got a job translating for Col. Olcott, and became inspired by Olcott’s own passion for Theravada Buddhism.  It was Madame Blavatsky who suggested that he study the Pali language in which the original Buddhist texts were written, and Olcott and Blavatsky took Dharmapala on pilgrimages to some of Budhdism’s holiest sites.  One of these included the Mahabodhi temple, in India, where the historical Buddha had attained his enlightenment – but which had been controlled by Hindu religious leaders for over 1,000 years.

In no small part as a result of these experiences, Dharmapala decided to dedicate his life to restoring Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and Buddhist control of the Mahabodhi temple in India.

Thus we have the bizarre spectacle of two Western occultists widely regarded as charlatans and scam artists in their home countries helping inspire a legitimate cultural revival among native Sri Lanken Buddhists (and not incidentally across India).  Indeed, while there is still a Theosophical society today, it’s probably fair to say that the only nation on earth where Olcott and Blavatsky are widely respected is Sri Lanka, which is one of the thriving centers of the revived Buddhist world and where Dharmapala is a revered figure.  After his death the society he founded succeeded in putting the Mahabodhi temple under joint Hindu-Buddhist governance.

Handsome Lake, Hong Xiuquan, and Anagarika Dharmapala are three major figures in the history of efforts by native peoples to preserve their own culture in the face of colonial domination … and many of these efforts were initiated through a synthesis with Western religion and culture.  Without their efforts, and those movements, the world would be vastly different today.  Much of what we have come to automatically think of as global culture might very well have disappeared.

Now … okay … what the hell does this have to do with Burning Man and Cargo Cults?

Well, ask yourself, what is a Cargo Cult?  Ask yourself, as Burning Man has suggested:  Who is John Frum?

John Frum comes out of the Vanuatu islands (once known as The New Hebrides).  Most accounts with which I’m familiar suggest that he first appeared there in the 1930s – well before the New Hebrides were occupied by the American military as part of the Pacific Campaign in WWII.  Prior to military occupation the New Hebrides had been periodically visited by various European trading expeditions and were routinely swarming with … wait for it … Christian missionaries.    Missionaries who opposed and banned traditional practices that included drinking native intoxicants, dancing, and the local religion.  These missionaries even set up their own laws and courts to punish locals who deviated from the white man’s decrees.

Then John Frum appeared.  Right around the time Anagarika Dharmapala died.

Accounts of his appearance vary.  Here’s one from a great article in the  Smithsonian magazine:

Chief Isaac and other local leaders say that John Frum first appeared one night in the late 1930s, after a group of elders had downed many shells of kava as a prelude to receiving messages from the spirit world. “He was a white man who spoke our language, but he didn’t tell us then he was an American,” says Chief Kahuwya, leader of Yakel village. John Frum told them he had come to rescue them from the missionaries and colonial officials. “John told us that all Tanna’s people should stop following the white man’s ways,” Chief Kahuwya says. “He said we should throw away their money and clothes, take our children from their schools, stop going to church and go back to living as kastom people. We should drink kava, worship the magic stones and perform our ritual dances.”

The article continues:

It’s possible that local leaders conceived of John Frum as a powerful white-skinned ally in the fight against the colonials, who were attempting to crush much of the islanders’ culture and prod them into Christianity. In fact, that view of the origins of the cult gained credence in 1949, when the island administrator, Alexander Rentoul, noting that “frum” is the Tannese pronunciation of “broom,” wrote that the object of the John Frum movement “was to sweep (or broom) the white people off the island of Tanna.”

The leaders of the John Frum movement were arrested for their beliefs, tried, and sent to a prison at Port-Vila in 1941, becoming martyrs to the cause of religious freedom and self-government.

Now do you see the connection?  Whatever his exact origin, whether he was a spirit or a delusion used as an inspirational figure, John Frum belongs to that long line of native activists who used the symbols and trappings of Western culture to encourage an oppressed people to preserve their own way of life and cast off the shackles of unjust occupation.  John Frum was a vision that told the downtrodden their culture was legitimate and could be fought for.

He’s also part of the theme at this year’s Burning Man, where white people in faux Polynesian costumes will ask each other “Who’s John Frum?” and reply that he’s … I dunno … “an alien DJ.”

How do you feel about that?  Seriously, ask yourself for a moment:  how do you feel about Burning Man taking a religious figure (still worshiped today) who inspired native people to preserve their way of life and culture against an unjust missionary occupation … and making him a theme for our event in the desert?

Tricky, isn’t it.

The John Frum religion was hardly the first Cargo Cult – there are reports of them going all the way back to the late 1800s.  But most Cargo Cults served a similar purpose:  they were a rallying cry for people living under occupation to preserve a part of their own culture, and their leaders were routinely jailed for standing up to white colonial authority.  The culture they were fighting to preserve was certainly warped in strange ways by the occupation … but that’s what happens.  When you’re occupied you’re forced to change:  you’re forced to take what you can from your oppressors to get by from day to day.  Maybe your Gods become saints in their religion, or maybe you get the idea of a “Great Spirit” and a prohibition against divorce … or maybe you learn how they organize their society and then start your own movement using those approaches.  But you do what you have to because, bottom line, occupied cultures that don’t change die.  We have an Iroquois culture today because of Handsome lake;  Theravada Buddhism thrives in the world today in no small part because a western occultist convinced a young Sri Lankan activist that it was a great thing to learn to read Pali.

The indigenous cultures of many South Pacific islands still exist in no small part because of Cargo Cults.  They are, absolutely, a bizarre combination of hybrid elements.  I mean, they’re waiting for cargo to drop from the sky?   But who are we … especially we Burners … to judge rituals and beliefs so like our own but developed in no small part to get out from under an occupation that our country bore some responsibility for?

Now:  what’s the best way to handle this as a theme for Burning Man?


What’s profoundly interesting about this theme is also what’s so dangerous about it:  there are landmines everywhere.

Do we as Burners actually have anything to say about the history of anti-colonialism?

Do we who appropriate every cool religious icon on the planet for our parties and camps have anything useful to say about the people in those religions who were persecuted for trying to preserve the meaning of those icons?

Do we have any right to take John Frum’s name in vain?

This is a challenge, people.  And if we don’t get it right then our annual celebration will be a festival of assholery – a finger in the face of people whose only offense was looking silly to us while they tried to get missionaries and colonial powers off their land.

If we do get it right, we’ll have said something worth saying … about culture, about religion, about history, about oppression, about reconciling contradictory beliefs … in a way that we were never able to do with evolution or green tech or the American Dream.  Those things all had easy answers that were easy to offer, and no pitfalls that were hard to avoid.

“Cargo Cults” has no easy answer, and many, many pitfalls.

How do we do this right?

My advice is that we look to Cargo Cults not as strange and silly religions, but as inspirations for what Burning Man is trying to become.  Cargo Cults represent a profound cultural transformation that successfully saved those cultures.  Isn’t that what so many of us want to do?  Change the culture in order to save it?

We don’t have to agree with any of the particulars of what Cargo Cults believe (in fact, I don’t recommend it) to aspire to do what they did.

An aspirational take on this year’s theme would ask:  how do we use the inspiration of Cargo Cults to take it up another notch?

  • How do we … a movement combining anti-commodification principles with glamping … speak to a world that is drowning in cargo?
  • What hybrid forms of belief, combining the old and the new, can emerge that will actually inspire people today?
  • What fundamental realities are we … a culture that prides itself on being the most knowledgeable and rational on earth … making bad but rational assumptions about, the way Cargo Cults made the bad but still rational assumption that it was the activities of running an airport that brought the planes that held the cargo?
  • What things do we wrongly expect will disappear as a result of modernity’s “obvious superiority,” and why will they outlive us?

If art projects and camps can provide useful answers to these kinds of questions – hell, if they can even advance the conversation – Burning Man will have truly taken itself to a new level.

Failure means that you … yes, you personally … will be taking the side of the missionaries, giving persecuting Christians comfort, defense, and succor by mocking the people they tried to break.

The stakes are high, people.  Get it right.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

53 Comments on “Cargo Cult is a daring – and dangerous – theme. Get it right.

  • Saul says:

    This is brilliant! It’s true that those folks who are just there for “the party” may misinterpret the theme, but plenty of folks (like you) are bringing lots of fresh thinking and historical context to the discussion. I wrote a defense of the theme yesterday (, from a slightly different perspective. But you have outdone me here. I love your suggestion that we look to Cargo Cults as “inspiration” for what Burning Man can become in terms of changing our culture to save it. Great work!

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  • Bijou says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this very well-considered and articulated post! When the theme was announced (and given the language used in the theme description), I saw in our future a 2013 Burn marked by disrespectful displays of elitist disdain for what may be seen as “primitive” spiritual beliefs and practices. I truly hope that the Burner community takes your article to heart, and does this dangerous theme “right”. =c)

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  • Smash says:

    Your third bullet is exactly what I thought when I first read about the theme. I saw it as inviting us to reflect upon and poke fun at our own magical thinking.

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  • Pika says:

    I also think there’s a connection to be made between the John Frum’s “kastom” and the “kastom” we create at Burning Man. We come to the desert to reject–or at least question–our dominant culture, especially by eschewing commerce and engaging in live, person-to-person, bodily connection instead of the ever-expanding virtual communications. In other words, we have a lot in common with the John Frum: “We should drink kava, worship the magic stones and perform our ritual dances.” Indeed.

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  • Trilo says:

    Thanks for another great post, Caveat. Well said, and interesting info. I’ve had some great conversations with people in the last couple weeks, I’m both excited for my own camp’s plans and looking forward to see what springs forth onto the playa.

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  • Dirt Wheel says:

    I see the relation between cultures that disolve and those that change/transform into those that ignite and make better for thier community. Change! I feel that we have been a ‘change’ culture for some time now. Change! It’s just that it feels more internal now. It is! For me, the draw has always been the ‘rawness’. A ‘freeness’ that was only given because of the dedication of the desert. Things are only what they are… This much we know. Maybe, just maybe, we can get back to the ‘raw’ in relation to what the ‘now’ is, ‘now’. (insert giant monkey wench percisley, if possible!). At one time participants wern’t so concerned about being entertained. ‘I want to give/I want to show…’ was how you traveled. They only wanted to mostly entertain/give. To participate was to……. The Effigies! Perfff! – More fires/connections/energys/story telling. That’s IS our BASE. If all else was extinguished on the playa, then the fires/connections/energys/story tellings, is what we will ALWAYS remain. Even if ‘the bomb’ comes! Let’s agree to more thought towards energy into COMMUNITY FIRES. The giving, the sharing & the story telling of our ‘NOW’ is what we are. It’s all we’ll ever have!

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  • Dirt Wheel says:

    I see the relation between cultures that disolve and those that transform into those that ignite and change. I feel that we have been a ‘change’ culture for some time now. Change! It’s just that it feels more internal now. It is! For me, The draw has always been, the ‘rawness’. A ‘freeness’ that was only given because of the dedication of the desert. Things are only what they are… this much we know. Maybe. Just maybe, we can get back to the ‘raw’ in relation to what the ‘now’ is, ‘now’. (insert giant monkey wench percisley, if possible!). At one time participants wern’t so concerned about being entertained. ‘I want to give/I want to show…’ was how you traveled. They only wanted to mostly entertain/give. To participate was to…….welll. The Effigies! Perfff! – More fires/connections/energys/story telling. That’s our BASE. If all else was extinguished on the playa, then the fires/connections/energys/story tellings, would be all that would, ALWAYS remain. Even if ‘the bomb’ comes! Let’s agree to more thought towards energy into COMMUNITY FIRES. The giving, the sharing & the story telling of our ‘NOW’. It’s all we’ll ever have or be!

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  • Dirt Wheel says:

    De Nada!

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  • I am no longer sure where you’re getting your information, but good topic. I needs to spend a while finding out much more or figuring out more. Thanks for excellent information I was in search of this information for my mission.

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  • Ben says:

    This was very insightful and thoughtful. Thank you. I feel like I have better informed perspective on Cargo Cults, and an appreciating for what BM can bring this year.

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  • Cunt Love says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I appreciate you calling out the white privilege embedded in Burning Man and bringing attention to the cultural appropriation that can be so rampant. I hope this post inspires others to think critically about our event and how we can be allies to burners of color, perhaps even challenge ourselves to become more inclusive and diverse. I love BM but we can do better. Indeed, we owe it to ourselves and the future. Thanks again!

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  • simon of the playa says:

    we are all john frum.

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  • Magic Marty says:

    Very illuminating article. I knew almost nothing of John Frum and now I see that so many of us Burners are John Frum. It seems as though it is why we love Burning Man. It is the John Frum within us. Not necessarily due to the anti-colonialist within us, but the joy of being who we are in a culture that is consciously outside of the default world. That is what we all seem to celebrate on the Playa. You are so right, that we must not trivialize that in our various interpretations of Cargo Cult.

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  • Pitter Patter says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article and incredible information.
    I wanted to share that I was raised as a Christian and chose this label until my late 20’s. It was not until I started listening more to myself less to the “missionaries” that I began my own cultural transformation. It was actually terrifying to wake up and realize that the culture that had raised me, was the very force that crushed the beauty and love out of so much humanity ~ past and present.
    As I continue to sweep clean my temple, I find it comforting that people that have been forced into oppression have identified outwardly enough to survive in the dominate culture, while continuing to commune, worship, and dance as their spirit leads them.

    “And if we don’t get it right then our annual celebration will be a festival of assholery”
    And for those in attendance that don’t “get it”….may we leave the black rocks on the ground and leave the stoning for other more righteous tribes.

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  • Quentin says:

    Your analysis of John Frum is kinda slanted. My own research tells me that the Vanatu and many other groups had a lot of mythology that fed into the sudden appearance of white skinned people with lots of cargo. This was not primarily an anti missionary rebelion but rather a strange coincidence that fed neatly into mythology. Given that the islanders had no idea there was another place where all this cargo was being made they ascribed it all to magic and mythology. Your fear that “our annual celebration will be a festival of assholery” is ridiculous. It already is, has been and will continue to be. What you are calling “assholery” I think is more properly termed Irreverence. The adherents to John Frum will not be offended by our little party, grass skirts and tiki bars because they don’t even believe that we exist. Irreverence or Assholery is meant to keep religion, spirituality and political statements out of Burningnman. And that is good.

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  • Cathleen says:

    Caveat… Thank you for this. I saw this theme as an opportunity to reflect back on all religions… it is easy for us to poke fun at primitive people, but when we take a look at our “modern” religions, they are really not so very different. Jesus, Allah, even Buddha… yes, even Larry… are all “John Frum” to some extent, aren’t they?

    I do like your take on it, though. I will start drafting plans for an idol in your honor. ;-)

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  • Rabbit says:

    The thoughtful, mindful ones among us may have interesting things to learn from this theme. For the rest, it’s an invitation to be racist assholes who maybe don’t know they’re being racist assholes.
    Please be careful, folks.

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  • Matthew F says:

    Love this! Thank you! I am so excited to think about this!

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  • t groan says:

    This seems much ado about nothing. Despite the theme changes throughout the years I can’t think of any one theme making a significant difference-if any at all. Perhaps there’s a minority somewhere that takes the theme seriously but that, at my guess, is about 1% of the event (if that much).

    How about a theme some year that is more than cosmetic? How about a theme where it is acknowledged that the western way of life with its vast amount of waste, pollution, materialism, is doomed and needs to be challenged? An event without mountains of plastic crap, waste, and vast amounts of pollution generated by RVs, generators, art cars, the Burn (gasp!) etc.

    The impression I get repeatedly is that those responsible for the event, or at least those responsible for hyping it, is that the event makes a difference or presents alternatives to the dominant culture. Although that may have been true in its early years it is not true now. Despite the hype for most its just a big party or a place to show others how cool they are.

    It maybe that the event is little more than a costume party and that this is nothing more than the latest theme. If that’s the case (and I think it is) why not either end the charade or walk the talk?

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  • Larry M says:

    Well done, C Magistar. Your insights energize the paradox of adaptation. May I suggest that the Cargo Cult to lampoon is “our own”‘, the consumer capitalist machine burning down the house, whilst the Cargo Cult to emulate is “John Broom”, transmuting our best aspects into a tighter holotropic synthesis.

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  • Steve Boverie says:

    Good information, Caveat. I think that this helps fit the Cargo Cult with a part of Burning Man; they are both responses to culture jamming. There are free spirited people who are eccentric and usually harmless and there are those who have a more puritan aspect.

    Law enforcement officers are generally good at Burning Man, they are needed to deal with problems that the neighbors and BRC Rangers can not do. But, there is also a feeling that the LEOs are there to support the dominate culture that most of us want to escape for a short time. It is a time to experience an alternate way of seeing the world and human culture and too often the powers that be are not comfortable with that much freedom. Part of the Burning Man culture is the feeling of belonging to a larger group than what we feel in the default world; this is something that collides with the current neo social darwinism that if you are not rich then you should die and get out of the way.

    So, thinking about the examples of the men who had a revelation that helped them to redefine their culture in a way that it can survive colonialism and it makes sense that the culture of Burning Man is at risk of being crushed by the stricter aspects of American culture.

    Another story about the cargo cult can be found in a work of science fiction in a book called “Dream Park” by Niven, Pournelle and Barnes. The story has several layers, one is the Dream park where people go to play games like Dungeons and Dragons in full gear; another part is the administration and work behind the scenes and a major part is an adventure that pretends to send a crew of mystics, thieves and soldiers to the South Pacific. There is also a crime story to add to the mix. The sequel was not so great, but do read this one for ideas on the cargo cult.

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  • Lindsay says:

    “What fundamental realities are we … a culture that prides itself on being the most knowledgeable and rational on earth … making bad but rational assumptions about, the way Cargo Cults made the bad but still rational assumption that it was the activities of running an airport that brought the planes that held the cargo?”

    This is exactly what I imagined we would focus on when I first read it, and I hope that we do NOT use it mock other cultures but to inspect our own.

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  • Steve Glen says:

    This is brilliant! This has opened up a world of understanding and motivation for me. Yes! :)

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  • Canoe says:

    When announced, I saw “Cargo Cult” and I immediately assumed it was styled after the Central American Cargo System, which included where one gains social status by gifting away your wealth (with practical gifts, not gymnasiums, libraries, or more shopping malls), thereby becoming a person of status (and presumably on the receiving end of consideration of, not only those you gifted, but from the bulk the community’s members).

    Or more formally, the redistribution of wealth with Generalized Reciprocity (GR: the exchange of goods and services without keeping track of their exact value, but often with the expectation that their value will balance out over time).

    In practical matters, it was rarely “becoming a person of status”, but reaffirming old ties (obligations?) while possibly establishing new ties, as only those already a leader of some sort in the community had wealth with which to gift.

    In some of these Cargo societies, the expectation of “value” in return could be very specific (even if what was to be returned wasn’t) and sometimes functioned like formal binding agreements that held the fabric of the society/village together.

    And then there was the Cargo’s offices/positions for various levels of service to the community.

    In the Cargo, and particularly the Potlach (version practiced by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada and United States), it also involved hosting a feast of one sort or another.

    Potlach was outlawed (even guests attending could be jailed).
    Cargo is apparently still practiced in various villages in more remote Central American regions.

    Gifting and feasting.
    Costumes and dancing.
    Volunteers from within the community, with levels of service.
    Reminds me of something…

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  • Tonic says:

    To me the existence of a theme is merely the prelude to an act of artistic expression. I’ve often felt the nebulous themes are more of a barrier to art than a fulcrum for more powerful exciting acts of creation. ‘Psyche’? How does one build an expression of ‘Psyche’ except as a metaphor for something else? While ‘Floating World’ may have seemed trivial as a theme, it gave rise to all sorts of imaginative art. Whales and sharks cavorting on the playa as art cars. Please be still my beating heart. Cargo Cult is meaty, it has guts, it gets in your soul and demands some response. Give me a theme that connects to some physical reality that can be directly expressed as art rather than a nebulous political buzz phrase or politically correct spew.

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  • Lars (a future virgin) says:


    Respectfully trying to earn my own right to dine on dust. My heart has longed and aspired for the chance to become a burner. Having many years of being a voyeur, and carefully saving my nickels.

    For me making the pilgrimage is a real risk. To venture to such a free place… how do I explain this journey to my rigidly structured family and community. Packing cargo in my wagon is just as you declare, “daring and dangerous!”

    With the shackled soul of a gipsy, I believe that Burning Man is my Cargo Cult.

    An instant city with people of My Own Tribe of creators and givers appearing from “who knows where” and bringing cargo of wonder and beauty. Providing the opportunity to commune and share in that Nirvana that vanishes as magically as it appeared. An opportunity for unfettered FREEDOM springing up from the dust of the Playa.

    Sincerely, for someone who relished in “Fuck the theme” to this passionate posting, I must ask you, “Who is the missionary now?”

    I would like to thank for “Quentin” for his response for it has restored my faith.

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  • Appreciate the article and the comments that have followed. As a member of a conquered culture living among the majority I have learned to ignore the elephant in the room of race relations in the Americas. I’m ready for a new relationship. Burning Man has a vision which challenges me to bring my very best to Burners in 2013. If anyone in the country is prepared to receive knowledge, insight, love and the healing power of forgiveness it’s Burners. This year is an open invite for a new dynamic to be created amongst free equals.

    “..changing our culture to save it.” I am so with you there. Burning Man has raised the bar for itself at the right time. This wound in our culture has held us all back and I recommend we invite the elephant in to take a new seat and have a new conversation. I like what Jason Silva the Filmmaker says, “when we work together we can fly.”

    My desire is to bring members of the diaspora to a new camp based on a fictional land never conquered, Wakanda. Cultural expression through the arts of course, our soul food for energy and ‘drinking of kava, worship the magical stones (vibranium perhaps?) and perform our ritual dances.’ There we can re-imagine and redefine for ourselves the luxury of Freedom.

    Wakanda’s will create spaces for the Goddesses to reside and offer healing and nurture to Burners. While our Griots/storytellers teach our history, we marvel at healing magic and we pass down these lessons in dance.

    I find the playa to be the beautiful spot to rebirth an elephant.

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  • PlayaNai`a says:

    A huge “mahalo” from Maui! Very illuminating and I, too, ask: isn’t Burning Man our own cargo cult?

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  • Hunter says:

    I never went to college, but reading Caveat’s opine piece was wondrous! I’m very impressed with his research done and such a piece probably says more and contains more research than the average college kid’s thesis. This piece was culturally enriching and enlightening for me, both about the Burner community and the world outside… historically and the many metaphoricals for what the Default World has become.

    I’ve been to The Burn 9 times, mostly on a film crew, but hope to join all of your “rainbow brother & sisters” again on the Playa in 2013. I’ll be easy to find, I’ll be the guy at Art Car Camp wearing “cargo” pants, hopefully in a nice “missionary” position.

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  • Diagonal says:

    I judge, Caveat M., that your long piece has much merit, but I have not distilled everything you wrote into a cohesive picture in my own mind. Along with the commentary provided by others, I visualize your words and the words of others as many discrete pieces of a puzzle, in a big box marked “Cargo Cult”. Now, the pieces are dumped on the table, and some fit together, and others are set aside. As of this moment, I’m not picking up a pattern that I can re-explain to someone else, and defend for reasons.
    So, much to ruminate about (“chew on” as it were). Thirty Million dead, and the Taiping Rebellion…that was a huge event, fifteen, sixteen years, and I must discard the tie-in to BM based on the actual events of that Chinese event. Too many MILLIONS in the Taiping Rebellion starved to death, and I do not believe Burning Man and human, physical starvation can be linked into a “Cargo Cult” theme. Repeat, that is MILLIONS dead.
    More later….

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  • Alan Tower says:

    This is just a remarkable tour de force in delving into the potential of Cargo Cult for Burning Man.
    Some of you up above, why take it so seriously to actually criticize such a contribution for whatever
    it’s worth to each individual/group, it certainly is a fascinating and provocative line of inquiry with a Caveat tongue in the Magister cheek in some sense lurking in the background.

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  • Issimo says:

    Cargo Cult.

    Developing mythology. Cultural transformation. Tighter holotropic synthesis. Community fires. Clean-sweeping my temple. Rational assumption. Assholery.

    Another crate load of bullshit has been delivered. All glory be to the omnipotent cargomaster! Let’s open it.

    Oohh! Look at all this cool shit!! Ice cube trays, some Snooki bronzer lotion, the deed to a house in Empire, old BE-TA-MAX tapes (*cue the heavenly chorus*)….. we’re saved!!!!

    Everyone drink the kool-aid NOW!

    This is gonna be easy!

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  • bellboy says:

    wow, great piece of writing. This takes me back to the theme, beyond belief and the last time i really wanted to participate in drinking the snow melt from the icicle on Blitzen’s ass. It’s a place to stand and analyze how our culture evolved into our current dominate religious belief system. Hold on i think i know where they stashed the Holy Grail and the Ark …. still processing the idea, I don’t believe the attention span exists for much more than a shallow exploration of an original idea on the playa but… that could be my ADHD. I can hope; but I’ll still be bringing my own Kool-Aid. Thank you.

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  • CheapBastid says:

    The blog post started down the introspective road, but made a detour into the historical and instead became culturally castigative. I find it much more interesting to rest on the simple observation:

    Burners will gather together to

    Dress in impractical and unusual costumes and

    Engage in complex ritualized ceremonies around hand built and fetishized items and structures in hopes of re-creating the ‘magic’ that has come in the past.

    … all the while thematically creating camps and installations lampooning Cargo Cults because they:

    Gather together to

    Dress in impractical and unusual costumes and

    Engage in complex ritualized ceremonies around hand built and fetishized items and structures in hopes of re-creating the ‘magic’ that has come in the past.

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  • Shin Tonic says:

    A costume party, a “change the world” place, spirituality, assholery… It surprises me how every Burning Man blog gets into an Agora that attempts to describe or mark what Burning Man is. I will try to avoid that, I like this event remains a bit indescribable.
    What I do think is that art is like the backbone of this experiment, a backbone with endless nerve endings that feed this restless body. I also find sad that very few people give importance (the 1%?) to the year’s theme as the starting source of their big, small, unforgettable, ephemeral artwork… For people who do not have artistic skills (like me), the theme works as a guide to focus to do something more than just LED lights hanging from our coats. Then, from now, I do not intend to raise truths, only use Cargo Cult as a spark of thought, words and actions to share in BRC.
    Speculations from the past: There is no religion that is not born from a Cargo Cult, a synthesis of something imposed with own beliefs and traditions. The roots of the Western myths (or if you prefer Jung’s archetypes) are born primarily of Egypt. Not academically accepted theories propose that the Egyptian pyramids are not more than a Cargo cult of a civilization that dominated that piece of land millennia ago, the Atlantic civilization, which also did the same in Central America and maybe the Far East.
    Imagine a science fiction future: have you seen the comments on the theme of this year outside the official Burning Man website? Most of them refer, or simplify the issue of 2013 theme to one thing: UFOs. Personally I do not believe in UFOs, but what if an alien civilization invades us, as happens in so many movies, and decides to impose their beliefs? Definitely a new CARGO CULT will rise in humanity, not a matter of faith or revelation, but rather a matter of survival as Caveat Magister proposes.

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  • Lee Thompson says:

    Or maybe you’ve over thought it. I thought the theme meant make a complete mock up of Opulent Temple with bamboo in the middle of Hushville…

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  • RK says:

    Bravo OP, Bravo! This will surely jump start some discussions on several levels. Thank you for the thoughts and sharing w/ us. It def has me thinking.

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  • Cobalt says:

    Caveat you are prescient. A most compelling article that should be taken very seriously as it strikes very close to home (ours). Take a good look in the mirror. What is it that we are trying to do with our default world. The parallels to what Caveat has laid out for us are striking. Well done.

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  • Mars says:

    I am grateful that this theme is on a year when I planned already to miss. In the midst of Paiute lands, white partiers will dress as Pacific Islanders and joke about being clueless? This is a likely scenario, given that Themes are basically Serving Suggestions at BRC. For me, I can’t have any part in that.

    Neither am I keen to wipe what I know of Iroquois history and replace it with some story of one guy who is the reason our culture is alive at all? Really? Not The Peacemaker? Not the fact that the League of 5 Nations taught the Europeans what actual democracy looks like?

    There is nothing universal about the Great Men Make History worldview. And if that is the bedrock of Cargo Culture, I want no part of it.

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  • Caveat says:

    Hi Mars:

    I couldn’t possibly give a full accounting of Iroquois cultural history in this space (or 1850s China, or early 20th century Sri Lanka) any more than I could adequately summarize the Renaissance.

    But to clarify – I in no way said Handsome Lake is the single reason Iroquois culture is alive and thriving today. I said the appearance of the Code of Handsome Lake was a key reason it was able to survive a particularly difficult period, and that it continues to be relevant. I think these facts are indisputable.

    It didn’t create the culture as the Peacemaker and Hiawatha helped do several centuries before, nor would I in any way discount the contributions of Handsome Lake’s contemporaries (sometimes supporters, sometimes critics) such as Red Jacket and Cornplanter. And of course others have carried the culture forward after Handsome Lake.

    But you don’t have to buy into the “Great Man” theory of history to recognize that Handsome Lake, and what he represented, were significant events that led to a widespread change that was of relevance to a culture – or that there are similarities (this being my larger point) to other religious awakenings in other cultures at similar moments of crisis.

    i hope that clarifies: my brief overview here is intended to demonstrate a larger point, which I think it does adequately – but it in no way would “wipe out” or overshadow a more complete history. This is true of every figure I mentioned.

    — Caveat

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  • Dustin says:

    This posting transcends “blog” and should be put into consideration with an august institute of higher learning for a Degree of Philosophy (Phd) for Cavaet, whom I’ll call Professor henceforth. I’ll need to give it considerable thought before composing a suitable response.

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  • Lenny says:

    Thank you, thank you Caveat!!! This is such an incredibly important article, and has informed my plans in such a deep and meaningful way! I will do my best to ensure others read it, because you are right. We cannot allow this to become a mockery of downtrodden people doing their best to expel oppression.

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  • Valgar says:

    What year will the theme be Thunderdome? ;)

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  • Felix says:

    Cargo Cult Science
    1974 Caltech Commencement Speech by Richard Feynman

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  • Countess says:

    Bravo Caveat.

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  • Melinda says:

    I like the idea of looking at ourselves as members of a cargo cult, waiting for something better to arrive, to deliver us. For some of us, our John Frum is technology, or science, or Jesus, or Enlightenment. I watched a video filmed at Burning Man of people telling the Dr. Seuss Story “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” and one place they talk about is the “waiting place,” where people are waiting around to be rescued instead of taking action and living life with love and cleverness and creativity. What will people who come from a mottled, confused synthesis of cultures have to say about culture. I think there will be a lot of serious talk at the festival. It will be important to educate, empathise, debate share ideas and certainly not to judge.

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  • sageburner says:

    I think it’s very clear with this theme, that BRC’s John Frum is an extraterrestrial being. I hope I see a lot more play with that, than a thousand boring makeshift airplanes.

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  • )*( says:

    Quentin and t groan you guys are spot on.

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  • You could certainly see your skills within the article you write.
    The world hopes for more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they
    believe. All the time follow your heart.

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  • Chicken John says:

    I’m no fan of thematic fundamentalism. Or the LLC. Mostly I guess it’s the LLC. But it’s hard for me to seperate the theme from the power hungry megalomaniacs that have a stranglehold on this event and, subsequently, the culture surrounding it. They are so ugly that you just want to avoid anything they have anything to do with.


    But lets say the theme isn’t a terrible idea, and that it’s just that Larry is bad a picking themes. Lets say for the sake of argument because Caveat blew a week of his life writing this exceptional piece. Lets say that all the other themes (especially the 7 ages of man, that was a stinker) were bunk but he accidentally hit on a good one. Lets consider it for a moment.


    I can’t do it. Cargo Cults are fascinating, but it’s not going to inspire any artwork, any theme-campery, any art carring and certainly no thinking. This blog post will likely sum up as much intellectual stimulation as there will be. There is no outlet for it, there is no medium for it and there is no impetus or reward for it.


    In the future, Larry will tout that all of you monkeys stepped to it. He will re-write history and talk about how in 2013 every camp was a cargo cult camp. He will show select photos (from any year) to support his bullshit. How many people made relivant themeatic art for The 7 Ages Of Man? No one. That’s not what he says. As great as an intellectual excercise as this is it’s just not possible that this can be anything but interesting. Here. On this page. That’s all your going to get.

    Why? Because Burning Man isn’t set up as an intelectual salon. It’s set up as a business and an ego bath for a few super lame, sad people. Watch, there will not be anything that has anything to do with Cargo Cults. Like the year the theme was Floating World everyone went pirate. Or the year of the Body. Sure, someone squeezed a heart or something in there, but it’s just luck. When is everyone going to get exausted by this culture of not good enough?

    But it’s a great article and there are some great responces here. We just deserve a better festival then the one that is being provided for us to consume.

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  • Senor Blanco says:

    Excellent post.

    “What fundamental realities are we … a culture that prides itself on being the most knowledgeable and rational on earth … making bad but rational assumptions about, the way Cargo Cults made the bad but still rational assumption that it was the activities of running an airport that brought the planes that held the cargo?”

    If I were taking this on (and sadly this is not as rational as you had hoped), I’d say it’s our gargantuan energy consumption. Our entire rational society has reorganized itself around a completely irrational behaviour: consumption of non-renewable resources. We have turned from a sustainable society (say, 2000 years ago) back to a hunter-gatherer society, only hunting is now called “exploration” and gathering is now called “production”, and our population is limited by those resources to a degree that is not commonly recognized (cf. _Overshoot_, by William R. Catton, Jr.)

    Once those resources are gone, if we haven’t undergone a massive cultural shift, there will be cargo cults building faux gas stations and even, yes, faux airports hoping that the gods will somehow refill the earth with oil.

    Bleak, perhaps, but that would be my take.

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  • john curley says:

    what a fantastic piece, Caveat, and thank you for doing the work that it took to research, synthesize and then write so adeptly.

    Most of the subject matter is new to me, and without wanting to sound goody-goody about it, all of what is being explored here, in the piece and in the responses, is happening because of the theme. That’s already a win.

    Burning Man is a lot of things: this year it’ll be cargo pants in the missionary position AND it’ll be an intellectual salon on the nature of colonialism and resistance.

    You’ve really helped set an interesting stage. Thank you.

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  • Jesse says:

    Thanks for writing this. It is a positive take on and intelligent background to what is essentially a culturally insensitive theme. I can’t really see a Jews in the Desert or Holy Mass official theme at Burning Man – though I’m not against it :) – Agnostic as I may be, it always makes me wary to mock the culture of others from a western white pedestal. Thanks for writing.

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