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Teepee Tidbits

occupy teepeeFRESH DIRT > A look at an Occupy Santa Cruz landmark

The winter sun has bleached the colony of tents that house Occupy Santa Cruz protestors. Whether nostalgically lauded as a ’60s era throwback to communal living born of common cause or dismissed as the shantytown of squatters, one aspect of the tent town is undeniable—it is anchored by the stately teepee hoisted in its center, 20 feet tall and slicing the sky.  Accounts of its conception differ—some occupiers claim it was the work of local Ohlone tribesman Blind Bear while others credit an intrepid woman who had a plethora of bamboo stalks gathering dust in her garage.

Its differing origin stories mirror the malleable nature of its purpose. Frank, a soft-spoken self-described drifter who sports a “Clean and Sober for Two Years” dog tag and calls the gathering a “detox center” since drugs, (aside from medicinal marijuana) and alcohol are banned on its premises, says that medical care is often administered inside the sheltered canvas circle. The teepee is a decidedly shared space, and as such is often favored by those who don’t have tents of their own. “It’s a haven for the homeless—well,” Frank, a former salesman, interrupts himself, “I don’t like the term homeless. There’s a stigma attached to it in our society. It implies sub-human. I prefer accommodation-challenged.” Much has been made of the convoluted social politics of Occupy Santa Cruz—one circulating concern is that people who normally struggle to sleep peacefully on the streets have flocked to the campgrounds, utilized donated supplies and even looted tents without participating.

Tensions exist between those who are there to occupy and those who are simply along for the ride, and are compounded by the blurry line that sometimes divides them. The teepee’s neutral location between the camps makes it an ideal spot for “discussion and spiritual healing,” according to San Diego native Kent. “Police aren’t authorized to be inside and neither is anyone with violent intentions.” His artist neighbor, Wayne—who painted in acrylics one of the teepee’s more compelling images (a pulsing sun)—agrees. He was the first to decorate the tepee and provided the materials for others to follow suit. “Some images reference the natives–the rightful owners of this land,” Wayne says. “Some are abstract. All are unique. We want as many as possible to be included.”

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