There are a lot of stories about Charles Homer Mills, aka Chuck Windsong, a Missoula resident who died last month in his Northside home at the age of 78. Mills was one of the founders of the Rainbow Gathering and is credited with finding the site for the group’s first large meeting in 1972. Last week, a man named Llama, speaking as a representative for Mills’ family, told the Indy about Mills’ founding myth.
“Chuck had a vision of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ traveling through Colorado, and he sees a bar with a sign with the wagon wheel he saw in his vision,” Llama says. “He walks in and meets a guy who owns land near there, a private landowner, and the land is by Strawberry Lake.” That original camp of an estimated 20,000 people marked the beginnings of the Rainbow Gathering.
Mills, who was born in Butte, served in the Navy from 1956 to 1965, according to fellow Rainbow founder Barry Adams. Mills and Adams met in 1969 in northern Washington, where antiwar activists would help conscientious objectors cross the border into Canada, and after discovering their shared Montana roots, became fast friends.
Mills’ Missoula roots were deep. He moved into a house on the Northside and was an early part of the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project, the Missoula Food Bank, the Northside Community Gardens and an early volunteer at the Poverello Center. He leaves behind a large biological family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (Mills’ family declined through an intermediary to provide the names of surviving family members, citing privacy concerns.)
The Rainbow Family has been targeted by law enforcement and federal agencies, and instances of violent crimes during gatherings, concerns about damage to public lands and accusations of appropriation of Native culture have been a prominent part of media coverage of the Gathering in recent years. In 2015, the Missoula Police Department labeled the Rainbow Family as an extremist threat in an application for a Homeland Security grant to pay for a surveillance van. Protests from the Family and the Missoula community resulted in the application’s withdrawal.
Llama says the original Rainbow Family was composed of serious political activists who were motivated by the Kent State shootings, and Mills was concerned that recent gatherings were moving away from those origins. “Rainbow Family was a loose social movement trying to organize religions to pray for world peace. It is an alternate form of society built on respect for each other,” he says. “I think some form will continue, but will it be Chuck’s vision for love and peace, or just some drugged-out party? And I say that with a heavy heart.”
Mills remained engaged in activism into his final years, Llama says. “Chuck was adamant about Standing Rock. We sent food, money, people.” Mills taught by example, he says. “He would build a huge kitchen at Gatherings. He just showed up and made it happen. He didn’t bark orders; he was a teacher. We’re all feeling it now that he left. He was some kind of beaming light that made it happen.”
Adams, a prominent Missoula progressive activist, wrote in a Facebook message to the Indy that “Chuck was/is all Montana and a true American who loved the Earth and Earth peoples and wanted peace.”
A public service is planned for Friday, March 2, at 2 p.m. at the Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery. In accordance with Mills’ wishes, “Taps” will be played, but no shots will be fired. “Letting [people] know he is/was a veteran into peace is a good thing,” Adams wrote. Afterward, a celebration will be held at the American Legion Hall on Ronan Street from 4 to 9 p.m. Friends and family are sharing memories at facebook.com/groups/chuckwindsong.