Shamans and Charlatans: Assessing Castaneda's Legacy

When it was published in 1968, Carlos Castaneda’s groundbreaking ethnographic diary, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, received enthusiastic reviews from both the academic community and mainstream critics. Castaneda enjoyed immediate success and went on to write a series of sequels chronicling his apprenticeship to Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian and sorcerer from Sonora, Mexico. Combining anthropological observations with engrossing storytelling, The Teachings of Don Juan represented to many scholars an exciting new methodology in ethnographic literature, inspiring praise from such figures as Margaret Mead and Yaqui scholar Edward H. Spicer, who called the text a “remarkable achievement.”[1] The doctoral committee at UCLA echoed Spicer’s esteem for Castaneda, awarding him a Ph.D. in 1972 for his third book, Journey to Ixtlan.

With fame came scrutiny, however, and the celebrity anthropologist soon met with controversy that would span his entire career. Questions emerged over the existence of Don Juan, Castaneda's representation of Yaqui culture, and the basic authenticity of The Teachings as academics, scientists, and authors identified dubious elements in Castaneda’s ethnography. Today, almost four decades after the book appeared and ten years since its author’s death, the legacy of The Teachings of Don Juan is as much about the consequences of its debated legitimacy as it is about Carlos Castaneda himself.

Richard de Mille, son of Hollywood director Cecil B. de Mille, wrote two books on Castaneda’s published works and was one of his earliest and most outspoken detractors. De Mille argued that Don Juan and his teachings are wholly counterfeit. He presented a scathing indictment of academic malpractice, charging that the UCLA faculty and the University Press should be held accountable for a spurious work of scholarship.

A major point of contention among Castaneda’s critics is the conspicuous absence of evidence to support his claims that he actually did know and study under a Yaqui sorcerer named Don Juan. When a university publishes an account of anthropological fieldwork, it is standard practice to require tangible proofs that the fieldwork actually took place. With The Teachings of Don Juan, argues De Mille, this verification was never made. He claims that basic support materials “did not exist either, except in Castaneda’s highly developed imagination.”[2] De Mille suggests that the book was ultimately printed as a rebellious statement from marginalized sectors of the UCLA intelligentsia against more punctilious rivals. In addition, the university press likely saw in Castaneda’s narrative a viable new youth market: wild-eyed denizens of the mushrooming counterculture, hungry for psychedelic yarns of Mexican Indians and peyote trips.

Regardless of the actual details of publication, the book did exceptionally well in both popular and scholarly markets, achieving unlikely success for a work shelved as anthropology. In addition to its scientific classification, The Teachings of Don Juan bears the authoritative sub-heading, "A Yaqui Way of Knowledge." Many critics find fault with this title, noting that the character of Don Juan bears no resemblance to a Yaqui Indian. Spicer, the anthropologist whose positive review lent early and enduring credibility to the text, admits in the same article that it is “wholly gratuitous to emphasize, as the subtitle does, any connection between the subject matter of the book and the cultural traditions of the Yaquis.”[3]

Although Don Juan is explicitly named as a Yaqui, Castaneda offers no details throughout the narrative to support this claim, and in fact depicts him engaging in activities associated with markedly dissimilar Indian cultures. Don Juan’s use of peyote, datura, and psychotropic mushrooms, for example, is completely divergent from Yaqui tradition and more closely resembles Huichol and Navajo ritual practices. Spicer theorizes that Don Juan, while perhaps of Yaqui descent, is more likely a cultural composite of various Indian and mestizo influences; the subtitle, he assumes, was probably the work of a “publisher [that] went beyond Castaneda’s intention.”[4]

Spicer is not the only Castaneda critic with relevant scientific experience. Revered ethno-mycologist and early psychedelics proponent Gordon Wasson read The Teachings soon after its publication and wasted little time composing a letter to Castaneda. Wasson’s questions, while politely worded, were directed to clear up what he felt to be anomalies in the mushroom rituals depicted in the book. The notoriously candid Castaneda responded with uncharacteristic eagerness, no doubt excited to correspond with the man whose seminal writings on hallucinogenic fungi were a formative influence for him. Yet his replies, as paraphrased in De Mille’s The Don Juan Papers, are curiously vague and evasive. Most interesting is his answer to Wasson’s inquiries about Don Juan’s ethnic origin; in response, Castaneda revises the rough biography offered in The Teachings, explaining that the sorcerer is “not a pure Yaqui” and therefore cannot be situated culturally, “except in a guessing manner.”[5]

As for the subtitle, Castaneda maintains that it was added per suggestion of the University Press who, prior to reading his manuscript, insisted on its inclusion to help categorize the book. To imply that Don Juan is representative of all Yaquis, he says, was never his intention. This admission stands in stark contrast to a comment made by the associate editor of the University Press who, in a letter to De Mille, states, “The title of Castaneda’s book and the entire text are the work of the author.”[6] It seems then that Castaneda himself erroneously labeled his work as an exposition of a “Yaqui way of knowledge,” and purposely so – but for what reason? De Mille suggests that, in aligning the book with a relatively obscure Indian tribe, Castaneda not only ascribed a scientific legitimacy to his account, but also sought to fashion a “kind of red man no one had ever met,” and in so doing, corner the market on a new pop-cultural archetype.[7]

With the overt nature of the subtitle in effect, whatever Don Juan teaches throughout the text becomes a “Yaqui way of knowledge” by default. It is then unnecessary for Castaneda to prove Don Juan’s “Yaqui-ness” to his readers (unless of course, those readers happen to be Yaqui scholars, in which case he relies on clever obfuscation). In the “Introduction” to The Teachings, for example, Don Juan’s provenance is described quite briefly, and in rather broad terms:

“All he said was that he had been born in the Southwest in 1891; that he had spent nearly all his life in Mexico; that in 1900 his family was exiled by the Mexican government to Central Mexico along with thousands of other Sonoran Indians.”

The “Yaqui Diaspora” is well documented in the historical record, and little is offered in the way of authentication with this short synopsis. Careful to avoid pigeonholing Don Juan into any recognizable ethnicity, Castaneda further muddies the image of his Indian with a caveat acknowledging the sorcerer’s murky heritage: “I was not sure,” he maintains, “whether to place the context of his knowledge totally in the culture of the Sonoran Indians. But it is not my intention here to determine his precise cultural milieu.”

Prefacing the book with this disclaimer, Castaneda effectively shields his ethnography from charges of misrepresentation and fashions his depiction of the “Yaqui” sorcerer in such a manner as to render the Indian cultureless – or as Spicer phrases it, suspended in “cultural limbo.” Don Juan’s origin is thus couched in ambiguity and skillfully blurred, rendering him both inoffensive to discerning critics and appealingly enigmatic to the lay reader.

However innocuous his presentation might appear, Don Juan nevertheless aroused the suspicions of more skeptical readers who exposed further aberrations in Castaneda’s work. As the series progressed, many critics observed glaring discrepancies in the details and chronologies of events, as well as a general drift in tone from scholarly observation towards more whimsical storytelling. Yet even with his first book, Castaneda's literary techniques invited some serious scrutiny. The Teachings of Don Juan is allegedly a translation of the anthropologist’s field notes from Spanish to English, with occasional bracketed asides imparting the polyglot Indian’s original dialogue. Why is it then, wondered some critics, that Don Juan tutors Carlos solely in their lingua franca – especially when certain concepts would doubtless be more genuinely articulated in his native tongue?

The conspicuous absence of Yaqui terminology in the text raised the eyebrows of more than one scholar in Castaneda’s audience, and prominent critics such as Spicer, Wasson, and De Mille sounded the alarm to this anomaly. In his letter to Carlos, Wasson inquires whether he managed to gather any Yaqui translations of the recurring philosophical terms Don Juan uses in his teachings. Castaneda replies that he has, indeed, learned a few Yaqui words but is loath to expound further on the issue. De Mille is far less congenial in his disputation, pointing out that the young anthropologist apparently “learned not one word of Yaqui during his first five years with Don Juan,” and then in later writings, makes reference to only two, rather commonplace terms.[8]

Spanish expressions abound, on the other hand, as Castaneda repeatedly employs the words “brujo” and “diablero” to denote those experienced in the knowledge of Yaqui sorcery. Conveniently for Castaneda, “brujo” is sometimes used in Yaqui culture to refer to dabblers in black magic. The nature of sorcery as practiced by Don Juan, however, differs strikingly from that traditionally understood to exist in Yaqui society. Anthropologist Muriel Thayer Painter notes that, according to Yaqui belief, those persons that practice witchcraft (i.e., sorcery) are timorous and feeble – both traits utterly incongruous with Don Juan’s depiction as a man who has “vanquished fear” and is remarkably fit, “despite his advanced age.” Furthermore, the knowledge of witchcraft is thought by the Yaquis to be “an inborn quality,” a power that cannot be taught or inherited. This statement directly contradicts Castaneda’s accounts of the art of Yaqui sorcery as a cycle of apprenticeship handed down across generations from a “benefactor” to his “chosen man.”

In her book With Good Heart: Yaqui Beliefs and Ceremonies in Pascua Village, Painter presents a sampling of Yaqui vocabulary associated with spirituality: “morea,” an equivalent to the Spanish brujo; “saurino,” used to describe persons with the gift of divination; and “seataka,” or spiritual power, a word which is “fundamental to Yaqui thought and life.”[9] It is indeed hard to believe that Castaneda's benefactor, a self-professed Yaqui, would fail to employ these native expressions throughout the apprenticeship. In omitting such intrinsically relevant terms from his ethnography, Castaneda critically undermines his portrait of Don Juan as a bona fide Yaqui sorcerer.

Linguistic concerns aside, the Indian depicted in The Teachings of Don Juan departs from traditional Yaqui behavior in other significant ways, most notably in his usage of entheogenic plants such as peyote and psilocybe mushrooms. As Spicer and several others have argued, Don Juan’s psychedelic forays are “not consistent with our ethnographic knowledge of the Yaquis.” His exploits do, however, resemble those of Native American tribes like the Huichols who have a well-documented history of peyote consumption. Anthropologist and outspoken Castaneda critic Jay Courtney Fikes spent several years embedded in a community of Chapalagana Huichols during which time he became intimately acquainted with shamanism and the ritual practices of Mexican Indians. Once a fan of Castaneda’s work, Fikes soon grew disillusioned with what he viewed as outright caricatures of Huichol culture.

In his 1993 book Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism, and the Psychedelic Sixties, Fikes explains how the character of Don Juan was likely modeled on Ramon Medina Silva, the Huichol shaman popularized by the ethnographic studies of Peter Furst and Barbara Myerhoff. These anthropologists were UCLA graduates and peers of Castaneda, and there is convincing evidence that Ramon and Carlos had actually met prior to the publication of The Teachings. A dramatic waterfall leap performed by Silva, allegedly with Castaneda as a witness, finds a curious parallel in his second book, A Separate Reality, wherein a companion of Don Juan performs similar “supernatural” feats at a waterfall. Further complicating the matter, Fikes also disputes the veracity of Furst and Myerhoff’s ethnography, noting that the Huichol shamanic practices they detail are at odds with his own findings. In developing his account of Don Juan, suggests Fikes, Castaneda likely plagiarized from his classmates a distorted portrayal of Huichol culture in the character of Silva, and unscrupulously applied it to his fictional Yaqui sorcerer, thus perpetuating the misrepresentation of Native Americans across cultural boundaries.

The effect of this caricaturing is two-fold: first, as De Mille and Fikes bemoan, erroneous ethnographic research is quite difficult to remove from the anthropological record once canonized. By accepting such questionable documents as authenticated knowledge, the truth about indigenous peoples becomes diluted with misinformation and (perhaps more lamentable) the halls of academia are tarnished with the elevation of charlatans to pedestals of high esteem. Indeed, as he remarks in his “Introduction,” Fikes heard “nothing but praise” for Castaneda’s first four books in his graduate studies at the University of Michigan in 1975, despite their disputed validity.[10]

Second, the misrepresentation of the Yaqui people as portrayed by Castaneda negatively impacts Native American culture as a whole. In order to assess this detrimental influence of Don Juan and his teachings, one must consider the social context into which he was born. The decade colorfully referred to as the “psychedelic sixties,” with its adherence to counterculture ideology and self-exploration through drug use, was an era ripe for an iconic figure such as Don Juan to materialize.

As The Teachings of Don Juan introduced thousands of psychedelically-inclined readers to its mysterious sage, the deserts of Mexico were subsequently inundated with droves of “Don Juan seekers” determined to find, and be enlightened by, the elusive sorcerer. Anthropologist Jane Holden Kelley reports the harassment of Pascuan Yaquis during the 1970s by “long-haired hippies” in search of Castaneda’s muse. Seizing an opporunity, the crafty villagers played along, divesting the deluded youths of money, booze, and cigarettes before they realized they had been duped.[11]

It was not the Yaquis, however, but the Huichols who bore the brunt of the hippie influx throughout the seventies. As Fikes explains, the Yaquis “offer relatively little to guru-seekers” since they do not use psychedelics and are somewhat “more acculturated” than the peyote-ingesting Huichols. He relates accounts of traditional Huichols “harassed, jailed, shot at, and almost murdered by guru-seekers” and offers an anecdote depicting the attempted stabbing of his Huichol “father” by a gringo peyote hunter. These incidents grew more infrequent with time, but the lasting impact of The Teachings on Native Americans, asserts Fikes, lies in the marketing of the Don Juan archetype.

New Age “shamans” modeled on Castaneda’s sorcerer exist in abundance in today’s society. Offering travel packages to psychedelic meccas, these pseudo-shamans profit from the misappropriation of rituals and liturgical objects sacred to Native American religions. While some operations offer legitimate and conscientious experiences of traditional shamanism, others are little more than opportunistic scams. As Fikes contends, such shameless exploitation trivializes “Huichol, Yaqui, or any Native American culture by masking or ignoring its true genius.” Furthermore, these profiteers increase the Western fascination with psychedelic drugs such as peyote, bringing unwanted government attention to authentic Native American practices.

A New York Times article from July 23, 1970 describes the plight of Oaxacan Indians suffering from the flood of American “mushroom addicts” and the subsequent crackdown by Mexican authorities; once considered a “great medicine,” the fungi are now contraband in Oaxaca.[12] In the United States, similar legislative measures currently threaten Native Americans' religious freedom. The Smith vs. Oregon decision of the Supreme Court, for instance, banned the ritual use of peyote among members of the Native American Church from 1990 until its repeal in 1993. Within a “War on Drugs” political climate, the mystique engendered by Don Juan and his imitators represents a real and direct threat to the “special rights” Native American cultures have been granted in American society.

Most troublingly, the fallout from nearly four decades of Castaneda-inspired drug tourism in Mexico now threatens to wipe out some indigenous shamanic cultures entirely. According to a recent National Public Radio report, the rampant, unsustainable harvesting of peyote by foreigners and drug traffickers from the desert surrounding Real de Catorce has placed the slow-growing cactus in danger of vanishing from the region. The area is held sacred by the Huichol who regularly pass through the north Mexican desert on shamanic pilgrimages. Once thriving in abundance along their route, the peyote cactus has become increasingly scarce, prompting the Indians to lobby the government for protection of the holy site. If the peyote disappears, so does the unique knowledge system of one of Mexico's most vital remaining tribal cultures.[13]

* * *

Carlos Castaneda reemerged in the public eye in the early nineties espousing the virtues of a meditation technique he named Tensegrity, after a term coined by R. Buckminster Fuller. Consisting of movements called “magical passes” (allegedly the lost knowledge of Mexican shamans in the lineage of Don Juan Matus), this discipline was taught by the author himself to devotees at exorbitantly priced seminar-workshops. Castaneda had, in effect, fulfilled the Don Juan archetype, adopting the role of pseudo-shaman as identified by Fikes. His death in 1998 was followed by the release of his final book, The Active Side of Infinity, rounding off the Castaneda oeuvre at an impressive thirteen titles. Along with a multi-million dollar estate, the anthropologist-guru left behind him the legacy of a successful career marred by charges of academic fraud and opportunism.

His seminal achievement, The Teachings of Don Juan, has been simultaneously embraced and vilified since its appearance, yet its influence cannot be overstated. Richard de Mille once speculated: “Is Carlos’ multistaged confessional narrative the next step in the history of ethnography, or … a further development in the novel, an ultimate fiction?” Although the answer remains to be seen, almost forty years later it is evident that Castaneda’s work of “ethnography and allegory” has had an indelible effect – for better or worse – on the way the Western world interprets entheogens and Native American culture.



[1] Edward H. Spicer as quoted in Daniel Noel, Seeing Castaneda (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1976) 31-32.

[2] Richard De Mille, The Don Juan Papers (Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson Publishers, 1980) p 19.

[3] Spicer as quoted in Noel, Seeing Castaneda 32.

[4] Noel 32.

[5] De Mille, The Don Juan Papers 324.

[6] Ibid, 325.

[7] Richard de Mille, Castaneda’s Journey (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1976) 78.

[8] Ibid, 52.

[9] Muriel Thayer Painter, With Good Heart: Yaqui Beliefs and Ceremonies in Pascua Village (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986) 11, 43-44.

[10] Jay Courtney Fikes, Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism, and the Psychedelic Sixties (Victoria: Millenia Press, 1993).

[11] Jane Holden Kelley as quoted in De Mille, The Don Juan Papers 33.

[12] Reuters, "Hippies Flocking to Mexico for Mushroom 'Trips'" The New York Times Thursday 23 July 1970: A3-A4.

[13] Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, "Mexico's Peyote Endangered by 'Drug Tourists'," (National Public Radio, 2007), (accessed on January 10, 2008).

Image credit: "Homage to Don Juan" by True2Source, used under Creative Commons license