Deep in the desert southwest, before Carlos Castaneda met the Shaman-sorcerer Don Juan Matus that became famous in his series of Don Juan books, Castaneda had a chance encounter with a somewhat mysterious hallucinogenic bio-searcher and mushroom hunter from the Taos, Santa Fe, New Mexico area. It has been chronicled that the bio-searcher, known only as the informant in various Castaneda writings, some of which are not so sympathetic toward Castaneda, first introduced him to the use and rituals of medicinal plants.

Several months after that encounter with the mysterious informant, for the first time ever, Castaneda reportedly crossed paths with the nearly white-haired Yaqui Indian called Don Juan Matus at a Greyhound bus station in Nogales, Arizona. Although Castaneda had been told by a fellow colleague that the old man was an expert on medicinal plants and such, not unlike the informant, unbeknownst to Castaneda at the time, Don Juan was also a powerful Shaman-sorcerer. Sometime earlier the informant, cloaked by shimmering desert heat waves, simply seemed to evaporate into the rocks and sagebrush without a trace, leaving Castaneda without a source.


To continue what he was searching for he was thankful for the old man in the bus station. After several meetings along isolated sections of the desert border, Don Juan revealed to Castaneda that he was indeed a sorcerer. The following year, according to Castaneda, he became Don Juan's apprentice, an arrangement that continued from 1961 to the Autumn of 1965. During those years, under the direct tutelage of Don Juan, Castaneda used various amounts and types of hallucinogenic herbs and medicinal plants to enlarge his vision of reality. His experiences were the basis of his first book, THE TEACHINGS OF DON JUAN: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, published by the University of California Press (1968).

If you have read anything at all about Castaneda it basically goes without saying that there is a significant amount of controversy surrounding the question as to whether Don Juan Matus was an actual person or not and/or if Castaneda's works are fiction or not --- in whole or in part --- but such controversy remains neither here nor there for our discussion here. Even the staunchest critic against Don Juan existing, that is, if he was real or not, would not go as far to say that Castaneda wasn't.


Thus said it is fairly clear in all that has been written about him that during the Spring semester of 1960, and only a scant six months prior to the time stated for that first Karma infested meeting with Don Juan in the bus station, Castaneda, as an undergraduate student at UCLA enrolled in a class called "Methods in Field Archaeology." The class was taught by Professor Clement Meighan, and was, interestingly enough, one of Castaneda's first major forays into the exploration of Shamanism.

The professor told the class if any individual student interviewed a Native American as part of a mandatory paper he assigned, they would automatically receive an "A" in the course. As a result of that offer Castaneda traveled several hours east of Los Angeles to visit the Morongo Indian Reservation near Banning, went to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians reservation near Palm Springs, as well as going to the Colorado River area to interview Native Americans there. A few years before, in the Fall of 1957, while attending classes at Los Angeles Community College, Castaneda had written a term paper on Aldous Huxley for an English class, developing in the process a strong interest in things occult after reading Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and its account on the use of mescaline.


During his interviews for Dr. Meighan's UCLA class he somehow began putting together bits and pieces of information from both endeavors after his curiosity was piqued from inferences that the Cahuilla had, albeit obscured to outsiders, of which he was one, a historical background in the use of certain native-to-the-desert, hallucinogenic plants. That led him to start making trips farther and farther into remote sections of the southwest to study the use of medicinal plants by Native Americans.

On one of those excursions deep into the desert Castaneda had an encounter with a man who was also bio-searching similar plants and it was he who related the information about the plant Datura to Castaneda.



The man was a somewhat mysterious bio-searcher that had several plant species named after him and who, as described below, came to be referred to in various Castaneda related writings only as the "informant." It was information from that encounter that served as the basis for Castaneda's paper.[1]

In the book A Magical Journey by Castaneda's ex-wife Margaret Runyan, she, writing of his 1960 paper, states Professor Meighan recalled: "His informant knew a great deal about Datura, which was a drug used in initiating ceremonies by some California groups, but had presumed by me and I think most other anthropologists to have passed out of the picture 40 or 50 years ago. So he found an informant who still actually knew something about this and still had used it." Castaneda's paper included fairly academic references to the plant’s four heads, their various purposes, the roots and their significance, and the method of preparation, cooking and rituals involved, all information that he supposedly learns later from Don Juan between August 23 and September 10, 1961 and describes in The Teachings of Don Juan. (A Magical Journey pp. 83-85 and 91.)

It may well be true that Castaneda interviewed Native Americans for parts of his paper as claimed, but his primary informant on Datura and other hallucinogenic plants was NOT one of them. As mentioned above, Castaneda was an outsider and those he interviewed were not always so forthright in what they revealed. Castaneda's information, although written as though from a field interview, and presented in 1968 in The Teachings of Don Juan almost word for word, but much more casually and not credited, was way too structured in his 1960 paper anyway --- as if the information had been obtained from a formally educated academic or field research expert, which it was, rather than simply a native user or naturalist (again, please refer to Footnote [1]).


True, his paper was being written for his field archaeology class, and may have been presented in a more formal format to reflect that. However, Castaneda's, as stated by the students turning papers in, was one of only three involving actual interviews of Native Americans by members of the class --- and, although an excellent paper, there was no convincing hint of actual field interviews or contact with native users at the level one would expect.


Because of such, that is, not knowing the full circumstances surrounding how Castaneda garnered his information, his professor, although accepting Castaneda's word on what he said it was, still remained somewhat hesitant and slightly perplexed, saying, as stated previously, he and "most other anthropologists thought the use of Datura had passed out of the picture 40 or 50 years ago." Apparently by inference, assuming from extrapolation that the informant and/or informants were ALL not other than Native American, he thought it most interesting Castaneda had "found an informant who still actually knew something about this and still had used it."

Castaneda's UCLA class ran from sometime early-mid February to around the middle of June, 1960. His paper was due to be turned in at least by the end of the semester, that is, not much later than two or three weeks into June at the most, perhaps somewhat earlier. That would mean his interviews and study of medicinal plants would need to be completed no later than the end of May, 1960. Datura is a night blooming plant. Often times for ritual or strength purposes the plants are picked or dealt with during the full moon phase.


In May of that year the full moon occurred during the first third of the month, on Wednesday, May 11th and in June it was Thursday the 9th. There is a good chance Castaneda's informant was probably bio-searching around that same time in order to maximize the plant and take advantage of the moonlight. For the most part May and sometimes early June are almost a perfect time in the southwestern desert. The cold of winter has pretty much dissipated and spring is unfolding prior to the intense summer heat. It is my contention that during that period Castaneda and his informant met.


The interesting part is the coincidence of the so-called "chance" meeting between Castaneda and Don Juan at the bus station in Nogales, Arizona in June, 1960 --- which happened at the most only a few short weeks AFTER Castaneda met with his informant in the desert for the very first time. Although the possibility exists otherwise, there is nothing in what I know on a first hand basis about the informant that would indicate he knew, met, set the meeting, ever heard of Don Juan, or knew if he was an actual person or not. However, the informant did know the Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina, and knew her quite well.



Anthropologist Jay Courtney Fikes in his book Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties (1993) suggests that rather than being one individual, the chance exists that Don Juan was actually a composite of two or possibly even three authentic Indian shamans, of which one was Maria Sabina, with another being, although not mentioned by Fikes in his book but by others, the venerated Cahuilla Shaman, Salvador Lopez.



I think that during the informant's discussion of plants and herbs sitting around in the middle of the night in some shabby motel, isolated shack, or rock-ring campfire in the desert someplace, Maria Sabina's name came up and may have had an impact on Castaneda.


Again, if Don Juan was an actual person, a composite of several people, a total fabrication or a figment of Castaneda's imagination, the events leading up to meeting Don Juan and the various interactions with people, places, and things don't necessarily have to be discarded. Then again, if the informant was used as a model by Castaneda for Don Juan, or if aspects of his manners or abilities seeped into the characterization of Don Juan, I can't really say as he was neither Yaqui, Native American, nor Mexican.


Except for a possible hint in the closing paragraph of Cloud Shaman, relating to the fact cited above where the informant "cloaked by shimmering desert heat waves, simply seemed to evaporate into the rocks and sagebrush without a trace," it was never made clear to me specifically if he himself was a Shaman. In later years I may of had my suspicions, but in his own actions he always ensured that nothing fell into an area or realm that might frighten or compromise any belief a person held in the natural order of things. He was simply a person in search of the truth and tried honorably to convey that truth once discovered.



[1] In Castaneda's last book, The Active Side of Infinity, he writes that while in Arizona during the late Spring of 1960 "he met with an extremely seasoned anthropologist" --- not the informant --- but thought possibly to be Edward H. Spicer, who had written and published a great deal on both the Yaqui Indians of Arizona and those of Sonora, Mexico. Castaneda was told "that the Indian societies of the Southwest were extremely isolationist, and that foreigners, especially those of Hispanic origin, were distrusted, even abhorred, by those Indians." Other than Spicer another person that has been mentioned that could have been the "extremely seasoned anthropologist" offering Castaneda advice was Dr. W. Curry Holden, a Yaqui scholar of some repute that was notorious for having led a group of students on a field exercise in 1947 and, according to the Roswell Timeline: Undated and many other sources, stumbling across the wreckage of the downed space craft in the Capitan Mountains of New Mexico.

Another colleague told Castaneda he was better off reading herbalists' books. It was his opinion

"that anything to be known about medicinal plants from the Southwest had already been classified and talked about in various publications. He went as far as to say that the sources of any Indian curer of the day were precisely THOSE exact same publications rather than any traditional knowledge. He finished off with the assertion that if there still were any traditional curing practices, the Indians would not divulge them to a stranger."

Castaneda felt there was nothing left to do except take the advice of "those experienced social scientists" and leave Arizona for Los Angeles. However, at the last minute another anthropologist friend told him he intended to go on a road trip and drive throughout Arizona and New Mexico to visit "all the places where he had done work in the past, renewing in this fashion his relationships with the people (Native American or otherwise) who had been his anthropological informants," telling Castaneda:

"You're welcome to come with me," he said. "I'm not going to do any work. I'm just going to visit with them, have a few drinks with them, bullshit with them."

It was during that excursion that Castaneda met the "informant."