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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.