Jay Fikes (right) with Reuben Snake

An Interview with Jay Courtney Fikes
By Sandy McIntosh

Jay Courtney Fikes graduated cum laude from the University of California at Irvine in 1973, obtained a master's degree (with honors) in bilingual education from the University of San Diego in 1974, and completed his doctorate in cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan in 1984. Since 1985 he has taught courses in cultural anthropology, policy research, and social science research methods at the U.S. International University, Marmara University in Istanbul, Turkey, and the New Mexico Highlands University. He is president of the Institute for Investigation of Inter-Cultural Issues, in Carlsbad, CA, and has been active as a consultant, educator, speaker, and advocate for Native Americans for over ten years. His books include, Step Inside the Sacred Circle, Reuben Snake, Your Humble Serpent, and Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties.


"After passionately absorbing the nuances in Carlos Castaneda's first four books, I decided to become a professional anthropologist and study the ritual cycle of the Huichol Indians of Mexico," Jay Courtney Fikes writes in Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties. He imagined that he might become a shaman while earning his doctorate at the University of Michigan. "Castaneda's strategy of disclosing his own uncanny experiences, and implying that they were integral to correct interpretation of the 'Yaqui way of knowledge' he was learning ?motivated me to supplement orthodox anthropological research methods." Castaneda's accounts of his extraordinary experiences as an apprentice of don Juan convinced Fikes that "in order to comprehend fully the meaning of Huichol rituals I should participate in them and make pilgrimages to sacred sites, just as aspiring Huichol shamans do."

With the assistance of the Mexican government, Fikes was able to study the Huichol language and religion in the remotest, least-western-influenced part of the Chapalagana Huichol territory. During his first visit he was adopted by a Huichol healer and singer and was allowed to observe the shaman healing patients, to witness numerous rituals and to record sacred songs. On subsequent visits, Fikes' posture of detached observer gradually gave way to a deeper personal involvement in Huichol life. At a funeral ritual where he had been tape recording the singing of his adoptive shaman father, he suddenly turned off the recorder. "I felt compelled to join the relatives who were preparing to bid farewell to the deceased woman for whom the ritual was being performed. I was astonished when a small, blue fly (which for traditional Huichols represents the deceased person) suddenly appeared. The blue fly was hovering near her human relatives who were standing outside their village god-house in front of a wooden platform on which sacred paraphernalia had been placed. I offered the blue fly the same beverages and foods her relatives were offering. While the fly hovered in our midst both her grieving relatives and I wept profusely. They cried, convinced that this was the last time they would communicate with their departing loved one. I cried because I knew I was crossing a mental frontier, embracing emotionally a world-view I had been taught to consider only intellectually plausible and symbolic."

Q. For millions of Carlos Castaneda's readers, our understanding of anthropology and of Native American culture has been shaped, at least in part, by the first three or four don Juan books. When speaking of the difference between traditional Native and Western cultures, don Juan repeatedly talks about the necessity of building a bridge. For example, at one point he tells Carlos, "I am trying to build a bridge, a bridge you can walk on between those ancient seers and the modern world." One gets the impression that this bridge must be incredibly long, and that the possibility that Westerners could ever understand Native American shamanism is almost nil. Has that been your experience?

A. For contemporary non-Indians there are many obstacles to understanding "shamans" or perhaps becoming one. Establishing trust is the most basic prerequisite. Why should an authentic shaman, a person dedicated to serving his/her own native community, teach a non-Indian his esoteric knowledge? Will that non-Indian serve the community with such knowledge? Yaquis, the group from which don Juan allegedly emerged, were brutally treated by Spaniards and their successors, the Mexicans. Thousands of Yaqui men and women were deported and sold into virtual slavery during a campaign against them, which peaked between 1900 and 1910. As that period of persecution peaked, many of them fled from Sonora to Arizona (where they now have a reservation). Given the legacy of violence, deportations and slavery, a living nightmare which don Juan and his family allegedly endured (Fikes 1993: 58), the question arises: why should don Juan trust a perfect stranger, Castaneda? What does a non-Indian have to do to earn the trust of an authentic shaman? Castanedaís answer is that Mescalito, taking the form of a black dog, was a special sign that prompted don Juan to accept him as his apprentice. My own experiences at Huichol sacred sites and ceremonies and at numerous Native American Church meetings led me to reject Castanedaís claim as preposterous. Castaneda's narrative of his first meeting with Indian peyotists contains so many significant anomalies and important omissions that scholars familiar with bona fide peyote meetings should immediately have doubted its authenticity. To cite some examples: Castaneda's assertion, that Mescalito selected Castaneda to be the recipient of don Juan's knowledge is doubtful, most importantly, because Yaquis have never participated in peyote ceremonies. Moreover, the name that don Juan gave to the peyote deity, "Mescalito," has never been mentioned by any of the three hundred thousand NAC members, who belong to some seventy distinct tribes within the United States, nor by members of Mexican Indian tribes such as the Tarahumara or Huichol, whose reverence for peyote is unsurpassed. Huichol Indian chronicles credit one of their deified ancestors, Tatei Yochahuima, with having taken the form of a black dog. Nobody has discovered anything analogous in Yaqui oral history (Fikes 1993, 61-62, 106). Nor has anyone except Castaneda ever claimed that playing with a black dog was an omen upon which an unorthodox intercultural relationship of guru/apprentice could be erected. Neither the Yaqui, nor any of the other Indians inhabiting northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States, has ever had a system or religious instruction in which apprentices are initiated by masters (Fikes 1993, 56, 68-70, 111). Castaneda's fundamental supposition, that he was the person chosen by the peyote deity to be taught by don Juan, might be more credible if other particulars of the peyote ceremonies he portrayed were consistent with the model of peyotism built upon over a thousand reports published by previous investigators. However, details of his purported peyote ceremonies are anomalous when compared to portraits of peyote meetings published by other scholars. Castaneda's central claim is contradicted by impartial research.

The refugee Huichol Indians with whom Castaneda may have been associated are dependent on income from tourists. In April 1996 I arrived for the first time at a refugee Huichol settlement in Tepic, the capital city of the Mexican state of Nayarit, just as some 50 Huichols were starting a ceremony called Parching the Corn, which is ancillary to the Peyote Dance (Fikes 1997). Within a few minutes after arriving, I began filming that ceremony. In exchange for allowing me to film that ceremony the men in charge were given gifts of soda pop and beer. The Tepic Huichols seemed eager to explain the meaning of ritual artifacts, including peyote, which I was filming. After years of working with secretive and sometimes hostile Huichols in Santa Catarina the openness of these Tepic Huichols truly amazed me. I have concluded, following Weigand (1985), that the primary reason that Tepic Huichols are more eager to host outsiders than are Chapalagana Huichols is that the former are much more dependent on earning money, as wage-laborers or producers of yarn-paintings and other crafts for the tourist market.

Replica Watches  Replica Watches

Refugee Huichols have some "shamanistic" practices or esoteric knowledge but their teachings are much less complete than those of the Chapalagana Huichols (a more conservative [i.e. traditional] group which Castaneda, Furst and Myerhoff neglected to study). Refugee Huichols will, for a fee, teach non-Indians some of what they know. Their willingness to teach might help build the bridge you mention, if only peyote was legal in Mexico. But given the drug-war mentality which surrounds this bridge I fear a tidal wave or hurricane is threatening to destroy the bridge which I and others (such as Juan Negrin) began crossing some 20 years ago with the aid of Chapalagana Huichol shamans.

But teaching in return for money is a motive distinct from teaching based on respect. Robert Zingg, the first American anthropologist to study the Chapalagana Huichols, earned their trust by becoming a political advocate for them. To help Tuxpan Huichols secure title to their land Zingg accompanied Tuxpanís political officials to Mexico City to meet with the Mexican President, Lazaro Cardenas. It was only after Zingg volunteered to help them that he gained access to the "myths" which are recited in rituals by singing shamans. Zinggís research did not include cultivating extraordinary experiences with the aid of Huichol shamans. He was content with describing their myths and rituals. But even that would have been impossible without his having proved himself trustworthy.

Juan Negrin was, for several years, a political advocate for the Huichols. His work on their behalf is, in part, how he gained enough trust to receive esoteric teachings from authentic Huichol shamans. He also became compadres with several Huichols. During many conversations with Juan Negrin I concluded that he knows much about Huichol esoteric or shamanic teachings but has refused to popularize them or himself. I admire him and James Slotkin, an anthropologist who was an official in the Native American Church. Slotkin ingested peyote at Native American Church ceremonies in the 1950s but didnít publicly proclaim himself a shaman. I have tried to follow their example and also to obey what my Indian mentors told meónot to reveal certain aspects of what I have experienced.

I gained access to Huichol esoteric teachings after I became an adopted son and a godfather. They trusted me after they put me into a kinship role. After our Supreme Court ruled in April of 1990 that our first amendment did not protect sacramental peyote use by members of the Native American Church (NAC) I was encouraged to participate in Native American Church rituals. But this invitation came only after I proved I was committed to passing a federal law to protect their religious freedom (see my book, Reuben Snake, Your Humble Serpent). Reuben Snake became my brother.

Humility is important but sometimes we have to be bold. I debunked Castanedaís early writing because I believe I learned more about authentic shamans and peyote ceremonies than he ever did and because I saw his reckless popularizing as a threat to Indian religious freedom. In October of 1994 we passed a federal law to protect the NAC.

My own experiences have convinced me that there is a spirit world to which authentic shamans direct themselves. I believe this realm is not necessarily the psychological world of images described by Carl Jung and Daniel Noel. Someday soon I may be willing to describe more of my spiritual experiences. I am encouraged to do so because a few anthropologists have finally come out of the closet. In 1998 at a symposium called "The Spirit Hypothesis: Scientific and Participant Validation" Michael Harner presented a paper. I recommend asking him for permission to post his paper on your website.

So how do we build a bridge? I am reminded of the movie, The Karate Kid. In it the martial arts novice, a teenage boy, had to start serving his aged master by doing practical exercises: putting the wax on, taking the wax off. Similarly, Chapalagana Huichol young people serve their community as temple officers and thereby gain access to "shamanic" teachings. After centuries of violence and broken treaties I feel that we non-Indians must prove ourselves worthy of being accepted as novices, humble seekers of access to the world of spirit. One way to show we can be trusted is to work diligently to secure Indian rights, e.g., to lobby for laws that will facilitate the return of sacred artifacts and human remains (which are held in museums and private collections) to Native Americans. We must also work to pass laws that guarantee that American Indians have access to sacred sites located throughout this country. Peyote, mushrooms, ayahuasca and other sacred plants must be protected, perhaps by international laws. It seems reasonable that we have to build at least half of the bridge, by serving as advocates for Indian rights, before we can expect to be shown how to follow the path across to the other side of the bridge.

After we prove ourselves trustworthy we face another obstacle, fear, one which Castaneda identified as the first enemy of the man of knowledge. Fear of going crazy is something it took me many years to overcome. But I donít want to discuss that topic just yet?

Copyright 1999, Sandy McIntosh and Jay Courtney Fikes

An Interview with Jay Courtney Fikes Part II