The Cahuilla Connection
By David Worrell
While I have no "smoking gun" here exactly, it does indeed seem plausible that some kind of contact with the Cahuilla Indians could well have been a major influence on Castaneda in his early days.
I am going to present a series of quotes here.
The first series of quotes is from Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants, by Lowell John Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel. While this book was published in 1972, there is no question that these people are reporting on bona-fide traditions of the Indians. In other words, we are in no danger of metaphysical hanky panky from these people, for Bean is a serious scholar and Saubel is a respected tribal leader/shaman who is still the administrative head of the Malki museum near the Morongo Reservation.
Note: "Coahuilla" is an alternative spelling of Cahuilla, and was the official spelling back in the 30's.
First of all, keep in mind that I am talking about some Indians residing a couple of hours drive east of L.A. Also, keep in mind the context of Castaneda's first three books when reading these quotes.
"Among the Cahuilla, plants were not viewed simply as objects which might or might not be useful to man, but as living beings with whom one could communicate and interact."
(Don Juan had Castaneda talking to plants, and regarding them as "entitities")
"A person gathering a plant would thank the plant for its use, apologizing in one sense for the harm inflicted on the plant."
(Castaneda had don Juan doing this explicitly in places.)
"Each use of a plant ... required an acknowledgment of the indebtedness of the user, and this was expressed in rituals associated with such use. These rituals were a recognition that there was a right conduct associated with the use of any life form "
(The early books are filled with procedures on just how to collect and use particular plants.)
Cahuilla territory is commonly divided into "life zones" describing the terrain. Two of these zones are called "the Upper Sonoran" and "the lower Sonoran." The lower Sonoran is desert country. So perhaps Castaneda was occasionally in the "Sonoran desert" after all. :-)
"Mortars and pots of the shamans were frequently endowed with powers emanating from nukatem (spiritual guardian beings)."
(Don Juan treated his "implements" as if they were alive.)
"For the Cahuilla puul (shaman), datura offered not only a means to transcend reality and come into contact with specific guardian spirits (nukatem), but it also enabled him to go on magical flights to other worlds or transform himself into other life forms."
(Castaneda's earliest work was on Datura according to Margaret Runyan Castaneda's book, and Datura was the power plant of choice for the Cahuilla. Castaneda sought out "guardians" and "spirits" and "other worlds" and transformed himself into a crow.)
Kroeber (1908-65) reported that it was believed that objects or events seen in datura-induced visions would come true. Kroeber states that the general idea was that "it conferred power and the attainment of desire."
(Don Juan had Castaneda use datura for divination, and said virtually the same thing about it's general nature)
The Cahuilla did make ointments and pastes from Datura which had a variety of uses.
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(Don Juan has Castaneda applying it to his body as a paste at one point.)
"Shamans used datura in small amounts to diagnose ailments of patients. The drug permitted them to 'see' the pain or disease causing difficulty and detect if witchcraft had been used against a patient."
For the ceremony, where a boy became a man, they prepared jimson weed by "cooking it ... and ground it up in a small ceremonial mortar... with a small pestle. Water was added, and the liquid was then put in a red pottery bowl... and the paha gave each boy a swallow."
(This reminds a bit of some of the procedures in the first book.)
Next, from his book Native Californians, Lowell Bean summarizes some of the common beliefs in "power," among California Indians. As you read them, recall Castaneda's don Juan's early remarks on the subject.
"[P]ower is assumed to be the principal causative agent (energy source) for all phenomena in the universe. Power is sentient and possesses will."
"Some things possess more power than others, but anything in the universe which has "life" or demonstrates the will "to act" possesses some amount of power."
"[T]here is a constant opposition between power sources and a struggle among them to acquire more power."
"Very advanced age (without senility) among south central and southern California groups is an indication of greater power."
"[P]ower can be used only a proper times and in proper places, and it must be used in accordance with set procedures."
"Man was not dependent upon one source of power, but attempted to acquire power from as many sources as possible...one shaman might have as many as ten or more guardian spirits."
"It was believed that hallucinations altered the users perceptions and level of awareness, making him more receptive to perceiving sacred beings and other power sources."
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Castaneda tried to maintain that don Juan did not fit into any particular cultural system, but even from this small amount of material it now seems clear that many of his early positions DID. After Castaneda had "moved on" to other matters, he tried to maintain that these early "Indian teachings" were a nonsensical ploy on the part of don Juan, done simply to engage his attention, but ... I ain't buying that. It is more likely that he simply began infusing more and more complex combinations of native and Western and Eastern practices and beliefs into his growing "collage" of "the teachings of don Juan."
I'm not sure it's worth pursuing this Cahuilla stuff beyond this basic conclusion, unless direct information can be acquired from people like Katherine Saubel [native shaman, anthropologist and director of the Malki Museum near one of the Cahuilla reservations].