Plotkin, Mark J. Ph.D.
Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An Ethnobotanist Searches For New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest. Viking (1993).

Book Review by Sandy McIntosh

In 1884, at the end of his year’s residence with the Eskimo of Baffin Island, the pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas concluded that he had failed in his mission. He had set out to study primitives because he believed that a technologically undeveloped people must live a simpler, less clouded existence than the highly sophisticated and technologically advanced people of his native Germany. He had hoped to discover in the Eskimo the humble roots of human society, which had now reached its pinnacle in the civilization of Europe. Instead, what he found by living on Baffin Island forced him to radically change his views concerning primitive vs. complex in human development. He discovered that, even though the Eskimo had not invented electric toasters, their emotional, intellectual and societal development was as sophisticated and complex as the Europeans—only different--and that the only way for him to evaluate them as individuals was to judge them by their actions and by the warmth of their hearts. Technological development as the measure of a society’s value, Boas was later to discover, was only relevant when estimating how soon a technological people could supplant or destroy a non-technological one.

Despite Boas?work over the next forty years, and despite the fieldwork and reports from thousands of anthropologists who followed him in his study of Native peoples, most of us readers of Carlos Castaneda grew up without really learning very much about the value of non-technological civilizations. Before Castaneda, those of us living in cities, at a distance from Native groups, learned what we could from school, but mostly from TV and the movies—the distortions of Cowboys-and-Indians. Those of us living in proximity to Native groups knew more about them, but what we knew was negative: Indians were poor, defeated, and too many were alcoholics.

To our delight, when Castaneda introduced don Juan to the world things seemed to change. At last, we were given insight into the mind of a Native shaman, and we were amazed. Even anthropologists exulted, one declaring don Juan to be a "Neolithic philosopher." Despite the early praise for Castaneda, however, the truth seems to be that his anthropology was a fraud, and that don Juan was the exclusive product of a European imagination: nothing but another cartoon Indian, albeit one we could respect because he was so little like an Indian and so very much like ourselves. Don Juan, we could comfortably reassure ourselves, might have invented the electric toaster, had he only chosen to.

But now, if we have forcibly removed don Juan and Castaneda from the field so that their distortions do not cloud our eyes, where are we left in our understanding of the Native civilizations that share the planet with us? Do we go back to our old notions of cultural superiority based on our technological preeminence, or do we look further and try to finish what we began when we entered the supposed world of don Juan--to explore something truly exotic and possibly enlightening?

During the last thirty years, while some of us remained holed-up with the well-thumbed works of Carlos Castaneda, reading and re-reading them, others took Castaneda at his word, became anthropologists, and followed him into the field. Jay Fikes is one of these, and part of his work has been the debunking of Castaneda, seeing him as a critically negative force affecting the lives of Native Americans and of our understanding of the mission of anthropologists. Another is the ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin, author of Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice.

The Jaguar Shaman

I had followed the old shaman through the jungle for three days and, over the course of our trek, we had developed an enigmatic relationship. The medicine man obviously resented my desire to learn the secrets of the forest plants that he knew and used for healing purposes. Still, he seemed pleased that I had come from so far away-he called me the pananakiri ("the alien")--to acquire the botanical wisdom that the children of his tribe had no interest in learning.

I did not yet speak his language; an Indian from a neighboring tribe served as our translator. At the end of the third day, the old shaman turned to the other Indian and said, "Tell the pananakiri that I have taught him all that I am going to teach him. Tomorrow I am going hunting."

I had no objections; there were other shamans in the village with whom I wished to work, and I returned to my hut with the medicinal plants I had collected.

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That night, I had a terrifying dream. An enormous jaguar strode into my hut and stared deeply into my eyes, as if trying to divine my thoughts. Powerful muscles tensed in its back as it arched its body to spring.

So vivid was the apparition that I awoke with a scream. I sat upright in my hammock, trembling, my body soaked in a cold sweat. Carefully, I looked around the hut: I saw nothing-no footprints on the dirt floor, nothing disturbed or overturned, nothing to indicate the presence of an unwanted visitor. The only sound was the rustling of palm fronds as a gentle breeze blew through the village. The next morning, just after sunrise, the young Indian who had served as our translator came to my hut.

"Shall we go into the forest and look for more plants?" he asked.

"Before we do," I said, 'find the old shaman and tell him that last night I saw the jaguar.

I gave no details, and the Indian left.

He returned a few minutes later.

"Did you tell him?" I asked.


"What did he say?" I asked.

"He broke into a big smile and said, 'That was me!'

Richard Evans Schultes, the Harvard ethnobotanist (and Plotkin's mentor, who also co-authored with Albert Hoffman the classic Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers) writes in his introduction that this book, "could not appear at a better time. With the rampant environmental destruction and vertiginous population growth, the end of this decade is probably our time limit to protect the world's rain forests and the fragile cultures that inhabit them."

"Few people can recall the particular moment when they decided how to spend the rest of their lives," Mark Plotkin writes. "Mine came during a Harvard University night school lecture on a chilly September evening in 1974. That one moment opened the door to the fulfillment of a dream and to an adventure that is still unfolding." Without the money to study for a graduate degree, Plotkin did the next best thing and got a job working at the Harvard Zoology Museum as a handyman, building specimen cabinets and carting huge dinosaur bones from one corner of the building to another, and waiting for a chance. That came in 1978 when the Amazonian field biologist Russ Mittermeier invited him to come along on a short trip to South America to investigate sightings of giant caimans, which had never been seen at the location they were now reported to be at. Plotkin was amazed by the verdant growth of the rainforest, a place Thomas Lovejoy called "the greatest expression of life on earth."

Following his trip with Mittermeier, Plotkin managed to secure academic sponsorship for his own treks into the Amazon, where he lived and worked with native groups, including the Tiri? the Wayana and the Yanoáma (with whom Florinda Donner claimed to have lived, in her book Shabono).

Like Carlos Castaneda, Plotkin's work with these native groups began with the intention of collecting native botanicals. Unlike Castaneda, whose interest focused solely on hallucinogens, Plotkin's interest included the collection and classification of the range of medicinal plants used by native shamans for curing. "Plant life in the Amazon is ?unimaginably diverse," Plotkin writes.

One of every four plants on earth--about sixty thousand of the world's approximately two hundred fifty thousand species--grows there, and many of these species remain unseen, and unstudied, by Western eyes. A majority of the world's insects live in the amazon rain forest, and the fact that the forest has not been devoured by this entomological onslaught is testament to these plants' abilities as chemical warriors. Plants protect themselves by producing an astonishing array of chemicals that are toxic to insects, thereby deterring perdition. When ingested by humans, these same plants--and their chemical weapons--may act in a variety of ways on the body: they may be nutritious, poisonous, or even hallucinogenic. And in some cases, they are therapeutic.

In order to collect his specimens, Plotkin sought out and became apprenticed to the shamans of the tribes with whom he lived. As Fikes found with the Huichol, the shamans of the tribes Plotkin encountered were accessible to him (although they may not always have initially welcomed him) because they were connected to their native groups and acted in the traditional capacity of shamans--namely as healers and guides into nonordinary reality.

Plotkin’s experiences with Amazionian shamans were of equal intensity to those described by Castaneda in his first three books. However, like Jay Fikes, Plotkin did not have to erase his personal history, disarrange his routines, or abandon his fieldwork methods in order to enter fully into the world of his teachers. In fact, for the most part, his teachers were in favor of his collecting their knowledge. Because of the temptations of Western culture encroaching on native peoples throughout the Americas, fewer and fewer young people have wanted to undergo the rigors of the traditional apprenticeship, and thus shamanic knowledge is in danger of disappearing. As Mark Plotkin has written, "Every time one of the old shamans dies, it's as if a library has burned to the ground."

For his part, Plotkin has been instrumental in establishing a Shaman's Apprenticeship Program throughout the Americas, the purpose of which is to document shamanic knowledge under the tutelage of genuine shamans. Thus, some genuine material is beginning to appear in print, mostly concerned with the medicinal and visionary uses of native botanicals. More should follow.

It’s my conclusion that Castaneda left us with inklings of some powerful practices. Although he claimed that they originated from an integrated body of knowledge that he credited to the "shamans of ancient Mexico," we are learning that he actually gathered them from diverse sources, mostly from indigenous, non-technological native peoples of the Americas and even Asia. For us to appropriate these practices, as Castaneda did, without seeking to understand something genuine about their sources is vulgar and disrespectful. In a practical sense, this abusive behavior could return to haunt us, or even kill us. Non-technological people may not have invented toasters, but they are technicians nonetheless. In Jerome Rothenberg’s words, they are technicians of the sacred.

Copyright ?/font> 1999, Sandy McIntosh