Tales of Power: Carlos Castaneda’s Links to the Palm Springs Desert Museum

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Ed. Note: Don Juan Matus was a Yaqui sorcerer who helped launch the New Age movement. He may have been an invention of author Carlos Castaneda, but even so he helped teenagers everywhere believe they could turn into blackbirds and tell the future with lizards. Archaeologist Breck Parkman suggests here that the shaman character was inspired by former Palm Springs Museum director C.E. “Smitty” Smith and Palm Springs anthropologist Lowell Bean, along with Cahuilla fire eater Salvador Lopez.  Part Two of Breck Parkman’s paper on the early days of the Palm Springs Art Museum (formerly Desert Museum) illuminates the links between the museum and some of the most powerful figures of the psychedelic era.

Sharon Ellis (2005), Sundown. The Yucca Valley artist is known for her psychedelic landscapes, such as this painting of Datura. Courtesy of Christopher Grimes Gallery.

I suspect that Dr. Clement Meighan (1925-1997) sent Carlos Castaneda to work with Smitty (Clarence Smith) at the Palm Springs Desert Museum when Castaneda was a beginning anthropology student at UCLA. Meighan had studied anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley following World War II. He was on campus when Smitty was there and so they knew one another. In fact, just a few months after Smitty arrived at the Desert Museum, he arranged for Meighan to come and give a lecture at the Museum on the prehistoric art of Peru.

Lowell Bean began working with the Cahuilla in the Palm Springs area in 1958. When Smitty hired him to be the Desert Museum’s Curator of Ethnology, Lowell already had four years of experience working with the Cahuilla. One of the first things Smitty did was to have Lowell create a new room dedicated to exhibits about the Cahuilla. According to The Desert Sun:

Working on the Indian exhibits and records is a graduate student from UCLA, Lowell Bean. Dr. Smith said Bean is consulting with the Cahuilla for information from local members of the tribe. He also has been doing extensive research with the Morongo Reservation in Banning, the Torres of the Indio region, and Los Coyotes near San Jacinto, all members of the Cahuilla Tribe.

Cahuilla fire-eater Salvador Lopez was possibly a model for Castaneda’s don Juan character. Lopez is seen here at the Malki Museum opening in 1965. Courtesy of the Malki Museum.

Lowell’s exhibit on the Cahuilla opened to the public in October 1962. Lowell went on to become one of the foremost authorities on the Cahuilla. He has also written on the topic of shamanism, primarily for tribes in California. Although not a Huichol specialist himself, Lowell wrote an overview of shamanism for a study of Huichol art by Peter Furst, Barbara Myerhoff and other such specialists.

Unlike the Yaqui, the Huichol are a tribe that does indeed use peyote in the manner described by Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998). Castaneda was the author of the 1968 bestseller, The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Man of Knowledge. He went on to write a dozen books on shamanism and mysticism, based mostly on his exploits in Mexico. To date, his books have sold over 28 million copies in 17 languages.

Castaneda was born Carlos Cesar Arana Castaneda on December 25, 1925 in Cajamarca, Peru, the son of César Arana Burungaray, a watchmaker and goldsmith, and Susana Castaneda Novoa. He moved to the U.S. in 1951, first arriving in San Francisco and then moving to Los Angeles the following year. Castaneda became a naturalized citizen in 1957. He attended Los Angeles City College in the late 1950s, where he took a variety of classes in science, literature, and journalism, including two creative writing classes. Castaneda then transferred to UCLA at the beginning of 1960, where he studied anthropology. At UCLA, he was awarded his B.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Anthropology in 1962 and 1973, respectively.

Castaneda withdrew from public view in 1973, but reappeared in the 1990s, after he and three of his followers founded an organization called Cleargreen to promote his philosophy and teachings. He died of cancer in 1998. Today, Castaneda is just as controversial a subject as he was in the 1970s, when critics began to doubt the authenticity of his work. It has yet to be determined how much of what he wrote was fact and how much of it was fiction. Castaneda’s critics caution that most all of his work is fiction, but others dispute their claim.

Carlos Castaneda LA Community College, 1959. Breck Parkman research files.

Castaneda appears to have been a student intern or volunteer at the Desert Museum in 1962, or perhaps a year or two earlier. Smitty once showed a photograph in class of Lowell Bean and Carlos Castaneda working on an exhibit in the Desert Museum. This was in a Museum Methods class I took in 1974 and I assume the photo was from 1962. Smitty pointed out Castaneda in the photo. By 1974, Lowell was a highly respected professor at Cal State Hayward and Castaneda, of course, was a household name known throughout much of the world, given the popularity of his first three books.

Deemed by Time magazine the “Godfather of the New Age,” Castaneda was the literary embodiment of the Woodstock era. His 12 books, supposedly based on meetings with a mysterious Indian shaman, don Juan, made the author, a graduate student in anthropology, a worldwide celebrity. Admirers included John Lennon, William Burroughs, Federico Fellini and Jim Morrison (Robert Marshall, 2007).

When Smitty showed the photo to our class, he said, “Here’s something you’ll probably never see again.” He wasn’t referring to Castaneda. Lowell and Carlos were dressed in jeans and white tee shirts. Smitty was referring to the fact that Lowell was dressed in simple work clothes. Lowell almost always wore a suit to class and none of his students had ever seen him dressed down like he was in the photo. Like Smitty said, it was something we’d never see again.

Lowell Bean, left, at his 80th birthday party in Oakland, 2011. Breck Parkman, right, and his son, Jon. Parkman is former senior archaeologist for the state of California. Photo by Bev Ortiz.

Smitty’s knowledge of medicinal plants is why I think Clem Meighan might have sent Castaneda to the Desert Museum. The Museum also contained a research library with ample archival material on the Cahuilla. The photograph of Castaneda with Lowell was probably taken in 1962, given that Lowell began working as a curator for the Museum that year. I suspect that Meighan sent Castaneda to work with Smitty even earlier than that, probably during Carlos’ first semester at UCLA, when he was taking Meighan’s California Ethnography class. That was Spring Semester of 1960, which began in January and continued through the end of May.

It’s conceivable that Smitty was Castaneda’s “informant” for his 1960 paper on Datura. There’s also a possibility that Castaneda wrote his paper on Datura based on research conducted in the Desert Museum’s research library. Of course, it’s just as likely that Lowell Bean was the informant or else introduced Castaneda to the informant. Given that Lowell was already working in the Palm Springs area, he could have easily guided Castaneda to Salvador Lopez or another of the Cahuilla, and eventually to Smitty and the Desert Museum.

Recently, I asked Lowell if he had been an intern at the Desert Museum prior to being hired as a curator. He replied that he hadn’t been an intern or volunteer before joining the Museum’s staff in 1962. Assuming that Lowell’s memory is correct, the photo I saw of Castaneda working with him on an exhibit would had to have been taken no earlier than 1962. By then, Castaneda would have already completed his Spring Semester 1960 paper on Datura and turned it in to Clement Meighan, met don Juan at the Nogales bus station in summer 1961, and visited don Juan in Mexico on several occasions afterwards. If Castaneda interned at the Desert Museum in 1962, and not earlier, it must have been to earn university credit and perhaps to learn more about the use of medicinal plants from Smitty and Lowell.

Castaneda wanted to work with medicinal plants and hoped to find a Cahuilla practitioner who would talk to him. According to Margaret Runyan-Castaneda, who spent the first half of 1960 married to Castaneda, he disappeared to the desert for longer and longer periods of time that year. In the beginning, the “desert” was Palm Springs and the nearby Morongo and Agua Caliente Indian Reservations. Upon returning home from one of his desert forays, Castaneda told his wife that he had “met a man….an Indian and a teacher”. Castaneda was known to stretch the truth. I suspect that the “man” Castaneda met was Smitty. And it may have been Smitty who helped Castaneda meet the Indian man he would later call don Juan. Runyan-Castaneda said that initially, Castaneda found a Cahuilla to talk to, a man who lived on a reservation near Palm Springs.

That may have been Salvador Lopez (1896-1967), a famous Cahuilla shaman. Runyan-Castaneda said that Castaneda learned about plants from this man, and then he went on to the Colorado River, where he worked with a few Indians there. Eventually, Castaneda is said to have met don Juan in a bus depot in Nogales, Arizona. That would have been the Greyhound Bus Depot, which still exists.

Salvador Lopez and his grandchildren. Courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society.

Salvador Lopez was the last Cahuilla “Fire Eater.” He would put hot coals into his mouth, blow out sparks, chew, and spit out the pieces of coal. As a shaman, Lopez knew about the use of Datura, the subject of Castaneda’s 1960 student paper. The Cahuilla are one of several California desert tribes that made use of Datura (Toloache) for religious purposes. As part of their initiation, all the boys and young men of the tribe drank a concoction made from the plant, which brought about visions deemed important for the initiates.

“This is a plant of shamans,” Saubel taught me. “They give a Datura tea to teenage boys to help them find their dreams. Men sometimes drank it while playing peon, an ancient game, to help them win.” (Susan Straight, 2011)

The Cahuilla used Datura as a medicine, especially for broken bones, tooth aches, and for spider and snake bites. It worked by making the patient unconscious or impervious to pain for several days, during which time the healing took place. It took a special man to determine the dosage, though, and occasionally there were fatalities from overdosing. Datura was also used by Cahuilla shamans to access the metaphysical world, for magical flight, and transformation into other life forms, such as mountain lion and eagle. It also provided stamina for ritual performances and supernatural power for gamblers. Salvador Lopez is said to have carried a small vial of Datura with him for good luck.

Salvador Lopez at San Quentin, 1931. Breck Parkman research files.

The Cahuilla medicine man (pul) was the principal person who danced. A story in the Corona Courier, dated April 30, 1937, described Lopez performing the Fire Dance at the conclusion of the first annual All-Indian Fiesta at Palm Springs. By then, Lopez was recognized as a revered member of his tribe. A few years earlier, though, he ran afoul of the law. An article in The Daily Independent, dated October 4, 1929, reported that Lopez was being tried in the Riverside Superior Court for assault with a dangerous weapon. He was accused of attacking a young woman named Dominga Quinoes. Lopez, who was 36 years old at the time, and a farmer, was convicted and sent to San Quentin Prison to serve his sentence as prisoner #47697. He arrived at San Quentin on October 27, 1929. After his release, Lopez returned to his family on the Torres-Martinez Indian Reservation in Riverside County. In 1940, when the Indian Census was taken, Lopez was listed on it and his occupation was shown as being a “medicine man, Indian.” He had been listed as a farmer in earlier records. It’s not clear to me if Lopez considered himself a doctor (shaman) before he served his sentence, but it’s clear that he did think of himself that way afterwards. Over the years, I’ve known other indigenous people who, upon being incarcerated, discover that same kind of power within themselves. For these people, embracing their traditional culture was a good medicine for surviving the brutality and dehumanization of imprisonment. And for a select few, it allowed them to hear the spirit talking inside them. That seems to have been the case with Salvador, who went to prison a farmer, and came out a medicine man.

In 1963, Lopez appeared in a documentary film about the Cahuilla, along with Katherine Saubel. On January 22, 1967, he was recorded by amateur ethnographer, Guy Tyler, on a reel-to-reel tape recorder giving a Cahuilla vocabulary and singing traditional bird songs. The tapes are archived at the Berkeley Language Center, University of California, Berkeley, under the designations CAH-1, CAH-5, and CAH-6.

While many indigenous healers are weary of talking to outsiders, it appears that by the 1960s, Lopez was willing to share certain of his knowledge with the outside world. He may have been willing to talk to Castaneda about the use of Datura.

Joanie Barker, of Banning, and Carlos Castaneda attend a wedding in 1962. Breck Parkman research files.

Mary Joan (Joanie) Barker was working as a librarian at UCLA in the summer of 1960, when she is said to have met Carlos Castaneda. Barker had grown up in Banning, California, not far from the Morongo Indian Reservation. She and Castaneda began a romantic relationship sometime that summer and some have speculated that she introduced Castaneda to Salvador Lopez, from whom he may have obtained the data for his 1960 paper on Datura. There’s no reason to think that Barker knew Lopez, though, other than for her having grown up in proximity to the reservation. It’s also important to note that Castaneda turned his paper on Datura in to Professor Meighan at the end of Spring Semester 1960, at least a couple of months before he is thought to have met Barker. Castaneda had married Margaret Runyan on January 27, 1960 and they lived together as a couple for the next six months. That means that Castaneda was living with Runyan during the time he was going to the desert to research his Datura paper. Runyan wrote about that time in their marriage:

Carlos began leaving for hours at a time, and then days; I wasn’t sure where he was going. At first, I thought he had found another woman but he denied that. Carlos said that he was making trips into the desert to study the use of medicinal plants by the Indians.

Regardless how Castaneda came by his information on Datura, it was likely without Barker’s assistance as he had probably yet to meet her. That said, I believe he had met Smitty and Lowell Bean by the spring of 1960. By then, Smitty had been the director of the Desert Museum for seven years and Lowell had been working with the Cahuilla for two years. At the very least, I believe that either Smitty or Lowell were instrumental in Castaneda meeting Lopez, providing he actually met him in 1960. I say that because while I think Lopez may have been the informant for Castaneda’s 1960 paper, I think it’s just as likely that Castaneda used information he derived from Smitty and/or Lowell for the paper on Datura.

Salvador Lopez: “One of the last of the fire eaters of the desert Cahuilla.” Courtesy of Palm Springs Historical Society.

Runyan noted that by summer of 1960, Castaneda was leaving Los Angeles and going to the desert for longer periods of time. His excursions were a direct outgrowth of his Spring Semester research on Datura. He told her, “I have found a man,” but little else other than that the man was an Indian and a teacher. She said that by then, Castaneda had decided to study ethnobotany, especially the psychotropic plants used by Indian sorcerers. She said that in the beginning, Castaneda “…had worked with a Cahuilla on a reservation near Palm Springs, and then went out on the Colorado River and worked with a few Indians from there.” Runyan claimed, based in part on a conversation she had with Clem Meighan, that Castaneda’s informant for his undergraduate paper (on Datura) was described as being part Yuma and part Yaqui and that Meighan thought this might have been don Juan or someone related to him.

That don Juan was Castaneda’s informant for his 1960 Spring Semester paper on Datura seems unlikely, though, since Castaneda claimed to have met don Juan in the Nogales bus station in summer of 1960. The man Castaneda claimed to have met in Nogales may have been the basis for his character, don Juan Matus, but that character was informed by the wisdom and experience of others, including the informant Castaneda used for his paper on Datura. The 1960 information on Datura was later portrayed as if it had come directly from the teachings of don Juan in Castaneda’s first book, “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” (1968). Because of this, the character of don Juan Matus was almost certainly a composite of several people. That might possibly have included Smitty, providing he shared information about Datura that Castaneda later attributed to don Juan. Lowell told me that Castaneda may have received his information on Datura from Salvador Lopez, although he said there were several other Cahuilla who could have provided the same information to him.

Sharon Ellis (1996), Mysterium. The eyes are from a photo of Remedios Varo. Courtesy of Christopher Grimes Gallery.

I believe that Castaneda took a real man he had met in Spring 1960 and, for the purposes of his books, created a composite character by supplementing him with certain traits and experiences he had experienced with others along his journey. The foundation of Don Juan’s teachings may have come from Salvador Lopez, the Cahuilla shaman. If true, then don Juan was comprised largely of Salvador Lopez. As a composite character, though, don Juan included the traits of others, and that may have included Smitty and perhaps Lowell, too. According to Margaret Runyan:

Clearly part of the conversation was fake, but ‘don Juan’ is real. He was a real Indian, somebody Carlos was actually making trips to see. It’s just that once Castaneda got to the point of putting it all down in a readable form, the don Juan of his books became a different creature, a broad and omniscient construction made up of equal parts real Indian, pure Castaneda imagination, library research and dozens of conversations and experiences with people like C.J., myself, Mike Harner, colleagues at UCLA, his grandfather and others.

At the American Anthropological Association’s annual conference in 1978, there was a session on “Experiential Anthropology and Altered States.” Lowell participated in the session and in his talk, he defended Castaneda. Lowell told the audience that “the problem is not in Carlos Castaneda but in us.” Lowell described how he had once washed eggs for the Cahuilla. It was a task that the tribal leader, Jane Penn, gave Lowell when he showed up at Morongo Indian Reservation in 1958. According to the psychologist and leading critic of Castaneda, Richard de Mille, Lowell Bean told how he had washed eggs for the Indians and revealed that chickens are filthy beasts. He described his psychic experiences among the Cahuilla. He said our tendency to doubt Carlos Castaneda, “a fine, gentle, kindly young man,” proceeded from envy of his abilities.

Interestingly, de Mille, had this to say about Lowell, “I felt that if there were one person who could convince me I was wrong about Castaneda it would be Lowell Bean, who seemed to share the amiability, dedication, and psychic powers of the legendary Carlos.”

These excerpts are taken from Breck Parkman’s paper Remembering Smitty: A Biographical Sketch of Dr. C. E. Smith, archived at the C.E. Smith Museum of Anthropology. https://www.csueastbay.edu/museum/ You can reach Breck Parkman at: ebreckparkman@gmail.com

Yucca Valley artist Sharon Ellis is known for her electric landscapes inspired not by Datura but by 19th Century Romantic poetry: https://www.kcet.org/shows/artbound/friendly-universe-the-electric-landscapes-of-sharon-ellis

To learn more about Cahuilla fire-eater Salvador Lopez, visit the Malki Museum on the Morongo Indian Reservation in Banning: http://malkimuseum.org/



7 comments for “Tales of Power: Carlos Castaneda’s Links to the Palm Springs Desert Museum

  1. Fantastic article! Joan Barker was my anthropology professor for two semesters at Santa Monica College in the mid-90s. I knew of her relationship with Casteneda, but the other connections were new to me.

  2. Hi Linda, How interesting that Joan Barker went on to teach anthropology after her acquaintance with Castaneda. A Banning historian told me the Barker family is quite prominent in the history of the town, and were connected to early Cahuilla basket weavers.

  3. Jeeze Ann, knocked it out of the park on this one. Our desert origin of Don Juan due to
    what Castaneda learned here–intriguing. Obviously, Castaneda, was bitten by desert magic–sacred Datura not withstanding.
    Thanks again for bringing this to us. What would we do without u?

  4. Thank you Claudia–the home run goes to Breck Parkman. Like you, I was stunned to learn that a quiet man who still lives here, Lowell Bean, may be an inspiration for the legendary don Juan. Hey Modernists, there is a man living amongst you who knows some ancient and deep stuff!

  5. Hi Ann~
    Thank you for another fascinating story!
    These discoveries of Castaneda’s life, his work with Lowell Bean and friendship with Joan Barker are enlightening.
    I dove into Castaneda’s books because of the geography covered in his stories.
    My family settled in Tucson from “La Frontera” the northern region of Sonora in the late 1800s and I wanted to learn about that area that Castaneda explored in his stories. That was my attraction to Castaneda’s first book “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge.”

  6. Hi Toti, I didn’t know you were inspired by Castaneda, but it makes sense considering your themes–Mexican folk art and Dia de los Muertos. Readers who want to meet a Castaneda-inspired artist living in Banning (a former hang-out of Carlos himself) be sure to visit the website of Gloria “Toti” Bell: https://www.totisartstudio.com/

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