Imagine my surprise when I learned that the most successful author of “Indian” books of all time was a fake. His name was Carlos Castaneda. He made a national and international name for himself, and made himself very rich, by making up whole stories about a medicine man who never existed.
Hundreds of colleges used his books by the ton. And they are still using them, misguided though they are. He sold more than eight million copies of his books, starting with “The Teachings of Don Juan.” The Don was supposed to be a Yaqui medicine man who divulged his secrets to Castaneda in Mexico and in a bus station in Tucson. Unfortunately, there was no Don Juan, and Castaneda never met him. He made the whole thing up. It earned him a doctorate from the Department of Anthropology at UCLA. But once they learned about the fraud, they took the doctorate back—the only case I know of where this has happened.
He eventually wrote a total of eight books, each one building on the last, until he was exposed. The popularity of the books in the 1960s proved that people wanted something mystical and mythical to believe in, apparently. He came out with his first book in 1968, in the height of the anti-Vietnam War, hippie, free love, yuppie period.
The next thing you know, sociology professors, literature professors, Third World Studies professors, anthropologists, and others were requiring students to read this stuff. They thought it was real. They should have known better. The mystical teachings involved shape shifting, where people become wolves, crow, and coyotes.
One of Castaneda’s colleagues read about a meeting he supposedly had with Don Juan in Tucson, checked his calendar, and found that he had seen Castaneda in the UCLA library on that date. When he reported this to the Department of Anthropology people, they started investigating and found all kinds of discrepancies. It led to Castaneda’s downfall. Richard de Mille, another anthropologist at UCLA, checked the library records for Castaneda, and found that when Castaneda claimed to have been in a peyote ceremony in the Sonora Desert of Mexico, he was actually sitting in the UCLA library reading a published account of such a ceremony. De Mille also documented that there were no Yaqui words in the books, despite Castaneda’s claim that he spent months with Don Juan.
Jay Courtney Fikes, an anthropologist who also studied with the Huichol people of Mexico, published an extensive expose of Castaneda in 1993. The title was “Carlos Castaneda, Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties.” He says Castaneda’s first four books made him as famous at Margaret Mead, which is a shame.
Carlos went into seclusion in 1973, which he could afford to do with all that money he had made. He stayed in seclusion for the rest of his life. He built a mansion in Los Angeles, which he shared with three of his female followers until he died.
He claimed that Don Juan taught him to leap off cliffs and not die. He also taught him how to shift shapes and become an animal, a belief common in many North American tribes. He said he could become a crow or a wolf at will.
Unfortunately, his books are still selling. And professors are requiring poor students to read them including those at University of California Berkeley, Stanford University, and San Francisco State University, to name a few. Apparently they think that if there really was no Don Juan, there should have been, and that is good enough. The whole thing makes me sick—and mad.
Castaneda even lied about his birth place and birth date. He was born in Cajamarca, Peru in 1925. But once he got to the U. S. he claimed that he was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1931. No one apparently caught the differences in the accent. People in Peru speak Spanish, while people in Brazil speak Portuguese. Brazil is the only nation in the Americas where Portuguese is the official language.
He allegedly used peyote, jimson weed, and other drugs in his sorcery episodes with Don Juan. Fikes claims in his book that peyote is not a traditional drug of the Yaqui people.
Michael Korda, his editor at Simon & Schuster, should have known better. Korda has written extensively on leadership. His writing is full of insight and great thinking—such as his article “How to Be A Leader,” Newsweek, January 5, 1981. (Of course, he also published potboilers by Jacqueline Suzanne and Harold Robbins.) What a letdown that he got taken in by a charlatan.
Castaneda died in 1998, but he left his fortune to his son, Adrian Vashon. After admitting for decades that he was Adrian’s father, in his final will he denied paternity. Adrian challenged the will in court and won. Castaneda was worth close to $20 million when he died.
He was one of the founders of the New Age. He was an excellent writer. It is too bad his stuff was fiction, which he passed off as field work. I hope professors will stop requiring their students to read this fake stuff.
Dean Chavers, Ph.D., is the director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship and school improvement program for American Indians, located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His address is CTD4DeanChavers@aol.com. His latest book is “Racism in Indian Country,” published by Peter Lang.