Salvador Lopez (photo taken in 1965)

Salvador Lopez: One of Castaneda's Original Informants?
by Corey Donovan

Two of the people who knew Castaneda in the sixties and seventies, UCLA Prof. Douglass Price-Williams and Gloria Garvin Sun, have speculated that Salvador Lopez, the last well-known shaman on the Cahuilla reservations (and the last performer of the fire swallowing rite), was one of the true native shamans who might have given Castaneda ethnographic information about the use of datura and other hallucinogenic plants that he used in his first two books.

The Cahuilla reservations are near Palm Springs, and thus not far from Los Angeles. They are very near the place where Joanie Barker grew up, and she is known to regularly attend their annual festival. It has been speculated that Joanie, who first met up with Castaneda in the summer of 1960 and soon became his girlfriend, would have taken him out to the reservation she was familiar with when she learned he was taking a class (from Clement Meighan) on shamanism.

Chris Rodgers, a Sustained Action list member, visited the Malki Museum on the Cahuilla reservation and met Salvador Lopez's granddaughter, who is in her forties. She informed Chris that Lopez died in 1973 (the year that don Juan's party supposedly "departed") and that he was a "bear shaman" with knowledge of the datura use that is known to have been a feature of traditional Cahuilla shamanic practices.

As to the Cahuilla's traditional use of datura, here's what Lowell Bean's California Indian Shamanism (Ballena Press1992), has to say about it:

"Another plant with more dramatic narcotic properties, datura metaloides, commonly known as jimsonweed or toloache (from the Nahuatl toloatzin, through Spanish), is native to large parts of the Americas. In California, as in parts of Mexico and Central and South America, toloache was used in ritual hallucinogenic and medicinal contexts.

Physiologically, any part of the datura plant is toxic as well as vision-producing. It was used with due safeguards since its use can result in coma or death. Even when taken in safe dosages, the psychedelic state that results can be frightening, and those who took it needed to be watched and guided carefully through the experience. The development of the uses of this plant for medicinal and psychedelic purposes was a significant technological achievement (Gayton 1930; Bean 1972; Kroeber 1925).

A precise delineation of its use in California is difficult, since societies that use it were no longer fully functioning by the time ethnographers investigated them. The fullest description of the datura-based religion designated toloache cult in the anthropological literature are for the Yokuts (Gayton 1930), Luiseño, and Cahuilla (Strong 1929; C.G. Bu Bois 1908a).

This is apparently a very old religion common to peoples of south central and southern California, while the datura plant itself was known and used (but apparently not in a toloache cult complex) by peoples as far north as the San Francisco Bay region and thence eastward into the Sierra Nevada. . . . .

The use of datura was frequently correlated with leadership positions and almost always with professional orientation or social rank. For example, the Cahuilla páxa . . . was an official whose major role was the administration of the boys' initiation ceremony. He and the shamans (whose assumption of shamanic powers was accomplished through the mediation of datura) were important members of the men's council that controlled the affairs of the tribe. A young man's initiation ceremony was held when a number of uninitiated young men, the accumulated food resources, or the development of internal social stresses stimulated this ruling group to undertake the necessary preparations (Strong 1929; Gayton 1930; Kroeber 1925).

Prior to initiation the young men were separated from their families and taken to a secluded place. After appropriate purification rites, they were given an infusion of datura root, then encouraged to dance until falling into an unconscious state. When they awoke, they were in a trance state in which they saw colorful, symbolic, and emotionally meaningful visions under conditions controlled by the páxa and his assistants. During the ensuing weeks the boys were taught clan songs and dances, and at the end of the week a ground painting depicting cosmological concepts was made and explained. The datura drinking was the esoteric part of longer rites, which varied in detail from group to group. Such ceremonies were the core traits of the toloache religion of the Luiseño-Juaneño, Cahuilla, Kumeyaay, Cupeño, and Gabrielino. Among these groups the ceremonies were performed for all boys, while among their northeastern neighbors, the Serrano, only boys of 'elite' families were initiated (Strong 1929).

Toloache was drunk by shamans as part of most of the religious ceremonies in the southern California tribes; it gave access to sources of power needed for healing, divining, diagnosing, dancing, and singing for long periods; for long hunts; for sharper vision; and for sorcery. Shamans in several groups tested their powers during the Eagle Dance by engaging in a contest to see who could kill the sacred eagle by 'shooting' it with toloache. In these particular instances the toloache appears to have been personified power (Strong 1929; Harrington 1942)."

Another member of the Sustained Action list, Daniel Lawton, is the son of Harry Lawton, an anthropologist and writer who once spent a lot of time on the Cahuilla reservation. Daniel asked his father about Salvador Lopez. He remembered him doing fire-eating ceremonies. He also said that he believed the his wife's was named Alice, and that she only died a few years ago. Dan asked his father if Lopez could have been a viable basis for the don Juan character. Dan reported: "He said the guy was pretty stoic. He'd only answer questions, he wasn't the kind to elaborate much like don Juan does in the books." Nonetheless, as an expert in the use of datura conveniently close to Los Angeles on a reservation where Castaneda's girlfriend at the time, Joanie Barker, was apparently known and trusted, Salvador Lopez looks like a good bet for one of Castaneda's informants on traditional uses of this plant, which helped make Castaneda's first two books ring with a certain degree of ethnological authenticity.