New York Times
September 17, 2003


PEYOTE: the divine cactus

ALBUQUERQUE -- In the 1960's and 70's, Carlos Castaneda captivated millions of readers with his tales of self-discovery under the influence of peyote, jimson weed and other hallucinogens.

His writings have always been controversial among anthropologists. After all, he claimed to have flown and grown a beak, among other things, in his transformation into a sorcerer under the tutelage of Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian shaman he said he met at a bus station in 1960 in Nogales, Ariz., while an anthropology graduate student.

But rarely has the profession witnessed anything as fierce as a feud between two anthropologists - one a former associate of Mr. Castaneda, the other a harsh critic - that has now reached the New Mexico Supreme Court.

What began as a disagreement over the authenticity of research into peyote rituals has evolved into a take-no-prisoners legal battle between the two experts on the Huichol Indians of northern Mexico. The court is expected to rule soon on whether a jury should hear each one's accusations that the other is out to destroy his reputation and career.

The two experts, Dr. Peter T. Furst, a former chairman of the anthropology department at the State University of New York at Albany, and Dr. Jay Courtney Fikes, a professor of anthropology at Yeditepe University in Istanbul, have been sparring since the 1980's. That was when Dr. Fikes began questioning the accuracy and legitimacy of Dr. Furst's reports on rituals among the Huichols.

Dr. Fikes, now 51, said that Dr. Furst and another anthropologist, Dr. Barbara Meyerhoff, helped Mr. Castaneda fabricate descriptions of rituals. He accused Dr. Furst of exaggerating or misrepresenting practices like waterfall jumping and peyote enemas, eventually organizing the accusations into a 1993 book, "Carlos Castaneda: Academic Opportunism and the Psychedelic Sixties."

Those tales, he says, allowed Mr. Castaneda to become a literary celebrity and Dr. Furst and Dr. Meyerhoff to advance their careers. (Dr. Meyerhoff died in 1985 after teaching at the University of Southern California.)

Dr. Furst, who knew Mr. Castaneda when the two were anthropology graduate students at the University of California at Los Angeles, responded with lengthy letters to potential employers and publishers of Dr. Fikes, ridiculing his thinking and credentials, calling him "paranoid" and an "overprivileged white anthropologist."

The dispute has brought renewed attention to the already shaky foundations of Mr. Castaneda's best-selling accounts of shamanism, which made him a cult figure - the subject of a cover story in Time magazine in 1973 that explored the popular fascination with Don Juan Matus, hallucinogenic mushrooms and the mind-bending influence of the Mexican desert.

Starting with "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge" in 1968, Mr. Castaneda's 10 books, which include "Journey to Ixtlan" and "A Separate Reality," have sold eight million copies in 17 languages. Several remain in print and available in the New Age sections of many bookstores. Mr. Castaneda died in Los Angeles in April 1998. His life was so secret that his obituary did not appear for two months.

"It's really unfortunate that an argument like this has reached this level," said Dr. Kathleen R. Martin, chairwoman of the ethics committee of the American Anthropological Association and a professor at Florida International University. "Anthropologists reach different conclusions all the time about the people they study, but it's rare for this kind of animosity to develop."

Dr. Furst, 81, who is retired and living in Santa Fe, remains the more prominent of the two men within the anthropology profession after a long career in American universities. Dr. Fikes, on the other hand, said he had been unable to find work in recent years in the United States, choosing instead to teach anthropology in Turkey.

"I've suffered a lot at Furst's hand; it's like being blacklisted," said Dr. Fikes, who won a limited victory this year when the New Mexico Court of Appeals reversed a previous decision to dismiss the case. "In the meantime, the Castaneda legacy is still working its magic."

Indeed, Mr. Castaneda's influence may have waned over the years but it never disappeared. By the time of Mr. Castaneda's death from liver cancer five years ago, believers in his writings had even begun to practice Tensegrity, a series of meditation movements that Mr. Castaneda described as helpful in attaining higher consciousness. Still, many things about him are in question, including the year and place of his birth, his marital status and the authenticity of his work.

Depending on when he was talking and to whom, Mr. Castaneda sometimes said he was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in 1935, although immigration records indicated he was born in Cajamarca, Peru, in 1923. Unsuccessful efforts to find Don Juan Matus in the Sonoran Desert covering parts of northern Mexico and Arizona led some experts to question whether he ever existed, or whether Mr. Castaneda based him on a composite of different individuals.

Into these allegations of fantasy and deceit came the quarrel between Dr. Furst and Dr. Fikes, which has been in New Mexico's legal system since Dr. Fikes sued Dr. Furst in 1996 for defamation, arguing that his rival had embarked on a quest to discredit him to publishing houses and universities.

These efforts by Dr. Furst are not disputed. Reacting to advance galleys of Dr. Fikes's book on Mr. Castaneda in 1992, Dr. Furst warned the editor of Madison Books of Lanham, Md., against publishing the book, calling into question Dr. Fikes's qualifications as an anthropologist and threatening to sue for defamation of character and slander.

"It is about what I expected - a tissue of undocumented suspicions, allegations, ludicrous 'hypotheses,' half-truths and misrepresentations of the facts, events and relationships, all in line with his consuming obsession with some deep, dark conspiracy centered on Carlos Castaneda and U.C.L.A.," Dr. Furst wrote.

Madison Books subsequently declined to publish the book, which Dr. Fikes eventually published in Canada in 1993. In another letter written in 1995, Dr. Furst sought to convince the director of a proposed Huichol assistance program at the University of New Mexico that Dr. Fikes was an unworthy choice as cultural anthropologist for the project, calling Dr. Fikes a "sloppy researcher" and a "lousy anthropologist."

"You are perfectly free to share this letter with Fikes," Dr. Furst said. "Having been at the receiving end of his unhealthy suspicions, his fanaticism, his disrespect, and his paranoid fantasies for so many years, I am fresh out of good will or charity."

The Huichol project never materialized, inciting Dr. Fikes to sue Dr. Furst for lost income of about $45,000 in addition to unspecified damages related to a loss of professional opportunities in the United States.

In an interview this weekend, Dr. Furst said he had had negligible, if any, influence on Mr. Castaneda and added that Dr. Fikes's attacks had "little grounding in reality."

"What's disgusting is that I've been a victim of Fikes all these years and my victimizer turns around and sues me," Dr. Furst said.

His lawyer, Michael Brennan of Albuquerque, said he hoped the State Supreme Court would soon put an end to the dispute.

"Fikes has set out on a quixotic approach," said Mr. Brennan, though he added that he had advised his client to stop writing letters about Dr. Fikes.

"That's not something I would have done," he said.


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