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The Dancing Truth

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By Jack Feuer

Published Jul 1, 2010 10:00 AM


art

Shorter's book includes the work of Yaqui artist Mario Martinez. Pictured here: Martinez's Talking Tree.

A seeker meets an ancient Yaqui shaman named Don Juan Matus in the desert. Mystical truth is shown to the hero through hallucinogenic drugs. And the mysteries of the universe are revealed.

What a trip.

Too bad it probably never happened. Not the drug part, anyway.

Go Native

See photos from David Delgado Shorter's adventures with the Yaqui, discover his research and learn more about his new book. Visit davidshorter.com.

So says David Delgado Shorter, associate professor in UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures, about the generation-defining, bestselling, iconic — and controversial — stories by Carlos Castaneda '62, M.A. '64, Ph.D. '73.

Castaneda's books have sold 8 million copies in 17 languages since The Teachings of Don Juan was first published in 1968. But they spawned a firestorm of protest and criticism because of discrepancies, inaccuracies and other suspicions of exactly when, where and how Castaneda learned of the information in his books.

That's what Shorter suspects may have happened with the nonexistent Yaqui drug connection.

"Castaneda's books became benchmarks of New Age thinking and his representations fueled critiques about the way anthropologists and New Ageists link native people with drug culture," he notes. "The Yaqui are fascinating because they were the alternative way of understanding the world at a moment when there was a general suspicion of the government and the Western way of being ... but no psychotropic plants are indigenous to Yaqui areas."

Shorter grew up close to and among native people in New Mexico and has lived with the Yaqui (or Yoeme, as they call themselves) off and on for 15 years. He also is the author of a book about the Yaqui's way of knowledge, the recently published We Shall Dance Our Truth. And he underscores that while the drug link is unfortunate as well as inaccurate, there is, in truth, much to admire about Yoeme ideas about life.

"They maintain active relationships with plants, animals and the land in a way that's inseparable from how they know themselves," Shorter explains. "We Shall Dance Our Truth is primarily about that way of knowing the world. Academically, it's about understanding how that way of knowing the world affects how you represent yourself to others."

In fact, how "the other" is represented in general in American society is a keen interest of the Bruin scholar. At UCLA, he also teaches a course on aliens, psychics and ghosts.

"The way people think about ancient cultures is the same way they think about the future, and myths, other times and other spaces," Shorter concludes. "They are all easily misrepresented as well."

Far out, indeed.

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