Academic books don't usually become bestsellers, but in 1968, "The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge" by anthropologist Carlos Castaneda was a sensation.
In it the author said he had apprenticed with an old Yaqui shaman, Juan Matus, who inducted him into another state of being with psychotropic drugs such as peyote. Though Castaneda (1925-98) eventually published 12 books and made the cover of Time in 1973, he would be soundly discredited for inconsistencies in his work.
Some of that work has been dusted off and put on display in an exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. As a graduate student at the university, Castaneda put together a collection of masks from the Yaqui people of Sonora, Mexico. Twelve of them are on view in "The Yaqui Masks of Carlos Castaneda" along with five others and accompanying accessories used in Yaqui ceremonies for celebration and commemoration.
These "pahko'ola" masks are made of carved wood, mostly painted in vivid red, white and black, with goat hair added for bushy eyebrows and beards. Sometimes they resemble goats, most important of Yaqui domesticated animals, or monkeys, which were seen as tricksters in the wilderness.
"They're comical, playful," said exhibition curator David Delgado Shorter, associate professor and vice chair of the World Arts and Cultures/Dance department at UCLA. "But is there also something there which may turn on me?"
Shorter, who has done extensive field work with the Yaquis of Sonora, Mexico, acknowledged the problems in Castaneda's books.
"Much of it seems completely fabricated and not based at all in Yaqui traditions," he said. "There are also ways of talking about speech and mannerism that are undeniably Yaqui."
For him, the masks themselves, which would have been very difficult to obtain outside of Mexico in the 1960s, are the clincher.
"It attests he was right there," Shorter said, "in that specific area where he said he was doing field work."