Transcending Ordinary Reality

The ritual use of Datura inoxia in boys' puberty rites of the southern California Cahuilla has been described by several anthropologists (e.g. Kroeber, 1908; Hooper, 1920; Strong, 1929, and, most recently, Bean, 1972); the most complete account is that of William Duncan Strong (1929: 173-175), who noted that the Cahuilla regarded Datura as a great shaman with whom they could communicate in the course of their ceremonies. There were special manet songs connected with the Datura rituals which only the shamans could understand, because they were not in the everyday Cahuilla tongue but in a special esoteric "ocean language" addressed to the shamans and supernatural beings that lived on the floor of the sea.

An extensive discussion of what has survived of the multiple meanings and uses of Datura among the modern Cahuilla, whose language belongs to the Shoshonean branch of Uto-Aztecan and who are historically related not only to their Shoshonean-speaking neighbors but also to the Hopi of Arizona, and, more distantly, to the Huichols, the Cora, and other speakers of Uto-Aztecan tongues in Mesoamerica, can be found in a recent work on Cahuilla ethno-botany by anthropologist Lowell J. Bean and Mrs. Katherine Siva Saubel, a member of the tribal council of Los Coyote Cahuilla Reservation and herself a noted authority on the traditions and culture of her people (Bean and Saubel, 1972). Apart from its crucial role in boys' initiation rites, which resemble those of the Luiseno, Gabrieleno and other desert and coastal tribes of southern California, the authors note (pp. 61-62) that Datura afforded the puul (shaman) a means of transcending ordinary reality and coming into contact with specific guardian spirits, as well as enabling him to go on magical flights to Otherworlds or transform himself into certain animals, such as the mountain lion or eagle. Such flights and transformations in the Datura trance were a necessary and routine activity of shamans, for such purposes as bringing back information about the Upper- and Underworld, visiting the dead, or retrieving lost or strayed souls.

Datura also played an important role in native medicine. As among the Zuni and Aztecs, the plant was employed by Cahuilla shamans in the form of a paste or ointment as a highly effective pain killer in setting broken or dislocated bones, alleviating localized pain, and even relieving toothache. Depending on the effect desired, the Indians commonly used the root in a drink, generally smoked the leaves, and crushed both roots and leaves with other parts of the plant and mixed them into a medicinal paste.

At the same time, the authors stress that the Cahuilla are well aware of the very real dangers in using a plant that may cause serious mental disorientation, disorders in locomotor activities, acute cardiac symptoms endangering heart functions, and other severe physiological problems ranging from temporary psychosis to death. Despite their superior knowledge, even some shamans refrained from Datura use, preferring other techniques to achieve contact with the supernatural. All the Cahuilla who discussed Datura with them. Bean and Saubel write (p. 60),

... stressed that the plant is unpredictable and warned against its use by the casual experimenter.

No idle warning: in the past few years, the authors note, several young people in southern California have died after experimenting with Datura, and many others have required hospitalization.

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