David G. Barton – C.G. Jung and the Indigenous Psyche


C.G. Jung and the Indigenous Psyche: Two encounters

David G. Barton
Department of Humanities, Northern New Mexico College, USA


In The Lament of the Dead, James Hillman quotes Foucault as saying there are two ways to escape ‘the box of contemporary thinking’. One path lies through erudition, the other through the indigenous experience. While the history of Jung’s ideas has been thoroughly explored, we understand little about his encounters with indigenous people in the American Southwest.

For example, the literature on his visit to Taos Pueblo is riddled with misleading information. Part of the problem begins with Jung’s own confusion regarding his contact at Taos with Antonio Mirabal. Not only did Jung wrongly believe that Mirabal was an ‘Indian chief’; he misspelled and mistranslated his Tiwa name, Ochwiay Biano. Although the encounter could be described (at one level) as superficial, Jung refers to it as one of the most important experiences of his life.

This paper will explore what Jung seems to have encountered in Taos, and the ways his experience were orchestrated by the unseen presence of others (including Mabel Dodge Lujan, D.H. Lawrence, and Jaime de Angulo). Archival records and news accounts from the 1920s show that although Jung imagined he was meeting face to face with a ‘primitive’ who still lived in the world of ‘participation mystique’, Mirabal was a gifted Native American impresario who later visited one American president and turned down an invitation to visit a second.

I argue that the complex of colonialism surrounding Jung’s relationship with Mirabal has infected subsequent encounters between the Jungian tradition and indigenous people.


In his book-length conversation on ‘The Red Book’, James Hillman suggests two paths out of the box of modern thinking: rising up toward erudition or ‘moving down’ into the indigen­ous. Erudition describes some, but not all, of C.G. Jung’s work: the elaborate footnotes, rambling digressions, the untranslated Greek phrases, and obscure references. As Hillman suggests, this ‘upward’ movement, this movement into erudition, can be an attempt to free ourselves from reductionism, from the flattening of the world created by the analytical mind. Erudition complicates the world, reveling in its complexities and casting us back into the ‘strangeness’ of ideas (2013, pp. 187-188).

Despite his flights of erudition, Jung is better characterized by the second path, the falling ‘down into the indigenous’ – the preposition down simultaneously suggesting both a cultural judgment (indigenous as negative) and a return to an older, richer mythology (indigenous as positive). Down signifies lower, less developed, the childhood of the historical past. It is both a place of inferiority and, like the underworld, a seat of wisdom. Although this downward pull is found throughout Jung’s work, I want to focus first on the contact with indigenous people – the most important being Antonio Mirabal, whom Jung called Mountain Lake.

As Jung suggested, the meeting with Mirabal was a turning-point in Jung’s life, a touchstone; but it was also a misencounter. Mirabal touched him profoundly, but Jung was also partly talking to a reflection of his own creation, a reflection that was blurred by the cultural situation -or what we now call colonialism.

Jung’s meeting with Mirabal occurred in January of 1925. Steam-shipping to America at the request of Edith and Harold McCormick, his American benefactors, Jung arrived in New York City on 22 December for a three-week whirlwind tour of Chicago, Louisiana, and the American Southwest. At the Grand Canyon he was joined by a gang of Califor­nians, including the brilliant Jaime de Angulo, an anthropologist Jung had been cultivat­ing. De Angulo later renounced all things Jungian, but at the time he was still both an avid enthusiast and sharp-tongued critic, telling Jung in letters that he and Freud were ‘wrong from beginning to end’ when it came to understanding ‘primitives’ (De Angulo, 1995, p.173). Jung delighted in the critical exchanges, even when De Angulo challenged him, and he offered to fund some of De Angulo’s anthropological research.

From the Grand Canyon the two drove cross country with Fowler McCormick, the grandson of John D.Rockefeller, Sr., arriving in Taos on 5 January 1925, where they stood in the snow to watch a Buffalo dance (Taos News, p. 1). They appear to have spent two weeks in Northern New Mexico, and De Angulo arranged for Jung to have at least two conversations with Antonio Mirabal, the Taos Indian who had been helping De Angulo build a written lexicon of the Tiwa language. Neither Jung nor any of his biographers noted the delicious irony that Jung stayed at the Columbus Hotel on the main plaza in Taos. He had also crossed the Atlantic on an ocean liner named The Columbus, a curious doubling that Jung uncharac­teristically ignored. Jung did not note the irony because he was still only dimly aware of the colonial underpinnings of many of his ideas, nor did he yet appreciate the animosity Native Americans felt (and still feel) toward the man who brought Europeans to America.

From a charitable point of view, Jung’s burning desire to visit an Indian reservation could be seen as a heroic attempt to witness indigenous people on their own terms, but like many tourists much of what he ‘learned’ in his two days at Taos was simply wrong. On the personal level, however, the trip proved decisive. Standing on the fifth floor of the Taos Pueblo in the January frost, he conversed with Antonio Mirabal ‘as he had rarely been able to talk with a European’. As they looked across the Taos plateau, Mirabal spoke of Father Sun, who provided life, and of the sacred mountain, from which all life came, and of the importance of the kiva rituals which helped Sun cross the sky, telling Jung that ‘If we were to cease practicing our religion, in ten years the sun would no longer rise’ (Jung, 1963, pp. 246-253).

Mirabal also talked openly about how he felt about the white culture, starting with his perception about the features of the white man: thin lips, sharp noses, and cruel disposi­tions, giving them the appearance of birds of prey. White people were restless, Mirabal told Jung, as if they were searching for what they could not find. ‘We do not understand them. We think they are mad’ he famously told Jung, adding that ‘whites believed they thought with their heads’, when everyone at the Pueblo knew that thinking comes from the heart (pp. 247-248).

The comments appear to have been directed personally at Jung, as a man who still thought with his head and who certainly seemed to be searching for something he could not find. Whatever the case, Jung fell into a deep meditation -one that has been described not only as a moment of profound psychological confrontation with himself but as an oceanic feeling, a blurring of the distinction between self and Other that had previously been ascribed only to ‘primitives’: participation mystique (Bern­stein, 2006, p. x).

We may never fully understand the communion that Jung felt with Mirabal, but it’s hard to believe that he did not associate those conversations with those he had been having in ‘The Red Book’ for more than 10 years, in which he is instructed by archaic figures of his own psyche; or with his ‘Big Dream’ of 1913, in which he colluded ‘with a brown-skin savage man’ to assassinate the Germanic hero Siegfried, with whom Jung identified (Jung, 1963, p. 180). In Taos, the Indians mirrored the primitive man he had experienced in himself.

Almost 10 years later, in a letter he wrote to Mirabal, Jung was still attempting to under­stand his mystical experiences at Taos, asking Mirabal (somewhat inappropriately) to reveal the secrets of the kiva. ‘Any information you can give me about your religious life is always welcome to me’, Jung wrote. ‘I shall keep all that information to myself, but it is most helpful to me, as I am busy exploring the truth in which Indians believe. It always impressed me as a great truth, but one hears so little about it, and particularly over here, where there are no Indians’.

We will never know whether he truly intended to keep the secrets of the kiva, but there is no question that he found such knowledge vital. In his letter to Mirabal he added that he could find ‘no interesting religious things’ in Europe, ‘only the remnants of old things’ that no longer carried vitality (Jung, 1984, pp. 20-21). As a member of the Taos Pueblo, Mirabal was forbidden from revealing the religious secrets of the tribe, and he had a great deal of experience in guarding the secrets of the kiva from prying colonial eyes.

The tragedy is that Jung got so much wrong on his trip, and the misunderstandings that he put down in his autobiography have been repeated endlessly. Mirabal was not an Indian chief, nor did he hold any office in the tribe; and he almost certainly was not a Hopi elder, as he was a relatively young man who had never lived at Hopi. His Indian name was not Ochwiay Biano, as Jung reported (that name is missing the proper Tiwa suf­fixes), and Jung mischaracterized the English translation of his Indian name as Mountain Lake, perhaps as a result of a simplification made by Mirabal himself. The actual name is more complicated, suggesting one who is on the way to a pilgrimage at a body of water (perhaps Blue Lake, a sacred site on Taos Mountain).

Finally, Mirabal was not the simple, isolated Indian that Jung imagined but an intelli­gent, well-traveled impresario who had become an intimate friend of D.H. Lawrence and other artists in Taos. Within a few years Mirabal would become a national political force in Indian relations, refusing an invitation to meet with President Herbert Hoover, whom he despised (apparently because of his policies toward Indians). Later Mirabal tra­veled to New York to advise Franklin Roosevelt on Indian policy (Sheboygan Press, 1933).

Although those facts are easily discoverable through a quick newspaper search, appar­ently no one (including Jung’s biographers) has bothered to find out who Mirabal actually was, or to contact his family, no doubt because both readers and scholars unconsciously preferred to see him as one of Jung’s ‘primitives’, and thus a man without a past in the Western historical sense. Much of Jung’s life has been documented in great detail, but not his trip to Taos.

To correct the historical record, we need to be aware that Mirabal was an intimate of Tony Lujan and his wife, Mabel Dodge Lujan, one of the most influential arts patrons of the early twentieth century. Having lived in Florence, New York, and Santa Barbara, Dodge relocated to Taos to found a literary colony that was dedicated to the rejuvenation of Western society. It was Dodge who brought D.H. Lawrence to Taos, as well as the anthro­pologist Jaime de Angulo, scheming behind the scenes to bring Jung as well. In a letter to Dodge, de Angulo had written that ‘the white man must preserve the Indian, not as a matter of justice or brotherly charity, but in order to save his own neck (Rudnick, 1933), p. 1951) a sentiment that Dodge shared completely.

Read the whole paper (PDF) below.