Emily Articulated: The Nacirema Tribe

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

One of the first groups of people I studied in my Introduction to Anthropology course in college was the Nacirema, a tribe of humans still alive and prevalent in North America today. The original literature on their culture and customs was an ethnological article by Horace Miner, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” researched and composed in 1956. 

Emily Erickson.

Miner’s research, published in the journal American Anthropologist, focused on the ritualistic behaviors of the Nacirema, often finding their daily routines barbaric and confusing. 

“While much of the time is devoted to people’s economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity,” he wrote.

These rituals are founded in the Naciremas’ belief that the human body is ugly and infected with disease and decay, needing regular modification and cleansing to achieve a desirable status. Because of the pervasiveness of these attitudes, and the necessity for regular ablution, most members of the Nacirema tribe have dedicated shrines in their homes for the daily completion of these cleansing and modification ceremonies.

The staple of their body modification rituals is the use of what can be roughly translated as a “magic medicine man,” to whom people of the Nacirema ascribe the highest of distinctions. This reverence is most noted by a visit to a medicine man being rewarded with little charms and potions, kept on display in home shrines and visited by the people one, if not multiple times a day.

For other surprising ceremonies, Nacirema men use sharp blades to scrape the sides of their faces, a ritual most regularly performed in the morning light. Also appalling, and completed most often by women, is the act of sticking one’s head in an oven multiple times a year to enhance the beauty of their hair. Finally, regarding body modification and ablution, is the act completed multiple times a day by all Nacirema people regardless of age: the ritual of the mouth-rite.

As Miner explained, “The ritual consists of inserting a small bundle of hog hairs into the mouth, along with certain magical powders, and then moving the bundle in a highly formalized series of gestures.”

In these acts, the Nacirema people believe they are making themselves more desirable to potential partners and correcting their body’s natural state of ugliness and decay. 

Since Miner’s report in 1956, these ceremonies, rituals and acts of worship have expanded, adding further layers of complexity to their strange way of life.

In the past few decades, members of the Nacirema tribe have adopted new idols, so important to the culture, despite their small size, that they are carried with each person wherever they go. It is observed that these idols — which using a magical power are able to manifest images and words on a constant basis — are regularly and obsessively worshiped, as the Nacirema believe that they are connected to a holy energy source and are the foundation for a perfected method of interaction.

These new idols appear to have permeated the culture so much, that they have their own designated shrines, often in the most prized and prioritized rooms of Nacirema homes. The idols are placed in the shrines while the people sleep, thus replenishing the idols’ stock of the mother energy.

Finally, regarding the bizarre and appalling social organization of the tribe, is the ever-growing rift between two distinct sects within the Nacirema people. Although everyone in the tribe considers themselves Nacirema, they believe in a great difference between the two sects, often ascribing demonistic characteristics to members of the opposite sect.

The two sects fight openly and aggressively, finding so much distinction between themselves and the other that they continue to distance themselves from a peaceful, well-functioning society. 

The tribe seems so dedicated to establishing hierarchy and division, that its members even go so far as to use the physical characteristics of each person to establish further — and dangerous — alienation and distinction.

In studying the Nacirema people, and their strange and off-putting culture, we can learn a lot about ourselves and our own way of life. When we put our patterns, beliefs and social systems under a microscope, we learn that most foreign ways of life aren’t so foreign.

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