American Anthropoligist

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In the 1950’s, anthropologist Horace Miner published an article about a people called the Nacirema. In the article, he examined some of the rituals, beliefs, and behaviors of Nacirema society. Following is an excerpt from his article, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” which originally appeared in the American Anthropoligist.

The Nacirema

The Nacirema are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. According to the Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength-throwing a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the cutting down of a tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided.

Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy which has evolved in a rich natural habitat. While much of the people’s time is devoted to economic pursuits, a large part of the fruits of these labors and a considerable portion of the day are spent in ritual activity…

The fundamental belief underlying the whole system appears to be that the human body is ugly and that its natural tendency is to debility and disease. Incarcerated in such a body, man’s only hope is to avert these characteristics through the use of the powerful influences of ritual and ceremony. Many household has one or more shrines devoted to this purpose…

The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical potions without which no native believes he could live. Theses preparations are secured from a variety of specialized practitioners. The most powerful of these is the medicine men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative potions for their clients, but decide to what the ingredients should be and then write them down in an ancient secret language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men and by the herbalist who, for another gift, provide the required charm…

The Nacirema have an almost pathological horror and fascination with the mouth, the condition of which is believed to have a supernatural influence on all social relationships. Were it not for the rituals of the mouth, they believe that their teeth would fall out, their gums bleed, their jaws shrink, their friends desert them, and their lovers reject them…

The daily ritual performed by everyone includes a mouth-rite…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 addition to the private mouth-rite, the people seek out a holy-mouth-man once or twice a year. These practitioners have an impressive set of paraphernalia, consisting of a variety of augers, awls, probes and prods. The use of these objects in the exorcism of the evils of the mouth involves almost unbelievable ritual torture of the client. The holy-mouth-man opens the client’s mouth, and using the above mentioned tools, enlarges any holes which decay may have created in the teeth. Magical materials are put into these holes. If there are no naturally occurring holes in the teeth, large amounts of teeth gouged out so that the supernatural substance can be applied. In the clients view, the purpose of these ministrations is to arrest decay and to draw friends. The extremely sacred and traditional character of the rite is evident in the fact that the natives return to the holy-mouth-man year after year, despite the fact that their teeth continue to decay.

The Nacirema

If the story of the Nacirema seems familiar, it is. Nacirema is American spelled backwards. It is a story of Americans (specifically brushing teeth and going to the dentist) told from an outsider’s viewpoint. People have a tendency to see other cultures’ customs as unusual or weird, when they seem normal to those that practice that culture. For example, someone from an Amazon tribe may find American culture bizarre.
1. What are the following items from the story?

  • box or chest

  • hog hairs

  • holy mouth man

  • auger

  • magical material put in tooth holes

2. Create a short article about an American custom, but write it from an outsider’s viewpoint. Take a normal everyday event, but describe it as though you have never witnessed such an event before. Try to explain why people are participating in the event.

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