The strange case of the Nacirema: from bodily rituals to medicine men

Micaela Hoadley, Contributing Writer

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     There is a heavily studied group of people among anthropologists called the Nacirema, a poorly understood North American group that live between the Canadian Cree and the Tarahumare of Mexico. Their traditions and culture have an origin so complex that anthropologists are unsure of where they came from other than the eastern part of the Nacirema territory.

    They have some traditions that may appear strange. In the “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” by Horace Miner, he examines the traditions that pertain to beauty, medicinal practices, and health.
Most of the Nacirema spend their day tending to the fruits of their labor in their rich habitat. Despite the severe focus of labor and production, they are concerned with bodily image at the end of the day.
Even when these people are done with their labors, they focus on activities that improve the human physique. The Nacirema believe that the human body is naturally ugly unless modifications to it are made.

     The body modification rituals this group participates in take place in the household and there are even many rooms dedicated to different forms of improvement.

     Each of these shrine rooms contains at least one box that is built into the wall. In here are potions and minerals that the Nacirema use to cure illnesses, both general and specific. The specific function of each potion and material are sometimes forgotten but they are not removed from the box out of fear that they may be needed later on.

     As a result, the boxes in these shrine rooms are often overflowing. Miner writes that the Nacirema wash themselves with holy water found in basins beneath the potion boxes.

    However, the most peculiar aspect of the Nacirema culture is their allegiance to the “holy-mouth-men”. The holy-mouth-men are members of the Nacirema who specialize in maintaining the cleanliness of their people’s mouths. Despite the allegiance, most of the Nacirema people have a terrific fear of the mouth men despite the bi-yearly visits they make.

     Without the visits to the holy-mouth-men, the Nacirema believe that their gums will bleed and teeth will rot, causing them to become social outcasts of their communities. Their expectations of beauty are so extravagant that the hygiene of their gums determine beauty. By the direction of the holy-mouth-men, the Nacirema perform a daily maintenance on their mouth by sweeping it with hog hairs.
The other peculiar practice that is found among tribes of all sizes of the Nacirema are those of the medicine men. They provide their services in a structure called a latipso. These medicine men are assisted by maidens who make close relations with those who are sick.

     Despite the comforting hand of the maidens, children and many adults are often afraid of these latipsos because many people die there. If not, it is a place of severe illness and often pain from the medicine man’s treatments. These treatments by the medicine man are expensive, and many Nacireman families cannot afford them. Often, treatment is denied if payment cannot be made, so access to the medicine man is a privilege. But even after admittance, each treatment requires more and more payments and offerings.

     Upon entering these strange latipsos, the Nacirema are often disgraced, as there is not much privacy; they must strip their clothes and be tagged with numbers of identification, becoming dehumanized.

     Family members become uncomfortable with the acts that they have to see their loved one experience. Other than lying on a hard bed, there is not much else to be done that what interactions family members and friends bring if they are even allowed entrance. Nights are often sleepless with the persistence of tending maidens and noises of others suffering in the latipsos. Despite this painful stay in latipsos, people continue to have faith in medicine men even though there is never a guarantee of them being cured.

     Outside of latipsos, medicine men can give women magical potions to prevent pregnancy, make people thin while other ritual make certain parts of the body large to aid in defining beauty.
Overall the Nacirema are an interesting group of people who are fascinated with their beauty ideals and will go to extreme lengths to achieve them.

Micaela is a sophmore anthropology major with a minor in biology. She is the vice president of anthropology club and a senator in CGA. She is a contributing writer fot The Voice.