The customs of the Nacirema, a still very poorly understood tribal group, came to the attention of anthropologists about forty years ago. They are a North American group living in the territory roughly between the Cree and the Tarahumare tribal groups. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east.
In the mid-seventies a group of anthropologists formalized the studies of this very strange and powerful culture. I’ve dusted off an old copy of their studies from my shelf to remind myself how this tribe became so powerful and, if they have changed much? You may rightly ask the question, “Why study the exotic tribes like the Nacirema?” I think there are things we can learn about ourselves that are easier learned from a distance. Looking at other cultures helps us to compare and contrast our own cultures. For example, like us, Nacirema culture is characterized by a highly developed market economy, which has evolved from having a rich natural habitat.
Here are some of the anthropologists observations concerning this strange tribe.
… despite diversities origin, tradition, and economic level, there is surprisingly conformity in language, diet, hygiene, dress, basic skills, land use, community settlement, recreation and other activities. The people share a rather small range of moral, political, economic, and social attitudes, being divided in opinion chiefly by their denominational and occupational interest.…
Despite their incredibly diverse beginning, Nacirema society has been built on the myth of homogeneity, discarding all minority and divergent views from the historical record so that only the higher classes of their society, (noted by their fair skin), get the credit for societal accomplishments. Often, those who are not considered to be part of the dominant group are treated unjustly, discriminated against economically, imprisoned, and even randomly killed with little concern from the dominant culture. The upper class among the Nacirema also enjoys certain economic and class privileges that the others don’t share.
The high value placed on such comforts has caused industries to be geared to produce ever-greater quantities and improved versions. Nacirema [sic] seem to feel they have a “right” to such amenities.
Nacirema society has produced incredible amounts of extraneous products, producing way beyond their own needs. In fact, the comfort level of this society has far exceeded most other similar groups. There is also an apparent lack of concern about how this mass production and mass consumerism affects others in the world. The result has introduced a worldwide epidemic of human slavery needed simply to supply the wants of the Nacirema but, because the production was so prolific, they understood it to mean that their divinity favored and blessed them above all others.
A special characteristic of thinking, fully reflected in Nacirema [sic] ways, is that of making twofold judgments based on principle….A situation is assigned to a category held high, thus providing a justification for positive effort, or to one held low, with justification for rejection, avoidance or other negative action. Two-fold judgments seem to be the rule in Nacirema [sic] life: moral-immoral, legal-illegal, right-wrong, sin-virtue, success-failure, clean-dirty, civilized-primitive, practical-impractical, introvert-extrovert, secular-religious, Christian-pagan.
This kind of thinking seems to force Nacirema [sic] into positions of exclusiveness. If one position is accepted, the other must be rejected. There is little possibility of keeping opposite or even parallel ideas in one’s thinking pattern. This is not the case in other cultures. Judging people and actions as absolutely right or wrong may have been a source of considerable strength in Nacirema [sic] history but it has also created pitfalls, particularly in the way it has influenced Nacirema [sic] in their relationship with other peoples…And the greatest difficulties will occur if the outsider assumes that other people’s basis of judgment is the same as his, or even that proper conduct will be based on moral rather than other kinds of principles.
The twofold judgment is, perhaps, the most striking cultural value among the Nacirema. The very basis of the two-fold judgment is deeply rooted in this cultural value and it has produced a lack of tolerance of others revealed in their laws, but particularly in their religion, thus creating a moral dualism. Sometimes the twofold judgment is described as an ‘either/or’ rather than a ‘both/and’ kind of thinking. Many other peoples have no difficulty holding two seemingly opposite concepts together with equal value but this cultural value, seemingly is found in all their thinking, including “moralizing,” which classifies all action as either good or bad, their own position almost always seen as the morally superior one. Such a morally high position has been necessary in Nacirema history.
In essence, Nacirema expansion through imperialism needed justification, placing the once indigenous population’s beliefs and practices on the wrong side of moral judgments. Exploitation and colonization of the former indigenous peoples and their land was justified because the beliefs and practices of the indigene were seen to be on the other side of the moral divide, they were “bad.”
Humanity Above Nature
Up to now, the Nacirema [sic] has attempted to conquer nature. It has been something to overcome, to improve, to tear down and rebuild in a better way. They have tried to “break the soil,” to “harness” the natural resources, to treat the natural environment like a domestic animal. They have divided the plants and the animals into categories of useful and harmful. Harmful plants are weeds and harmful animals are “varmints”—the first to be uprooted or poisoned and the second to be trapped, shot, or poisoned…It must be admitted that many of the achievements of the Nacirema [sic] are due to this conquering attitude toward nature. The enormous agricultural productivity is one such achievement, although credit must also go to the fact that there were large expanses of fertile land available.
This conquering attitude toward nature appears to rest on at least three assumptions: that the universe is mechanistic, that humanity is the master, and that human beings are qualitatively different from all other forms of life. Specifically, Nacirema [sic] credit themelves with a special inner consciousness, a soul, for which they do not give other creatures credit.
This worldview of material dualism is presently, perhaps the most costly to the Nacirema themselves and to rest of the world, (though they hardly admit it). Today, the activity and influence of the Nacirema has cost them dearly by depleting earth’s vital natural resources. The verdict is still out concerning whether or not the great Nacirema experiment has crossed the brink of recovery or if the planet can ultimately be saved from total ruin. Unfortunately, little hope remains since the Nacirema deny the possibility that all creation has spirit or soul and therefore, do not understand themselves in a connected relationship to all creation.
Through an apt understanding of values among the Nacirema we can see how they have got to where they are now. The results of their homogeneous myth of superiority, their confidence in material wealth (which made them believe they were favored by their divinity), their extreme over confidence in a dualistic morality based on the Twofold Judgment, coupled with a conquest mentality based upon material dualism, (they hardly ever live without war), has placed the Nacirema at the center of the world stage and now at the center of our concerns.
As Americans, we should be concerned about this strange group. We should try to learn from their mistakes. We should deconstruct the dualism in their worldview and make sure that the same problems do not affect our lives, laws and religion. In fact, if you haven’t figured it out by now, as an American, we need only to look in the mirror and see that every A-m-e-r-i-c-a-n is simply a N-a-c-i-r-e-m-a spelled backwards.
Quotes taken from:
Arensberg, Conrad M. and Arthur H. Niehoff. 1971 “American Cultural Values,” in Conrad M. Arensberg and Arthur H. Niehoff, Introducing social change. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.
Spradley, James P. and Michael A. Rynkiewich. 1975. The Nacirema: Readings on American culture. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown and Company.