Happy Birthday, Culture Hero!

As we perform this national ritual of homage to our ancestors, I’ve been thinking of Horace Miner’s study of the “Nacirema.” He published an early study of the group and noted the major figure whom we recognize today. In Miner’s words,

The culture of this people [the Nacirema] is still very poorly understood. They 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 Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength-the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided.

I remember a high school sociology teacher who brought Miner’s study in for class discussion. It took a while for us to realize what was going on. If you’re not in on the joke, just remember: the Nacirema are a backwards people.

Read the whole article: Horace Miner, “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” American Anthropologist 58, no. 3 (June 1956): 503–507.

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