In the American Anthropologist of June 1956, noted anthropologist Horace Mitchell Miner (1912-1993)
described the bizarre “body rituals” of a relatively primitive people known as the Nacirema. Well into the
1990s, the classic description remained a staple of undergraduate anthropology courses, where I first
Traveling recently by automobile from the wilds of Montana to the wilds of Georgia, I was reminded of
the Nacirema and decided to interact with some of them, dangerous as that has become. They still live
on the same territory described by Miner. Despite adding a veneer of modern technology to their
relatively primitive ways, their body rituals and use of magical potions has changed but little. They are
much more numerous now than in the early postwar period despite relying on their magic now more
than ever, but their fortune may soon reverse.
Perhaps the biggest change in the Nacirema since Miner chronicled them is the devolution of their two
great political factions. In Miner’s time, and for long afterward, one faction wanted to control most
aspects of the daily lives of Naciremans, while the other wanted to control all aspects.
Today, both factions want total control but members of one faction believe that the “nation,” as they term
their territory, has never been better, while the other believes that it needs to be reformed root and
branch. Various smaller factions also vie for attention but receive little because the great talisman
Demos holds that only the great factions matter. To follow the magic of one of the lesser factions is to
waste one’s life, or so it is made to appear.
Both great factions are, of course, led by elders of legendary antiquity. Those from the smaller factions
and other outsiders find most of the elders comically ludicrous in their pronouncements but members
of the great factions hold them in great esteem and repeat their mantras whenever and wherever they
can. Buffoonery, they believe, magically transforms into wisdom through mere repetition. Of course
such magic is extremely weak tea, so both of the great factions appear ready to splinter into pieces at
The faction that thinks that Nacirema has always been a horrible place is animated by a great many
young people who spent years of their life imbibing deeply of a metaphorical liquid resembling Kool-Aid.
They show great disdain for their ancestors, even desecrating graven images depicting their hoary
exploits. They also disdain their own elders who do not repeat their youthful mantras with sufficient
verve or, even worse, offer up antiquated mantras of their own. Their Chosen One barely speaks when
he leaves his dwelling, which seldom occurs.
The Chosen One of the faction that believes that Nacirema is better now than ever before is technically
the putative nation’s Supreme Elder but his leadership is largely ineffectual, partly because of the
machinations of the other great faction, partly due to the machinations within his own faction, and partly
due to his own inadequacies. Many from all factions have asked him to step down but he refuses to do
so because apparently he has nothing else to do even though he claims to possess great riches.
The not-so-novel coronavirus has exacerbated the fissures in almost all the factions, great and small.
Most Nacirema, being the relatively primitive, un- or rather ill-educated people they are, at first believed
that the virus could be “defeated” by staying indoors, unless an elder said it was necessary to go out.
When that magic failed, they decided that staying outdoors would work but only if they shielded their
faces from Demos. Any old rag will do for these deeply superstitious people.
COVID-19 ravaged some parts of the putative nation, especially those where staying indoors was most
fervently encouraged by the elders and their armed minions. Of course these relatively primitive people
have little sense of natural law, human rights, or constitutional protection of civil liberties so they
deserved to remain imprisoned in their own dwellings while their shamans concocted new magical
medicines. Other parts of Nacirema, especially those where staying indoors unless absolutely
necessary was thought to be more than a little silly, were barely touched by the pandemic, but their
magic remained unpopular or unknown.
Some shamans, especially the ones fed by the great factions, appear to be little more than zombies
programmed to repeat mantras like “stay in your dwellings,” “remember to complete your body rituals
often and for a long time,” and “cover your faces” before Demos. Other shamans appeared to reject
such magical incantations for something akin to Western scientific methods. The Big Hawkers fed by
the great factions roundly disparaged such shamans, however, and removed their images from public
places for their apostasy even though their magic would likely have saved many Nacirema lives, some
of which are considered of even more momentous import than others.
The Nacirema appear doomed but a few of them remember their Origin Story and believe it could again
help their tattered “nation” to heal and grow. Many, many moons ago, some of the ancient Chroniclers
say, a Great Demon a Long Way Off ruled over the Nacirema. At first his rule was relatively benign but
he increased his exactions following a series of great wars against the frogmen. Although relatively few
and poor and of course primitive, the Nacirema eventually stood up to the Great Demon a Long Way
Off, not once but twice, both times sending his minions scurrying away, once by the great East sea
and once by the great South sea.
Then, the Origin Story continues, the Nacirema lived in increasing peace and prosperity for generations
simply by promising to leave each other the hell alone unless absolutely necessary. Only a dispute over
the proper boundaries of property ownership broke that promise and calcified in power the two great
factions that trouble the people today.
If you still do not know the identity of the relatively primitive people to which I refer, please read this.
I would hate for anyone to think that I am disparaging an American Indian tribe when I am actually
disparaging all Americans (= Nacirema backwards.)