Lessons from the Nacirema Chieftain and His Women

A clan's gendered magical thinking stumps anthropologists, but may help us

Posted Oct 19, 2020

Current Chieftain of the Nacirema and His Women: An Analysis*

*The Nacirema were first written about in 1956 by anthropologist Horace Miner.

The Ecology
The Nacirema are a complex patrilineal, patrilocal society occupying an extensive landmass (coordinates 37.0902° N, 95.7129° W in the Midwest) between the sacred lands of the Gwitchen peoples to the North and the Tohono O’odman peoples to the South. Their land is rich in natural resources and overall the Nacirema have a bounty mentality, believing the earth and atmosphere will magically replenish them. To better understand the Nacirema, currently experiencing a cultural crisis, we consider their origin narrative and religious and cultural beliefs. Their beliefs about gender are of special interest, as they play a central role in the society’s remarkable divisions. 

The Beliefs
The Nacirema practice ancestor worship centering around a group they call the Gnidnouf srehtaf or “Men Who Gave Birth to Us All.” Many Nacirema possess potentially lethal utensils called Snug. These are designed to resemble male genitalia and are thought to be a sacred gift from the Men Who Gave Birth to Us All, who long ago used primitive versions for hunting and warfare. Some Nacirema, mostly men, go into rageful affective states when imagining surrendering their snug. Thus we classify the Nacirema as a masculinist society of histrionic magical thinkers. Their fixation on a “lifeforce” they call Senelam, embodied by the penis and the snug, can help us understand the current crisis among the Nacirema, particularly among Nacirema women, as well as the role of Chieftain’s Inner Circle of Women (the Stobmef).

The Cultural Context
The Nacirema are now in the process of anointing a new Big Man or Chieftain (Tnediserp), a ritual that takes place approximately every 48th full moon. All the vast Nacirema lands roil with a special low-level, near-constant fear (yteixna) in part because they are in a liminal state between Chieftains, their reality and identity in flux. Making things more unsettling still, a sickness has taken hold in their land. Even their Chieftain, who yells repeatedly that The Sickness came from another nation across the sea to deflect the fact that he and his council of fathers initially ignored it, was ill. Shamans used all their powers and elixirs to save him. The yteixna the Nacirema experience is deliberately exacerbated by Current Chieftain, a master of performance, conjuring, and unpredictability. Calling upon male spirits and power, he bellows loudly during the rigidly formatted “Talk Times” (Setabed) the Nacirema have created for competing chieftains.

During these and other rituals, Current Chieftain is known to scream that only he is the rightful Big Man (Tnediserp). Dramatically performing the lifeforce Senelam to make his point, Current Chieftain wears an animal hide on his head and covers himself in yellow and brown mineral pigments, which symbolize virility and vitality to the Nacirema. Many are fooled and believe he is immortal, the ultimate embodiment of masculine power, or at least "above us" (hcir). But other Nacirema, including many women, descendants of enslaved people, and members of a caste of relatively disempowered people called Copib believe Current Chieftain is a dangerous fraud. In response, he accuses them of wanting to destroy the Order of Things and steal all the sacred snug.

The Gender Trouble

A carefully selected group of Nacirema women (Stobmef) are part of Current Chieftain’s inner circle. They must cleave to, embody, and swear to uphold a certain version of Nacirema womanhood. They must be fiercely loyal; appear to be of reproductive or even of pre-reproductive age; and many exhibit a specific waist-to-hip ratio fetishized in post-agrarian contexts. Many Stobmef spend significant time and energy controlling their head covering (riah), rendering it straighter, longer, or removing its pigment. Nacirema believe these practices enhance women’s power in general and the Strobmefs’ power in particular, making them appealing to Biggish Men and Current Chieftain, and thus ensuring their protection. Their protection by Chieftain does not extend to other Nacirema women, however.

The work of the Stobmef is largely symbolic: above all, they seek to convince other Nacirema women that Chieftain is good, and that his genitals, his guardianship of the sacred snug, and his Senelam mean he is the one who can protect (or destroy) them. Current Chieftain’s Stobmefs’ other responsibility is to insist that his cabal of Biggish Men should be in charge of Nacirema women’s bodies and fates, and that this is what The Fathers Who Birthed Us All intended. These women receive payment for their service and loyalty, but it is notably less than what Nacirema men in the inner circle are paid. This is just one way the women of Current Chieftain’s inner circle perform their loyalty to Current Chieftain, and more importantly, the masculinist Order of Things. 

The Stobmef Are...

Aknavi and Ainalem, Current Chieftain’s daughter and wife, respectively, are said to battle for his attention and affections. Confusingly, Ainalem appears to be the same age as Aknavi, and Aknavi reportedly attempts to usurp Ainalems’ power and privilege by pretending that she is her father’s wife. Incest is abhorrent to the Nacirema but magical thinking allows them to ignore Current Chieftain’s often inappropriate words about his daughter and actions toward women, in general. Many Nacirema believe attacking women’s reputations and even their bodies are important for strengthening the Rightful Masculinist Order, and so is justified.

Ennayllek Yawnoc Her lack of pigment, “eyes the color of the sea,” ritualized surrender of her own name to her husband’s, and low adipose stores, as well as the ritual mutilations she has reportedly undergone to better resemble a nullipara demonstrate her commitment to pleasing Biggish Men, Current Chieftain, and better persuading All Those Who Write About Him (AKA “The Sserp”) that he is the good and rightful Chieftain. She is known as a skillful Bender of Truth and advises Current Chieftain about his behavior and words. Ennayllek’s home situation is fraught. Her husband Egroeg loathes Current Chieftain and is heading an insurrection against him. Meanwhile, Ennayllek’s daughter Aidualc Yawnoc casts spells against her mother repeatedly at special campfires for adolescents (Cotcit). Her sorcery is so powerful that her mother recently left her role as Current Chieftain’s official Whisperer of Ideas. Like so many who worked with Current Chieftain, Ennayllek Yawnoc had The Sickness.

Yma Yenoc Terrab. This high priestess of rules proves her loyalty to Current Chieftain and The Masculinist Order by balancing her competence and hard work with having seven children and raising them to understand that Nacirema women are to serve men. Yma belongs to a cult whose members speak in tongues, which they believe connects them to Supreme Man in the Sky (Dogg). Through magical thinking, many Nacirema are able to reconcile Yma’s superstitious practices with Current Chieftain’s claim that she is rational.

Hgielyak Ynenecm. This young bender of truth regularly seeks to convince The Sserp, Writers of Truth About Current Chieftain, that he has not said things he has said or done things he has done. Her hair follicles play a large part in her ability to bend the truth. She had the sickness because like many others she was mesmerized by Current Chieftain’s repeated incantation, “The Sickness is nothing, simply stand with me.” 
Epoh Skcih. A former Lledom or “prettiest woman in all the land,” she received payments for her beauty and physically resembles Current Chieftain’s Big Wife Ainalem. She is yet another bender of truth, and due to the lowly status of Nacirema women, her beauty, one of the few powers afforded women, plays a role in her persuasiveness. 

Brent Connelly/Pixabay
Sculpture of Nacirema Chieftain
Source: Brent Connelly/Pixabay

In spite of the work of the Stobmef, a fair number of Nacirema women, descendants of enslaved people, and others have been mourning publicly and privately since Current Chieftain took power. They have prayed these last 48 moons to their ancestors the Gnidnouf srehtaf/ Men Who Gave Birth To Us All for guidance and appealed to them for power. Now they wait, as do all Nacirema, to learn their fate. Many doubt their voices will be heard, and fear the Current Chieftain will refuse to accept defeat, bringing every Nacirema down with him, destroying their entire society. 

Archaeologists may wish to prepare to excavate information and artifacts from the rubble.