Observations of the Life of Native Americans: Nacirema, Comanche

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Jones spent three years observing the Comanche Eagle doctor, Sanapia, and interviewing many people about the traditions of the Comanche and how those traditions have changed over time. He was able to establish a close personal relationship with Sanapia which allowed him to go into great detail with his writing, but it also may have had significant drawbacks. The book allows the reader to form an opinion about the true work of the medicine woman while keeping in mind the acculturation and urbanization that effected the Comanche tradition.

“Ethnocentrism is the tendency to view one’s own culture as superior and to apply one’s own cultural values in judging the behavior and beliefs of people raised in other cultures” (Kottak 2019:32). Sanapia is aware that other cultures do not see her as a respected doctor but as a crazy old lady. Sanapia even claims that “My own kids growing up like white peoples, and they think I’m just a funny old woman” (Jones 1972:46). Those that viewed Sanapia as a lesser person practiced ethnocentrism. In class, we were assigned the reading about the Nacirema people. The Nacirema were described to have many traditions such as the mouth-rite ritual, trips to the holy-mouth-man that occur twice every year, and the practice of baking a woman’s head in an oven. The mouth right ritual involved placing a bundle of hog hairs into the mouth and moving them across the teeth. The holy-mouth-man was in charge of inspecting the mouth and occasionally caused it to bleed. Baking a woman’s head in an oven occurred four times during each lunar month. As an outsider to this culture, I looked upon these people with disgust. These barbaric people made no sense to me until I was informed of the actual meaning in class. The Nacirema is a reflection upon the American culture. The mouth rite is the equivalent of brushing one’s teeth; the holy-mouth-man is the dentist; and the practice of baking one’s head in an oven is a trip to the beauty parlor (Miner 1956:503-507). I, along with those that judged Sanapia, practiced ethnocentrism.

The opposite of ethnocentrism is cultural relativism. “Cultural relativism is that behavior in one culture should not be judged by the standards of another” (Kottak 2019:32). In the film The Kawelka: Ongka’s Big Moka, the creators of the film practiced cultural relativism. The narrator of the film only gave the facts of what was happening and had no biases. He did not judge the tribe’s culture by his standards (The Kawelka: Ongka's Big Moka).

Jones begins the book with a disclaimer listing his biases. He understands that it is going to be hard to stay culturally relative to the southern Comanche bands because of his close relationships with members of the northern Comanche band (Jones 1972:4). Each band faced difficulties when trying to stay culturally relative to the other. In fact, the bands often tried not to be culturally relative to the other. When reading this book, I occasionally found it to be difficult to be culturally relative. I became very opinionative when it came to Sanapia’s choice of religion, but I would realize that I needed to be more aware and tolerant of the culture of the Comanche.

Historical particularism is the idea proposed by Franz Boas that each element of culture has its each distinctive history. Jones was able to practice historical particularism while writing the ethnography, which differs from what his predecessors in the field of anthropology would have done. The ethnography explains the history of the Comanche throughout the book from the perspectives of Sanapia and other informants. Jones explains the origin and migration of the Comanche to the best of his abilities, making it clear that it is not possible to state the exact origin of the Comanche. In regards to the Comanche traditions that relate to other Native American tribes, Jones specifically states that he would focus on the distinctions between the Plains tribes and the similarities between the Comanche and the Shoshone. Jones dedicates an entire chapter to the uniqueness of each part of the Comanche society which demonstrates his commitment to historical particularism. A 19th century anthropologist would not have dedicated time into researching the background of the Comanche. Instead he or she would have compared it to other tribes without recognizing the significance of the Comanche society’s cultural differences. I believe that viewing a culture as having its own history is important when understanding the diversity of culture in the world because it allows me to appreciate each culture individually. Instead of comparing my culture to that of another, I can understand the differences and respect them.

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There were many social and cultural factors that played a part in Sanapia’s practice of medicine. Traditional Comanche people respected Sanapia and treated her as a true healer. In order to be healed by Sanapia, the patient was required to be trusting in Sanapia’s abilities. However, not all social and cultural factors allowed Sanapia to utilize her abilities as a healer. People would often fear Sanapia because of her temper and abilities. They were afraid that Sanapia would put a curse on them. Also, as time went on, people began to turn away from the traditional Comanche culture and ceased to believe in the abilities of the Eagle doctor; therefore, Sanapia could not heal them.

Sanapia was, to a certain extent, able to help heal the sick. While I do not believe she was incredibly knowledgeful of the human anatomy, I believe that she knew of certain medicines that had the capability of healing or treating the infirmed. Sanapia uses a medicine which she calls “bakumak,” or “in the water,” to treat colds, upset stomachs, and sore throats (Jones 1972:58). I believe that Sanapia had more of an effect on the patient’s mind than the body. One of the first steps in Sanapia’s healing process is letting the patient tell Sanapia his or her troubles. Jones stated that it was clear that Sanapia understood the psychological element behind sickness (Jones 1972:74-75). Jones refers to Sanapia as a “native psychiatrist” (Jones 1972:104). Although Sanapia was trained in the ways of an Eagle doctor, I believe that she most resembled a therapist. She stated that people must believe that she can heal them, and she knows that her theatrics are part of why the patient has so much faith in her (Jones 1972:83).

Despite my belief that Sanapia was mostly a therapist, one moment in the book allowed me to step back and consider how valid Sanapia’s stance as a medium was. When first treating a patient, Sanapia claimed that she can look at the person and decide if that person if going to die. She claimed that a voice inside of her told her and that there is nothing that could be done to prevent it (Jones 1972:75).

The following of Sanapia’s life is important for many reasons. First, Sanapia was getting old in age as Jones was writing the ethnography. She knew that she would soon die and would not have time to train a successor to become the next Eagle doctor. Sanapia hoped that the book would serve the purpose of completing the training. Another reason for its importance was to preserve the knowledge of the Comanche culture, especially the Eagle doctor. As tradition was dying in the Native American culture, the memory of what was once done was also dying. Jones was able to capture and preserve the traditions in the ethnography. Lastly, the following of Sanapia’s life was important to gather information about the Comanche that was not able to be attained in earlier years.

Not only does the following of Sanapia’s life show how the culture of the Comanche was, but it shows how the culture has changed because of acculturation, globalization, and urbanization. Sanapia’s father, for example, was told to believe in the same God that white people believed in, thus forcing him to become a Christian (Jones 1972:18). Sanapia’s father was a victim of acculturation. He was not the only person to be acculturated in the Comanche. The entire southern band of the Comanche was seen to be as more liberal and straying away from tradition. Acculturation played a heavy role into why modern Comanche people do not follow the traditions that Sanapia follows and why many look down upon the culture. While acculturation was not a favorable part of the Comanche culture, globalization was a major part in the development of Sanapia’s medicine. Sanapia attained many of her medicines through trade throughout the country. Many of the goods the Comanche made were produced from goods around the world. Much like acculturation and globalization, urbanization played a major part in changing the Comanche culture. Sanapia grew up before the cities became big. She claims that she can remember before the cars and the highway were made. She even claims that urbanization is a large part of why her kids have strayed away from tradition (Jones 1972:46). Urbanization is, most likely, a major factor into why the Comanche traditions have been turned away from.

Much like the loss of tradition and culture in the Comanche society, I can see ways in which the culture and traditions that I grew up with are being lost. The loss of conversational skills has become a major issue with my generation. The beginning of this problem can arguably be traced back to the invention of the air conditioner. As people were able to control the temperature of their homes, the tradition of sitting out on a front porch began to dissolve. People no longer wanted to escape the heat of their homes outside, causing front porch conversations to decline. A bigger cause of the depletion of conversational skills is the invention of the cell phone. People no longer engage in full conversations. Instead of talking, people text short, incomplete sentences to each other.

Another tradition that is dying out is the preparation of homecooked meals. According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine, since 1965, homecooked meals have declined in the United States because of a growth of prepackaged meals and eating in restaurants (Smith et al. 2013). Homecooked meals were once a major part of the culture of the United States. As it became easier and more affordable to eat out or to heat up a TV dinner, people began to spend less time preparing genuine homecooked meals. The loss of this tradition is one that has affected unities of families. As more families practice the tradition of heating up meals or eating at restaurants, the loss of culinary knowledge will spread.

David E. Jones’s Sanapia: Comanche Medicine Woman allowed readers to view the Comanche tribe and practice cultural relativism. Jones’s close relationship with Sanapia was directly displayed, allowing the reader to understand the authors biases. As readers, we were able to attain knowledge of the Comanche tradition of an Eagle doctor.  

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