Reading Cereal Boxes:
Pre-packaging History and Indigenous Identities

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2004, Volume 3, Issue 2

Lesley V. Kadish
University of Texas

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket.

-Allen Ginsberg," A Supermarket in California," 1955



Welcome to H.E.B., one of Texas’ largest grocery chains with over 300 stores throughout the state. Inside, we find the visual trappings that are typical of the large-scale supermarket industry: linoleum tiles, stadium ceilings, florescent lighting, and clearly gridded aisles. At selected H.E.B. stores, however, a new section called Nature’s Harvest has been created to serve the needs of a different brand of shopper, a group I am calling the “thoughtful class.” This class can be defined by disproportionate access to education, wealth, and transportation. They shop with moral and intellectual intention, putting their money where their mouths are. The section of H.E.B that caters to this type of consumer specializes in organic, “healthy foods” and is visually separate from the managed aesthetics (or lack thereof) governing the rest of the store; track lighting, lowered ceilings, angled aisles, and hardwood floors greet H.E.B.’s Nature’s Harvest shoppers. An exotic oasis among the clamor of shopping carts, the natural food section provides the artificial comfort of a local co-operative in the jowls of corporate consumption. For the thoughtful class, shopping is a personal experience in the moral landscape of organics. Imagined cultural ideals of eating healthily while supporting cultural and biological diversity are encouraged within the constructed supermarket space and are reinforced through the commodification of historical and indigenous images. In this paper, I will explore the ways exoticized histories and representations of otherness are deployed on organic cereal boxes to frame the healthy breakfast as an ancient ritual. I will also analyze the ways ethnicities are constructed and commodified on organic brand cereals and the aesthetic construction of opposing histories through nostalgia for an idealized agrarian past.

The Setting

Cereal is a uniquely American food. A walk down the cereal aisle is an experience in American vision. Unlike other sections of the store where items vary by size or shape, the cereal aisle has the same-styled box pressed one against the other. These standardized 8x11 boxes resemble hypercolor stacks of television sets, each a visual talking-head flashing sports stars, cartoons, or slim models. We find a similar, though differently hued, experience in the Nature’s Harvest supermarket section. Here, the organic cereal aisle is more like a terraced garden overgrown with images of parrots and colorful, “exotic” people. It is an interwoven expression of subaltern and popular culture. The iconic predominance of the “natural” world speaks to this association of all things green to all things good, and the multi-chromatic array of faces reinforces diversity as the path to a balanced meal. As such, the very nature of the cereal box is performative, intended to attract the attention of the consumer through culturally recognizable and emotionally resonant images.

The cereal box occupies a space, a vision, and a location all at once. After we have purchased the cereal, we are expected to sit down and read the box as part of the morning ritual. In an oddly-sustained, postmodern version of a Norman Rockwell portrait, the timeless place of the American cereal box, organic or not, is atop a breakfast table, next to an open newspaper and a half-gallon of wholesome milk. Indigenous images on organic cereal boxes are used as cultural windows that bring the meals of the “natives” into our home, and essentialize breakfasts across time and place. To more closely regard the commercial reification of the “natural,” I will consider one particular brand of organic cereal found in all H.E.B. Nature’s Harvest health food sections: Nature’s Path’s Mesa Sunrise.

Figure 1

The Box

The box of Mesa Sunrise cereal is a rich desert oasis within our organic aisle garden. Orange skies and golden buttes halo a bounty of gathered grains on the front of the box, over which curls the cereal brand name in a font suggestive of petroglyphs. The carefully crafted title, Mesa Sunrise, conjures up a mythical, Southwestern landscape while subtly referencing the actual home of the Hopi Indians: Northern Arizona’s Three Mesas. The brand name is quixotic, evocative, and highly poetic (see figure 1). In Sunrise, we are reminded how natural and timeless the morning ritual of breakfast is; the high, flat-top Mesas are the world’s own breakfast table. Sunrise also recalls a pre-industrial epoch when the passing of time was not marked by the clock, but by the natural rising and falling of the sun. On the back of the box, we find a bricolage of historicized images, effluent quotes, and scientific jabber, peppered along the margins with peeling corn and flowering plants. The overall presentation of the box is intended to tell the cultural and environmental story surrounding the cereal we are about to consume. By displaying a collection of disparate images in this way, a self-reflexive framework of meaning is crafted which totals more than the sum of its parts. These images are strategic; each historic reference builds on the next to construct an overall product narrative: history is available for consumption. For example, an image of three women kneeling over their stone metates is captioned with the text, “Hopi women grinding corn” (see figure 2).

Figure 2

Figure 3

The image is visually intimate and sepia-toned, as though we were witnessing a private moment at home. Yet, with some research, we find that the Hopi image is a photoshopped version of an early photograph taken by renowned photographer Edward Curtis in 1907, merely twenty-five years after the Hopi reservation was created (see figure 3). At that time, ethnographers, missionaries, and government agents were all climbing the mesas, vying for glimpses into the Hopi world. Alone, Curtis’ presence as a camera-laden White man would likely render the gentle domestic scene contrived. Mesa Sunrise cereal locates itself in the landscape and constructs a stereotypical Hopi ethnicity around a “real” (though itself constructed and highly problematic) historical image of grinding maidens: no other information or details are given beside the caption. The dress, hairstyles, and posture of these women are not contemporary, and would likely only be seen in a ceremonial or performative setting today. Yet, without historic information or contextualization, we are made to believe that these three Hopi women are still grinding corn in the recesses of our mass-producing consumer present, just as Nature’s Path wants us to believe that we are reading the cereal box from our own Norman Rockwell breakfast table.

Native Americans are not static cultural beings as portrayed on Mesa Sunrise; they are American consumers in their own right. Over-simplified images of “timeless natives” are used to represent a moment in time when humans had a more humble relation to nature. Disparate tribes are grouped together to further show, as the box says, “the pivotal position that corn has held in the cultural lives of indigenous peoples.” Sitting just atop the industrious Hopi image is a quote regarding the Navajo, “Corn is the Navaho staff of life, and pollen is its essence.” Just below, we find a brief Zuni coming-of-age anecdote: “The Zuni people of the American Southwest measured time through kernels of corn. A ‘generation of corn’ would be counted from when a boy received his first planting seed to the time he gave the seed to his own child to plant.” These quotes are double constructions in that they offer no Native voices; only the words of the “expert” are decontextualized and used as testimony. The complexity of Zuni and Navajo cultures are reduced to single, pithy narratives constructed around cereal. While these sound bites may carry residues of historic validity, their uni-dimensionality steals from them any real chance for meaning. Native Americans represented on this box of cereal are fixed as media icons through the commodification of their tribal identity or through the market potential of their supposed traditions.

Figure 4

The back of the cereal box offers the central message: “Mesa Sunrise - Cereal That Whispers Secrets of the Past” (see figure 4). The “secrets” of indigenous pasts are just that—whispers, the lifeblood of oral tradition to be counterposed to written history. As such, these whispers carry traditions that are transferred from one group to the next, as seen in the story of the Zuni boy and his father who pass time and wisdom through their heirlooms of corn. Mesa Sunrise implies that without the textual “knowledge” of “real” (i.e. written) history, fact is reduced to myth and history reduced to ethnohistory. Moreover, while these possessors of traditional knowledge may hold valuable information, their experience is neither associated with thought, nor individualism. Rather, it is assumed that oral knowledge should pass unmarred through the transmitters of human memory; critical thinking and autonomy must be subverted in the process.

For the Mesa Sunrise consumer, the “past” is neatly divided into the left- and right-hand sides of the cereal box. To oppose the North American Indians’ use of corn as a spiritual and calendric sacrament (on the left-hand side), the manufacturers place (on the right) the great European “cultivation” of cereal for early scientific and medicinal purposes. Through this visually articulated division, we see two contrasting histories that serve to validate and contradict one another.

The Message

In “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” Arjun Appadurai makes the following statement about a situation similar to the one we find on the Mesa Sunrise cereal box, “Here we have nostalgia without memory. The paradox of course has its explanations, and they are historical: unpacked, they lay bare the story of American missionizing and political rape” (3). A critical reading of the text-and-image collage on our box finds a potential naturalization and trivialization of the backbreaking labor of those involved in actual cereal production and those who ground corn on their hands and knees. Moreover, a subtle gendering occurred during the photo alteration of the original 1907 Hopi photograph. Unlike the Edward Curtis 1907 photograph, none of the Hopi women portrayed on the box of Mesa Sunrise are making eye contact with the viewer. Instead, they are all looking down, suggesting the passivity of indigenous, female labor. The presentation of passive Native women on their hands and knees asserts a contemporary “we are better off” notion that is reaffirmed through iconographic analogies between breakfast in “our world” and food production in “their world.” Behind the seemingly innocuous representation lies the mechanics of power that allow one group to own another through manipulation of image and identity. Indians captured on the cereal box have been appropriated by capitalist production, a fact which must not be overlooked.

The act of naming others is an act of control through representation, as it has been observed by academics and consumers alike (see Berkhofer and Bordewich). Native Americans have long suffered the brunt of such representation. In many places, antiquated cigar-Indians still flank drug stores and cigar shop entryways. Painted or feathered Braves and Redskins still make their battlecries on the fields of sports teams. And the Land-o-Lakes butter Indian sits “Indian Style” atop her creamed throne, adorned with a single feather and two browned knees emerging from under her buckskin skirt (see figure 5). Aside from their lingering remnants, the classic twentieth-century images of the American Indian are now largely understood as racist caricatures. As noted by scholars and activists (see Alexie, Churchill, Dilworth, and LaDuke), these representations are far from vanquished; rather, they are being re-marketed to a contemporary audience under a different premise. There has been a significant shift from the stoic Chief and sexualized squaw, to the deeply spiritual and environmentally conscious Native American. Now, a different ideal—the natural—is being sold through a modified Native American image.

Figure 5

Because the vast majority of American families were once immigrants to this country, Americans have taken the liberty to “rewrite history in a self-justifying manner by redefining Native Americans as part of their own past” (Huhndorf 5). Contemporary American life is often held in oppositional tension to an imagined pre-industrial Native American world. This is not wholly a new phenomenon. As Leah Dilworth remarks in her seminal work, Imagining Indians of the Southwest, anthropologists were using ethnography as a tool for critically assessing popular American culture as early as the 1920’s (192). Not long after his linguistic work with the Hopi, Edward Sapir published an article in the Journal of American Sociology that polarized the Southwest United States into “genuine” and “spurious” cultures, the former representing an ideal pre-industrial state, and the latter encompassing the fettered modern world. Much as might be seen today, “spurious” American culture was encouraged to look to indigenous culture for a cure to the spiritual, cultural, and physical woes caused by over-industrialization. Sapir writes, “Genuine culture is inherently harmonious, balanced and self-satisfactory” (314). Nature’s Path uses the Hopi image of industrious small-scale corn production to invoke the fantasy that Mesa Sunrise is hand-made rather than mass-produced. It is thus more “natural”; if you eat it, you will feel harmonious and balanced.

This harmonious and balancing Indian replaces its racialized predecessor with a softer, more “authentic” and “natural” representation. Today’s “Indian” is as much a creation as the cigar Indian, crafted hodgepodge from staged photographs, stolen stories, and fabricated rituals. Thus, two contradictory, but constantly intertwined, modes of imagining indigenous peoples occur. The complex and shifting valences of respect and disregard converge in the public imagery today. All such representations, whether flattering or disparaging, are fundamentally dehumanizing.

While Nature’s Path cereal would not admit to representing Indians in such iconic forms, we see from the above discussion that “their” Native Americans are stereotypes nonetheless. What is unique about the marketing scheme employed on Mesa Sunrise is the very intentional tribalization of its indigenous representatives. Through early ethnography and photography, individual tribal identities can be forged into a display of cultural diversity and historical accuracy. All the while, the identities of individual indigenous actors are blurred behind generalities of tribal affiliation. The Hopi women grinding corn are neither listed by name nor differentiated in dress. Their consumer worth is not in the product of their work but in the labor of their kind: “authentic, primitive, and undifferentiated.” Superficially, the cereal box attempts to dismantle this “homogenized Indian” by tribally differentiating between Native cultures in the Southwest. Likely resulting from their historic relation to the early railroad tourism industry, as well as their own successes at self-promotion, the Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo tribes have become culturally recognizable entities. I believe that the deliberate reference to these tribes serves a separate function beyond the replacement of an older generation of essentialized Indian forms.

Nature’s Path does not use just any tribal identity to (re)present its cereal. The Hopi and Zuni have long been recognized as popular tourist attractions in the Southwest. They are culturally marked and seen as historical remnants of earlier times. Grand Canyon guidebooks abound with one-dimensional descriptions of their cultures and directions to the nearest pueblo gift shops selling their “traditional” crafts. The guidebook put out by the Arizona Association of Bed and Breakfast Inns and available electronically for online perusal reads: “The Hopi village of Oraibi is one of the two oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. While it is possible, with permission, to wander around Oraibi, you will likely learn more about Hopi culture by opting for one of the guided tours of Walpi village, which sits atop First Mesa. Throughout the Hopi mesas you will find numerous crafts shops and artists' studios where you can shop for kachinas, silver jewelry, and pottery. From the Hopi mesas, head south to I-40 and back to Flagstaff.” The Bed and Breakfast Association, an exclusive echelon of the hotel industry, has marketed itself around a patron type who appreciates exotic life, “off the beaten path,” with the comforts of home. Just as the language of the B&B guidebook appeals to a particular type of traveler, so too the back of the organic cereal box appeals to a selective group of consumers, perhaps the groups even overlap. These strategic marketing representations reflect the way consumers imagine their own, as well as other, cultural identities and make their choices.

The language of the cereal box relies heavily on history-rich words such as “over the millennia,” “ancestors,” and “generations,” to develop an overall feeling of history. Yet, as mentioned above, we are presented with two distinctly different historic timelines. The history of European civilization where agricultural decrees (“800 AD Charlemagne passed laws requiring people to use flax”) and medicinal knowledge (“Hippocrates used flax to relieve digestive problems”) are encrypted in text (“Evidence from the writings of Hippocrates show”) and are held against the traditional past of North America (presented in pictures and stories) where wizened ancestors passed on ancient farming knowledge through whispered secrets and ritual. Although it has been archaeologically established that natives cultivated both flax and amaranth in what is now the Southeastern United States well into the thirteenth-century, Mesa Sunrise only shows Native Americans as raising “colorful maize.” The Old World stories of flax and amaranth include dates (5000 BC, 650 BC, 800 AD) and recognizable names (Charlemagne, Hippocrates) in order to show the pedigree of an identifiable history as opposed to a New World pre-history full of undocumented ancient traditions. These disparate timelines are intended to weave through each other, imbuing Mesa Sunrise cereal with a whole world of historic and grainy diversity sanctioned by “natural” tradition and historic veracity. All the while, the methods of analysis are essentially Hegelian; by employing the logic of dichotomy, European reason and science are deified.

The box reads, “Every spoonful of Mesa Sunrise connects you through the centuries to knowledge and traditions around the benefits of ancient grains that contemporary science is now beginning to support.” We read that contemporary science is finally catching up to the wisdom gained through history. A scientific lexicon (soluble fiber, lignans, and omega-3 fatty acids found in flax) further legitimates a “traditional” past and brings this past into the present. Scientific and historical language and images are used in emotionally evocative ways. Cereal grains are bound up with symbolic meaning, and this meaning is codified in traditional food diets, historical names, dates, and places. Compared to the ancient peoples’ world and their ties to nature, the present, not unlike Sapir’s “spurious culture,” is seen as a world of loss. Consumers now have the opportunity to reap both the benefits of contemporary scientific knowledge and colorful ancient ritual.

The organic movement is ripe with nostalgia for the “simpler” era when the process of eating was itself a ritual act. The images Nature’s Path presents show the Native American past as one that is bound up with ritualistic agrarian practices. These images actively assert a valid and natural connection between food and wisdom. Moreover, the cereal box language presents the past in such a way that suggests we too can gain wisdom through eating the same ancient grains. Just as we are intended to digest the guidebook histories of the Native Americans through images and quotes, our bodies are granted effortless access to “centuries of knowledge” through breakfast cereal. The cereal goes beyond simply asserting that healthy food will make us wise. By presenting the powerful history of ritual food practices, consumers are enticed to bring ritual into their own lives through the consumption of organic foods. The pre-existing American cultural practice of eating breakfast (à la Norman Rockwell) can be imbued with meaning and enshrined in ritual when the element of moral intention is added. The knowledges and “by hand” labor of the Native are rich with tribal significance but empty of meaningful autonomous action. Today’s shopper can bring individuality to the past by translating the ancient experience of eating naturally into a contemporary organic lifestyle. A ritual of healthy eating (including, of course, corn and flax found in Mesa Sunrise), will enrich the body and the mind, creating a wiser person, which in today’s consumer society is equivalent to a thoughtful class of shopper. Mesa Sunrise relies on a narrative of nostalgia for the timeless yet vanquishing primitive that is validated by a scientific lexicon and a constructed Old World history.


Mesa Sunrise is a cornflake cereal boasting ingredients of organically grown and processed flax, amaranth, and “Indian corn.” The cereal box itself is like a miniature Levi-Straussean museum assembled from the stolen bodies and cultural sacra of the past, and reworked into a modern narrative. The images that collide and are juxtaposed on the box belong to two different visions of the past, one traditional and the other historical. Much like H.E.B.’s constructed “Nature’s Harvest” environment, Mesa Sunrise cereal constructs a visual narrative around fabricated cultural identities, thereby creating a product—and a consumer—just exotic enough to be healthy.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. Old Shirts & New Skins, Native American Series; No. 9. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1993.

Appadurai, Arjun. "Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." Public Culture 2.2 (1990): 1-24.

Arizona Association of Bed and Breakfast Inns. 2004. <>.

Berkhofer, Robert F. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian, from Columbus to the Present. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Bordewich, Fergus M. Killing the White Man's Indian: Reinventing of Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century. New York: Doubleday, 1996.

Churchill, Ward. From a Native Son: Selected Essays in Indigenism, 1985-1995. Boston, Mass.: South End Press, 1996.

Dilworth, Leah. Imagining Indians in the Southwest: Persistent Visions of a Primitive Past. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems, 1947-1980. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Huhndorf, Shari M. Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2001.

LaDuke, Winona. The Winona Laduke Reader: A Collection of Essential Writings. Stillwater, MN: Voyageur Press, 2002.

Sapir, Edward. "Culture, Genuine and Spurious." American Journal of Sociology 29 (1949): 308-331.

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© 2005 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture