Category Archives: North American Indigenous Cultures

(documented 1635-1970)



  1. Mrs. Cochran Becoming a Windigo
    (documented by Ruth Landes 1932-1935)


  1. The Gaspesians: Suicide, Shame, and Despair
    (documented by Le Clercq 1675-1686)


  1. Le Jeune’s Relation
    (documented by Brébeuf, Le Jeune 1635-36)
  2. (and Iroquois) The Suicide of Children
    (reported by Wallace, citing LeMercier, 1600’s)


  1. Suicide
    (documented by Lafitau 1712-17)
  2. Suicide of the Widowed
    (documented by de Lahontan, 1703)
  3. The Song of Death
    (documented by de Lahontan, 1703)
  4. Murder and Suicide
    (account by  Mrs. Mary Jemison, 1817)


  1. The Code of Handsome Lake
    (recited by Edward Cornplanter to Arthur C. Parker, 1850, 1913)
  2. The Suicide as Earthbound
    (account by Cornplanter, Jr.)



  1. Varieties of Shame: Time of Death, Pollution, and the Disfigurement of Smallpox
    (documented by James Adair, 1775)


  1. The Favorite Wife of the Chief Sun
    (documented by Jean-Bernard Bossu, 1751-1762)



  1. Elderly Persons are “Thrown Away”
    (documented by Ernest Wallace & Edward Adamson Hoebel, 1933, 1945)
  2. Suicide from Overwhelming Shame
    (documented by Hoebel, 1940)


  1. The Rarity of Suicide; When the Camp Moved
    (documented by Hilger, 1935-1942)


  1. Suicide among Sioux Women
    (documented by John Bradbury 1809-11)


  1. Two Twists in Battle
    (documented by Llewellyn and Hoebel, 1941)


  1. Smallpox and the End of a Household
    (documented by Bowers 1930-1931)


  1. Crazy-Dog Wishing to Die
    (documented by Lowie, 1913)
  2. The Lowest of the Low
    (documented by Wildschut, 1918-1927; 1960)

Gros Ventre:

  1. Singing the ‘Brave-Song’
    documented  by Flannery 1940-48


  1. Suicide to Avoid Marriage
    (documented by G. B. Grinnell, c. 1888)
  2. The Sandhills
    (account by Adolf Hungry Wolf, 1977)
    20b Kit-sta-ka Rejoins her Husband After the Sun Dance
    (documented by McClintock, 1910)
  3. When Wakes-Up-Last Murdered All of his Children
    (documented by McClintock, 1968)



  1. Notes on Navajo Suicide
    (documented by Wyman and Thorne)
  2. The Destination of Witches and Suicides
    (documented by Wyman, Hill, and Osanai, 1942)
  3. Reasons for Suicide
    (documented by Leighton and Kluckhohn,  1947)
  4. Ending One’s Life by Wishing to Die
    (documented by Newcomb, 1915-1940)
  5. Crazy Violence
    (documented by Kaplan and Johnson, 1964)
  6. Navajo Suicide
    (Jerrold Levy, 1965)


  1. Making Arrangements for Suicide
    (account by Nequatewa, 1936)
  2. How the Hopi Marked the Boundary Line
    (account by Nequatewa, 1936)
  3. Girls Going Qövisti
    (documented  by Titiev,  1932-1940)


  1. Postmenopausal Women
    (documented by Powell, 1867-1880)


  1. Suicides as Cloudbeings
    (documented by Parsons, 1939)
  2. Ritual Revenge
    (documented by Ruth Benedict, 1934)

Jicarilla Apache:

  1. Apache War Customs
    (documented by Opler,  1936)


  1. The First Death: Matavilye, and Suicide in Childbirth, Weaning, and Twins
    (documented by Devereux,  1961)



  1. Psychological Suicide
    (documented by Aginsky, 1934-35)

Wintu and others:

  1. Suicide in Northeastern California
    (documented by Voegelin, 1937)


  1. The Stigma of Suicide
    (documented by Thompson, 1916)


  1. Strained Sex Relations
    (documented by Ray, 1928-1930)
  2. Suicide by Hanging
    (documented by Cline, 1930)


  1. Shame
    (documented by Ruth Benedict, 1934)


  1. Barbarities Practised  on Widows
    (documented by Ross Cox, attributed to M’Gillivray)


  1. Holding Others Responsible for Suicide
    (documented by Krause 1881-1882; 1956)
  2. Slaves: An Honor to Die at the Master’s Funeral
    (documented by Niblack, 1887)
  3. Paying Damages for Suicide
    (documented by  Jones 1893-1914; 1914)


  1. Suicide and Intoxication
    (documented by Honigmann, 1943-1945)

In the 15th and 16th centuries—prior to contact with Europeans—it is estimated that there were perhaps 70 million people inhabiting the western hemisphere, perhaps one-fifth of the global population at the time. Native Americans are understood to have crossed a land-bridge connecting North America with Asia beginning roughly 13,000 years ago, probably in at least three migrations involving land travel or small boats hugging the coastline. Some evidence from gene-frequency distributions and DNA clocks in contemporary indigenous populations suggests that the earliest migrations may have occurred even earlier. There are archaeological claims of finds as early as 33,000 b.c.; evidence remains speculative. As North America was populated, the new inhabitants adapted to local environments and developed a large variety of cultural patterns; some groups remained in the Arctic and northern regions; others continued southward through Central America and on into South America. Only about a tenth of the population of the western hemisphere at its height, just before contact with Europeans, lived in North America; greater population density occurred closer to the equator.

As with indigenous peoples in other areas of the world, nomenclature for the original settlers of a region varies. North American native peoples are usually categorized by similar geographic location and related sociocultural practices. Europeans originally called the inhabitants of North America “Indians,” reflecting Columbus’s error in thinking he had reached the Far East. North American indigenous peoples are also referred to as First Nations, First Peoples, Amerindians, and Native Americans. Distinct groups traditionally called “tribes” (as they are in many of the selections provided here) are now often referred to as “nations,” reflecting both their traditional culture and current legal status. Regional groupings of Native Americans, associated (though in somewhat varied ways) by language groups, cultural patterns, and DNA linkages, include the peoples of the Eastern Woodlands (both North and South), the Plains, the Southwest and the Great Basin, and California and the Northwest Coast, to name the areas from which selections are included here. Although this is not customary in some scholarly fields, the selections in this volume follow an east-to-west pattern because of the rough chronology of widespread European contact. The selections preserve the nomenclature for groups and locations used in the originals in each case. Arctic, Mesoamerican, and Caribbean peoples are treated in other sections of this volume.

Although Native American groups did not keep written records, access to many oral traditions and ceremonies has been preserved by two principal means. First, ethnographic accounts, primarily of the groups of eastern North America and, to a lesser degree, the Plains, come from early explorers and missionaries sent to convert the Indians; however, as Lyle Campbell puts it, these reports were often “armchair nonsense.” There were some good accounts of many of the Iroquoian groups, particularly by Lewis Henry Morgan, from the 1870s onward, but the rise of scientific ethnography is usually attributed to the influential work of Franz Boas (1858–1942) and his many students. After that time, ethnographers attempted to document the beliefs and customs of the more removed tribes by getting an insider’s view of social norms and rules; they tried to shun descriptions in terms of outside comparisons, judgments, or assumptions, though one may question to what degree they, as outsiders, succeeded. Second, in recent decades work by various by 20th-century Native Americans recounts the “old ways,” usually by interviewing the eldest members of their tribes; here, information about traditional views and practices comes from an insider’s point of view, but it is of substantially later date.

For both kinds of source, the problem of cultural overlay subsequent to European contact is considerable. The early explorers, missionaries, and ethnographers came into contact with peoples uninfluenced by European thought, but their reports were often heavily biased by their own religious and political convictions—as is particularly evident, for example, in patronizing remarks like Lafitau’s comment that “[t]‌he Indians are enlightened enough to distinguish good from evil” (see selection #5), where he is reporting a response he believes coincides with Western views of suicide from Virgil on. Informants were also often selective in what they were willing to tell outsiders. On the other hand, contemporary Native American insiders’ reports of the “old-ways” may be more sensitive to the nuances of traditional thinking, but the groups themselves have been in contact with European and other thought for as many as three or four hundred years, and these societies have in any case been fully disrupted from the time of contact on by disease and severe population reduction, wars, slaving (in diverse areas), the acquisition of the horse, and other factors. Insiders gave accounts of the “old ways” that were also sometimes tailored to fit agendas—sometimes to claim rights to land by modifying historical traditions, sometimes to make missionaries think their beliefs were more similar to Christianity than they in fact were, sometimes to gain whites’ technology to give them an advantage in disputes with hostile tribes, and so on. Then, too, accounts from either sort of source may draw on interpretations or misinterpretations of individual behavior, as in Landes’s account of an Ojibwa woman who felt she was becoming a windigo (selection #1)—whether explained as a psychosis brought on by chronic food shortage or the product of hostile accusations—that nevertheless reveal something about traditional Native American beliefs about suicide: in this case, that she had “an undisputed right to dispose of herself as she chose.”

A survey of the full range of Native American beliefs about suicide, as closely as they can be approximated, reveals a number of contrasts and connections. For example, many groups drew a moral distinction between voluntary, self-initiated death in battle and voluntary, self-initiated death in other contexts. Charging wildly into the ranks of the enemy with the intent to die, for example, was seen as an act of honor and courage, while hanging oneself from a tree was condemned. Yet even when suicide was condemned, the degree of disapproval was often comparatively light. In contrast with European religion, which at the time of contact almost uniformly saw suicide as gravely sinful and punished by an afterlife in hell, several Native American traditions held that the “punishment” comes from the ghosts of other deceased people who themselves banish the suicide out of fear. Several tribes, including the Natchez, seem to have engaged in a practice analogous to the East Indian sati, and in some groups “widow-burning” was expected of both females and males; in other groups, attempts at self-immolation appear to have been socially expected but also routinely thwarted by other members of the tribe. On the other hand, various ethnologists, anthropologists, and other observers explicitly report few or no cases of suicide in many groups, including the Maricopa, the Tubatulabal, the Bella Coola, the Ojibwa, the Hare, the Montagnais, the Lee Islanders, the Arapaho, the Dhegiha, some of the Pomo, the Plateau Yumans, the Southern Paiute, and the Zuni (selections from some of these groups are presented here). For the most part, contemporary outsiders’ stereotypes of suicide-related practices among Native Americans have been confined to that custom in which migratory groups abandon elderly or infirm members by the side of the trail (not actually evident in most groups), but in fact the full range of Native American beliefs and practices about suicide is far more complex. After all, there were as many as 500 tribes in continental North and Central America, about the same number in Mesoamerica and lower Central America, and some 1,500 in South America at the time of contact, each with differences from the others.

The accounts presented here span some 300 years and are arranged in geographic rather than chronological order. Some date from the immediate post-contact period; some are quite recent, drawn from the comparatively insulated environment of the reservations set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which isolated Native American peoples in the United States. As with all oral cultures evolving in part in response to outside contact, it is not possible to determine with certainty the exact nature of pre-contact, historical views of suicide as yet uninfluenced by outside forces, and the reliability of later observers is always in question; yet even given these difficulties, the overall picture they present of the ethics of suicide as seen by these cultures is compellingly different from those of Western observers.

The Selections


The indigenous groups of what is now eastern Canada and the United States inhabited woodland territory, and the groups are thus often referred to as Eastern Woodlands Indians. Although central New York State is often considered the home of the Iroquoian groups, some 12 Iroquoian languages were spoken from the St. Lawrence River to the South Carolina-Georgia border. This language family (which included the Huron and the Cherokee) also refers to the Five (and eventually Six) Nations—the Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, Seneca, and Onondaga, followed later by the Tuscarora—that formed a loose confederacy known as the League of the Iroquois. Selections #1 and #2 provide comparatively recent accounts of suicidal behavior in this region.

Jesuit missionaries began visiting the Hurons around 1610; their correspondence gives us the earliest account of Native American beliefs concerning suicide. The letters of the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf to his superior Father Paul le Jeune (1635, 1636), compiled together with reports from other missionaries in a form now known as Le Jeune’s Relation [selection #3], depict the afterlife as is it understood by the Hurons, noting that suicides (like those who have died in war, but unlike thieves) are relegated to different villages in the afterlife than other souls, and are feared and ostracized, but also that death might be sought in certain circumstances. (Brébeuf himself, a French Catholic captured by the enemy Iroquois, went fearlessly to his death, martyred at the stake.) Wallace’s early account (selection #4, quoting LeMercier, a Huron of the 1600s) describing Seneca life and the matter of suicide in children, suggests that either it is the product of great impulsivity or that it is a trivial action. Lafitau’s account (selection #5, 1712–17; 1724) observes that although those who committed suicide are denied communication with other souls of the dead, the Iroquois committed suicide for even the smallest reproach. Concerning widows, Lahontan observes (selection #6, 1692–1703) that they were often driven to suicide by lack of an appropriate partner, and (in selection #7) that widows who dreamt of their departed loved ones twice in the six months following the death were permitted to commit suicide in order to be reunited with the deceased spouse. Although the Iroquois were said to often commit suicide to avoid suffering and captivity, Lahontan also narrates with evident astonishment a case in which a prisoner tortured severely under the auspices of the French nevertheless “ran to his death with a greater unconcernedness, than Socrates would have done” (selection #7). In selection #8, also describing attitudes that may have been similarly inconsistent, Mary Jemison, who lived with the Iroquois around the time of Handsome Lake, reports that Jack and Doctor, two Squawky Hill Indians who had killed her son, contemplated the terrors in the afterlife for those who commit suicide, yet one of them decided to poison himself regardless of the consequences.

The Seneca prophet Ganioda’yo, or Handsome Lake, who revitalized the Iroquois after their defeat in the American Revolution, reinforces traditional beliefs with Christian theological ideas. Selection #9, from Handsome Lake’s Code or “Great Message” (the Gaiwiiye), was recited from memory by Handsome Lake’s half-brother Gaiant’wake (Edward Cornplanter, one of six authorized “holders” of teachings of Handsome Lake’s religion) after an original version from about 1850 was lost; it was translated in 1913 for Arthur C. Parker by William Bluesky. The passage explores the notion of the afterlife, alluding to a belief found in other Native American groups, especially the Mojave, that infants before, at, and just after birth are capable of making choices about whether to enter into or continue in life. Some choose not to do so: deaths among infants are deliberate. This passage also alludes to the concept of allotted life; for “the number of our days is known in the spirit world.” In selection #10, Edward Cornplanter’s son Jesse Cornplanter explores this concept in relation to suicide: going against the fate of one’s allotment of life displeases the Great Spirit and dooms one to wander the unpleasant reaches of the afterlife; the notion of “sin” employed in this text is an example of Handsome Lake’s importation of Christian theological ideas.


Native Americans, who had no immunity to diseases brought by Europeans, succumbed in enormous numbers to measles, typhus, plague, influenza, malaria, yellow fever, and especially smallpox, a disease of extremely high mortality that also produced scarring and blindness in those it did not kill outright. Selection #11 describes shame-associated suicides among the Cherokee, including those that occurred during the smallpox epidemic of 1738–39. James Adair’s account focuses not only on the forms of shame associated with ritual pollution and disfigured personal appearance, but the perceived failures of divine powers among the religious leaders, who were unable to stop the epidemic. An account from the Plains Mandan (see selection #18) also describes the social consequences of smallpox.

According to an early observer, the Natchez, a people inhabiting the resource-abundant  area surrounding the lower Mississippi River who had a very complex, stratified social structure and an advanced civilization with state-level organization, appear to have practiced a form of sati: after an individual who belonged to the ruling clan passed away, the widow or widower and other chosen family members and retainers would allow themselves to be strangled in a public ritual. The custom applied to both females and males. Jean-Bernard Bossu’s Travels (selection #12, 1751–62, 1771) tells of several potential suicides associated with this custom. First there is the youth Etteacteal, who had married into the blood of the ruling Suns but, now that he is expected to submit to strangulation upon the death of his wife, attempts to avoid it. Then there is the favorite wife of Bitten Snake, the great war chief of the Natchez, who faces death with equanimity. And finally, there is the Chief Sun, who is restrained from suicide by the French. Nevertheless, institutionally expected consent to being killed, cooperation in being killed, or undertaking of suicide upon the death of one’s spouse is far less frequent in North American native cultures than in those of South America, Africa, India, or Pacific Island cultures, perhaps in part explained by the fact that small-scale hunter-gatherer groups with precarious survival situations, as many indigenous American groups were (though not the Natchez), could less well afford the loss of tribe members.

The Plains

Moving roughly east to west and south to north among the Native American cultures of the Plains, several divergent concepts of suicide emerge. Self-senicide, or self-killing by the elderly, is reported among the Comanche (selection #13). Among the Arapaho, suicide is said to be rare, although traditional accounts are reported here of elderly people asking to be left behind when the camp of this migratory group moves on. John Bradbury, an early American traveler, reports (in selection #16, 1809–11) that the Sioux saw killing oneself as an affront to the “Father of Life,” and those who took their own lives were destined to carry around the lethal instrument in the afterlife as punishment. For this reason, it was said that women who hanged themselves to evade maltreatment hanged themselves on the smallest tree that would support their weight, and in general those who committed suicide chose means of doing so that would involve the least burdensome load to carry into the next life.

Furthermore, while taking one’s own life was frowned upon and discouraged by certain beliefs about the afterlife, in some Plains Indian groups like the Cheyenne and Crow, giving oneself up to die in battle was seen as an act of courage and self-sacrifice, both honorable and socially approved, quite different from the self-inflicted type of suicide that was strongly denounced.

To increase honor, a Plains brave might seek a glorious death in battle. Unlike the negative aura surrounding grievance suicides, death-in-battle suicides were held up as examples of courage and sacrifice. Hoebel’s account of the Cheyenne warrior Two Twists (selection #17) suggests that the act of seeking death in battle could be sufficient to secure honor, and did not require the actual death of the individual. Two Twists’ wild charge into battle was enough to earn him great respect; it also compensated for Red Robe’s grief in losing his sons at the hands of the enemy. However, if the person proclaiming a wish to die did not act with suicidal intensity in battle—and hence at a real risk of death—prestige was lost and ridicule followed.

This ideal of a glorious death in battle was even more fully developed among the Crow (selection #19) and also occurred among the Gros Ventre (selection #21). Lowie reports in 1913 that among the Crow, an individual who became weary of life would announce that he was to become a “Crazy Dog.” From that point forward, the “Crazy-Dog-Wishing-To-Die” would say the opposite of whatever he meant (i.e., “talk crosswise”) and would seek death at the first opportunity. One possible connection between the phenomenon of “talking crosswise,” announcing the death wish, and suicidal behavior is the conjecture that, under normal circumstances, human beings do not seek or wish for death; in similar fashion, our communications do not normally signify the opposite of what is transmitted. In cross talk, communication is reversed and, analogously, death is sought instead of life. If a Crow who announced himself as committed to the life of a Crazy-Dog-Wishing-To-Die did not seek death, he became a laughing stock; he did not serve the tribe instrumentally by being courageous in battle and remained untrue to his word. Comanche informant reports collected by Hoebel (1940) (selection #13), reporting similar practices, also suggest that the threat of suicide was a means of social control. A suicide threat was used to call attention to a perceived wrong; the threat also served to call down societal rebuke upon those who had wronged the individual making the suicidal threat. Indeed, social responsibility for suicide was often assigned to a second party, and causing a suicide was essentially seen as homicide. The “cleansing of the arrows” ceremony was performed after either suicide or homicide to alleviate the bad luck brought on by such actions. Suicide was a way of recovering lost prestige or increasing it.

Wildschut’s 1918–27 fieldwork among the Crow (selection #20), in contrast, presents quite a different picture, in which suicides (and murderers) were regarded as the lowest of the low.

Among the Blackfeet, according to Grinnell (selection #22), suicide was quite common among girls facing marriage, for whom no choice was permitted. The same was true for individuals unlucky enough to be showing the early signs of fatal disease. Suicide also had a strong familial element. Adolf Hungry Wolf, recounting the “old-ways” of the Blackfoot Nation (selection #23), intimates that a dead person’s spirit might try to convince the living to accompany them into the sand hills, the place of the dead. In a related selection (#24), Kit-sta-ka jumps to her death after the Sun Dance in order to join her husband in the spirit world. Selection #25 records a problem in contact between Native Americans and whites: suicide following murder, associated with alcohol, based on an incident in October 1903.


Some Navajo researchers have posited a strong relationship between certain religious customs and conceptions of suicide. Father Berard Haile’s account (1942) of the Navajo “Upward Reaching Way” ceremony describes the myth on which it is based. The First Woman, who had originally led people out of the underworld, had died from a hemorrhage. First Woman’s husband decides to follow her spirit into death, that is, he chooses to forgo life and join his wife in the Emergence place, where spirits of the dead congregate. The journey to the Emergence place is voluntary, and Haile reports that at least one informant saw this as accounting for later suicides.

Among the Navajo, suicide was frowned upon, but not strongly condemned. Anthropologists Wyman and Thorne (selection #26) argue that the reason it was deemed undesirable was because of the negative effect it had upon family members and others who depended on the deceased. As with the Sioux, those who have committed suicide must carry the lethal instrument with them in the afterlife. Although suicides arrive at the same destination in the afterlife as everyone else, they are excluded from the sociality that exists there; other spirits fear and ostracize them. This echoes the earlier accounts from the Iroquois: It is not so much a judgmental deity who imposes eternal punishment on the suicide; rather, it is an isolation imposed by a fearful post-mortem society. Jerrold Levy adds (in selection #31) that suicide was not strongly condemned because of a deterministic element in the Navajo worldview: The Navajo is not wholly acting through individual will; rather, suicide is something that happens to a person and is not freely chosen.

As with all the indigenous cultures described here and in other parts of this volume, the identification of practices as “suicide” is itself subject to bias. Like most languages, Navajo has no true term for “suicide”; the closest term is a verb meaning to kill oneself, but there is no nominal expression to describe this behavior as a type or category of act. (Indeed, English had no such term until Walter Charleton pioneered the Latinate construction, sui- “self” \+ –cide, “kill,” in 1651.)

There is great importance attached to harmony with the natural and supernatural worlds in Navajo beliefs. Illness and other problems in life were thought to be due to a corruption in this harmony. Traditional ceremonies, sometimes lasting days, were thought to rebuild this harmony and restore order to the world and the individual. Coming into contact with a corpse and its attending spirit would serve as one type of disruption; for this reason, the Navajo feared the dead and often were loath to touch a corpse. Thus, the common notion of “suicide as revenge” can be intensified under Navajo religious belief: a well-placed suicide can be an instrument—a weapon—that harms others. Since the Navajo fear contact with a corpse, an individual with a vendetta against another will commit suicide in a place where the hated person will encounter the corpse, and this action will bring bad luck upon the targeted individual.

In 1967, the Hopi storyteller Nequatewa—an insider in the tradition handing down accounts of the “old-ways” and carrying on the tradition of passing down tribal culture by word of mouth from adult males to boys at early maturity—recounted a traditional tale of the Hopi variant of a warrior seeking death in battle. According to this tale, the Hopi arranged battles in which they knew they would die; as part of this custom, the warrior seeking death would wear jewelry that was to be collected as payment by the slayers. The Hopi legend describing the creation of the boundary with the Navajo portrays an arranged death of this sort (selection #33; see also #32). As in the reports of other deaths of this type, it is unclear whether the claim is accurate—Elsie Parsons, for instance, derides this account as an idea of a suicide pact that Nequatewa “worked into a true story” and quotes Ruth Bunzel as claiming that the very idea of suicide is “so remote from [Hopi] habits of thought that it arouses only laughter” (see note in selection #36). It is also unclear whether, even if the practice were true, the Hopi would equate it with other more direct forms of suicide.

While suicide as a revenge strategy was not unknown among the Pueblo, Ruth Benedict observes that not only was suicide outlawed among the Pueblo, but the very concept evoked incredulity and laughter (selection #37). If these were genuinely indigenous attitudes rather than specimens of overlay from European contact, it is somewhat surprising when Parsons observes (in selection #36) that some Pueblo did not believe in any afterlife punishment of suicides; instead, after death, suicides were thought to join believers, good men, and those who “perish in the mountains” (possibly meaning warriors), and would become Lightnings or Cloud Beings.

The explorer John Wesley Powell also reports a variant of self-senicide among the Utes, which he said “made a deep impression upon my mind.” (selection #35) The Utes, he says, believe that a woman who lives much beyond menopause will turn into a witch, and that it is better to die than meet such a fate. Many such women commit suicide by voluntary starvation, and he describes three old women in the process of doing so. Notes by the editor of his text indicate that Powell may not have actually seen these women but was recording a tale or myth about them; nevertheless, his portrayal of them and their final, shuffling dancing is extremely vivid.

Seemingly voluntary death in battle, much as in the Cheyenne, Crow, and Hopi, was also reported among the Jicarilla Apache (selection #38), now residents of northern New Mexico. Here too the warrior is said to divest himself of all ordinary conventions and enter battle with the intent of receiving a fatal wound. Among the Apache, the reversal of the normal order of things, analogous to the Crows’ “talking crosswise,” is demonstrated by stripping completely naked.

While some Native American groups would constrict their conceptions of suicide (if indeed they had such a concept at all) to exclude voluntary death in battle, the Mojave expanded their conception to include that and more. Devereux, in a long essay in ethnopsychiatry shaped by his own commitment to Freudianism, reports (in selection #39) that the Mojave, urged on by certain religious practices, expanded the rubric of suicide to include stillborn births, the deaths of suckling infants, the deaths of one or both twins, the symbolic death of one who sacrifices an animal upon commencing an incestuous marriage, funeral suicide, certain deaths surrounding witches, and finally, “real suicides”—those suicides that are akin to our modern notions. Drawing on the views of Freud [q.v.], Devereux sees many of these notions as connected to the mythic first death of Matavilye—a death that was willed and actualized by the deity himself.

The Mojave believed that infants were rational, sentient beings. In the continuation of selection #39, Devereux reports the view that some infants decided not to be born and assumed a transverse position at delivery—the buttocks-first exit that often killed both baby and mother. The infant who did this was assumed to be a shaman. Shamans, as a whole, did not wish to have life, and often decided to kill themselves and their mothers at birth. Those infants who survived a transverse birth were expected, and commonly grew up to be, the shamans of their tribes. Many shamans practiced obstetrics, and were often called on to help coax a dangerously positioned baby to accept life and avoid suicide. The Mojave disapproved of those babies who committed suicide in this way; it was viewed as a selfish act. Ordinary infants who died early in life were said to proceed to a “rathole” in the next life. Furthermore, since infants were seen as capable of making choices, the Mojave believed that the death of a recently weaned child was also a voluntary death. Young children who were replaced at the breast by younger siblings were often thought to kill themselves from jealousy. Jealousy was particularly acute among twins, who were commonly thought to be gods. When these infant gods grew to dislike their families, became tired of life, or became jealous of each other or younger siblings, they were thought to kill themselves in order to return to their heavenly abode. This type of suicide was more strongly condemned than the first.

Devereux also claims that the Mojave practiced symbolic suicide at the occurrence of an incestuous marriage. A horse, symbolizing the bridegroom, was killed; this dissolved the extant family connections and created a new person. This new individual, freed from troublesome family backgrounds, was able to marry a member of his former family. Such a suicide was frowned upon not because it was a suicide, but because of the Mojave religious belief that families in which incest had occurred would die out.

Suicide and witchcraft often intersected in Mojave culture. Dying people who rejected the helping favors of the shaman called in to treat them were said to be bewitched. By rejecting treatment, the “bewitched person” who died was said to have committed suicide and was condemned for cooperating with evil forces. Additionally, if a witch was murdered, he was said to have everlasting power over those he had bewitched on earth; thus, every witch who is murdered is said to commit a vicarious suicide in order to gain this power. Such a “suicide” is not mourned by the tribe or even by his family; it is rather the natural destiny of witches. Furthermore, in Mojave culture, the suicide of braves seeking death in battle (another example of the “Crazy-Dog-Wishing-To-Die” phenomenon) is seen as the natural pathway of the warrior; braves are not meant to grow old. While the Plains Indians may heap honor upon a warrior who died voluntarily in battle, the Mojave are resigned to a sad fatalism.

Informant reports collected by Devereux observe that a minor custom existed among the Mojave in which the survivors of a person who had died attempted to throw themselves onto the funeral pyre. Apparently, this custom was somewhat encouraged and was thought to demonstrate affection. It was restricted to females, however, and males who attempted to jump on the funeral pyre were ridiculed. Since the Mojave came to expect this gesture, other members of the tribe were also called upon to prevent the burning of the individual, thus making actual suicide a rarity; individuals in mourning knew they would be stopped.

Finally, there are what Devereux calls “real” suicides: a competent individual killing him- or herself by direct, self-inflicted injury. For the Mojave, a major motivation for “real suicide” was the belief that it was the best way to honor and be reunited with deceased loved ones. Another major motivation also included distress at having one’s feelings hurt. Devereux reports that the act of suicide was generally condemned, and people who committed real suicide (especially for reasons of emotional distress) were often viewed as crazy, weak, or stubborn. However, suicides suffered no special punishment in the afterlife: Those who committed suicide, like all others who died, proceeded to relive their earthly life and even their death before they metamorphosed into something else.

West and Northwest Coast

The Native American nations living in the northern California and Canadian coastal areas are listed here from south to north; the last of these areas adjoin groups included elsewhere in this volume under Arctic Cultures [q.v.]. As with other outsiders’ reports of behaviors and practices in orally transmitted cultures, the available accounts are often influenced by a variety of factors, including disciplinary bias, theoretical commitments, and various sorts of ideology. Aginsky’s account of a Pomo group (selection #40), for example, is shaped by an emphasis on psychological analysis of native behavior. Accounts of the Wintu and other northeastern California groups collected by Erminie W. Voegelin in 1936 (selection #41) appear eager to demonstrate the existence of suicide practices that other observers do not substantiate, although it is not clear which accounts are accurate. Voegelin insists that suicide has been practiced at least since the coming of Europeans and probably existed among the Wintu before that; suicide due to familial tensions is often brought about by drowning oneself at a sacred spot on the river, and attempted sati, or funeral suicide, is tolerated or expected, but (as is also reported in the Mojave) routinely interrupted by bystanders, so that the resulting number of actual suicides by widows was therefore minimal.

Brief accounts from the Klamath (selection #42) and a Salish group (selection #43) depict suicide as shameful and as more common among females than males. Among the Kwakiutl, Ruth Benedict reports (1934) (in selection #45) that suicide was common, and that the most common motive was shame; suicide was seen as a way of overcoming this shame and restoring honor.

The report attributed to the fur trader Duncan M’Gillivray (selection #46) may be even more distorted than other somewhat excessive accounts: M’Gillivray is said to have claimed that among the Talkotin, widows and widowers were forced to endure societally imposed torment by the crematory fire and wash themselves in the melted fat of their deceased spouse, as well as other hardships lasting over a period of years; these barbarities, he claimed, were understood as a payment for the sins the living spouse had committed against the dead. Many widows subjected to this treatment, he claimed, chose suicide instead.

Some reports also identify cultural assumptions in which the social assignment for responsibility in a suicide is placed on another individual. The accounts of the Tlingit presented here, including that by Jones (selection #49), point to cultural customs in which other individuals are assumed to have caused a suicide and are held responsible for it, in some cases by having the tribe pay damages, or even by giving a life. Of the Tlingit, Niblack (1887) (selection #48) reports of slaves killed at the funerals of their masters, and adds that they considered such a death a great honor, since slaves who were killed in this manner were buried with their masters and would serve them in the next life; any alternative burial would constitute the disrespectful disposal that slaves were usually given.

Lest reports of practices related to suicide seem more unusual the further north their source, this section closes with a contemporary account of a widespread post-contact problem among the Kaska in 1943–45 (selection #50): suicide and suicidal behavior associated with alcohol use introduced by whites.

Many of these reports are drawn from the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University.


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