Category Archives: North American Native Cultures


#47 Suicide and Intoxication
     (John Joseph Honigmann, 1943-1945)

All evidence agrees that completed suicide is very rare in Kaska society. In the other hand, observations and communications agree that attempted suicide by men is of frequent occurrence and very likely to appear during intoxication. There is a general pattern for such attempted self-destruction. In the two cases of the sort observed during field work, the weapon selected was a rifle. As he brandishes the weapon the would be suicide announces his intention in an emotional outburst. This becomes the signal for interference to block the deed. One or more men leap forward to wrest the gun from the intended suicide’s possession and toss it out of sight. The would be victim is now usually emotionally overwhelmed by his behavior. This pattern is illustrated by Louis Maza’s behavior during intoxication. Several times during the afternoon, Louis had manifested aggression toward himself, crying: “I don’t care if I’m killed. I don’t care my life.” After several hours of such emotional outbursts interspersed with quarreling and aggression toward his companions, he seized his large caliber rifle and threatened to kill himself. Old Man threw himself on the gun and as the two men grappled for the weapon, Louis succeeded in firing one wild shot. John Kean and the ethnographer ran to the camp and together wrenched the gun from the drunken man. John fired the shells in the chamber and Old Man tossed the gun half-way down the cutbank. No punishment or other discrimination is reserved for attempted suicides. The individual is comforted and in the future, while intoxicated, he is watched lest he repeat the attempt.

The dynamics of attempted suicide in Kaska society are extremely interesting, their interpretation contributing much to our understanding of deference. The goal of deference has been defined as warm human relations; from the psychiatric standpoint this is equivalent to saying that the goal of deference is love. Consciously, it must be made clear, the Kaska does not so much want to be liked as not to be disliked. The significance of this statement will be further clarified in connection with emotional isolation. Kaska individuals are afraid of giving offense and arousing hostility in a wide circle of human relationships, because they are anxious lest they be disliked. Evidence comes from the fact that people are readily hurt or offended. Thus, Nitla’s fear that his father-in-law would hear a false story about how he had neglected Adele led to his desire to tell his wife’s father his side of the story so that the latter would not dislike him. Old Man once expressed a complaint that Louis Maza was receiving visitors from downriver, but that nobody was continuing upriver to his place. Visitors are an assurance of popularity, so that a lack of them suggests being disliked. Unquestionably an attitude which fears dislike equals an unconscious fear of the loss of love plus the desire for love. It is against this theoretical backdrop that we may understand the significance of attempted suicide following a sequence of hostile and uncontrolled behavior. By his aggressive behavior the intoxicated individual violates personal standards of deference, betrays hostility, and earns the loss of love. Guilt follows and, while intoxication continues to reduce the efficiency of the egocentric defenses, he reacts to this guilt by a sudden reversal of activity. Aggression and hostility are deflected toward the self and this reversal leads to such behavior as Edward Prince manifested just before he attempted suicide, complaining that he was all alone in the world without relatives; or else the individual announces his intention of self-destruction. The function of this announcement is clear. It is a plea for help and a defense guaranteeing that the attempt will be unsuccessful. People immediately rush to stop the suicide. This is the would-be victim’s pay-off. In the attention he receives, he is assured of the affectionate regard which a moment ago he so strongly doubted. By this time the attempt is a thing of the past. The gun has been safely thrown away, the anxiety of loss of love and assurances of love pile up in the catharsis of emotion that typically terminates a sequence of hostility. From now on defenses can once more restore the emotional isolation of the personality which alcohol tore down. While all self-pity in intoxication is expressive of an unconscious demand for love, not all such emotional expression is immediately determined by aggression released during intoxication. It may also be a result of the affect hunger which the individual feels more keenly while his defenses have been reduced by alcohol. Some reported episodes of psychotic behavior may also be regarded as representing a disintegration of deference and the exposure of the individual to the excitement of hostile impulses which he can no longer control.

…People who committed suicide also ended up in a distinctive realm but no informant could describe this beyond the fact that it was “a black place” and an abode of the “devil.” Suicide, usually by hanging, might follow a period of extreme anger or a bitter quarrel.

[#47] Kaska: John Joseph Honigmann, Culture and Ethos of Kaska Society. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1949, pp. 204, 269; and J. J. Honigman, The Kaska Indians. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1954, p. 137.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Americas, Indigenous Cultures, North American Native Cultures


#46 Paying Damages for Suicide
     (Livingstone F. Jones, 1893-1914)

If a man commits suicide, a cause is always sought, and he who is regarded responsible for the cause is blamed and his tribe made to pay damages…

A man committed suicide simply to make trouble for one who offended him. According to native custom, if a person commits suicide because someone has offended him, or opposed a wish of his, heavy damages or a life must be given to the tribe of the suicide by the tribe of the one giving the offense. So suicide is sometimes resorted to in order to harass and burden others. The threat of suicide is sometimes used as a bluff to get one’s way.

[#46] Livingston F. Jones, A Study of the Thlingets of Alaska. New York: Fleming Revell, 1914, pp. 195, 218.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Americas, Indigenous Cultures, North American Native Cultures


#45 Slaves: An Honor to Die at the Master’s Funeral
     (Albert F. Niblack, 1887)

The custom with regard to slaves that died a natural death was to throw the bodies into the sea or otherwise cast them aside. Certain slaves, however, were selected by a master to be killed or sacrificed at his funeral ceremonies, in order that their spirits might accompany his in the next world and minister to it as they did to him in life. Those so selected esteemed it a great honor, as their bodies were accorded the same sepulture as their master’s. In case of cremation the bodies of the slaves were cremated with that of their master, or in case of interment were buried with it, thus securing to their spirits a comfortable time in the next world. Slaves killed on the occasion of a person of consequence building a house or giving a great feast were accorded also the right of burial of a freeman. There is, therefore, no special form of sepulture for slaves.

[#45] Albert F. Niblack, The Coast Indians of Southern Alaska and Northern British Columbia: Based on the Collections in the U. S. National Museum, and on the Personal Observation of the Writer in Connection with the Survey of Alaska in the Seasons of 1885, 1886, and 1887. New York and London: Johnson Reprint Co. Ltd., 1970, p. 356.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Americas, Indigenous Cultures, North American Native Cultures


#44 Holding Others Responsible for Suicide
     (Aurel Kruase, 1881-1882, 1956)

Lütke declares that suicide is unknown among the Tlinglit. He says that there is not even an instance of a slave taking his life. According to our findings, suicide is not such an unknown act. An injured person who has no possibility of revenge, or someone who is pursued and sees no way out, takes his life with the thought that he is thereby injuring his enemies, for the person who drives another to suicide will still be held responsible by the dead man’s friends and relatives, just as though he had killed him outright. A woman was accused by a shaman of the Stikine of causing the illness of another woman by witchcraft, and the relatives of the latter faced her with this accusation. This upset the accused woman that she seized a knife and cut her throat. As a result the shaman, as well as the relatives of the sick woman who brought the accusation, were besieged by the relatives of the dead woman in their homes until they acknowledged their guilt. A way of seeking death by those who wish to end their lives is to commit themselves to the sea in a canoe without paddles. The story goes that a Chilkat Indian who was badly scratched up in a fight with his wife, through shame and anger, left without a word to commit suicide after spending the night sitting in the trader’s house. However, this time it went no further than the attempt. After dark the following evening the supposed dead man returned and without much resistance allowed himself to be reconciled with his wife.

When in 1875 a Stikine chief, Fernandeste by name, committed suicide while he was being taken to Portland for a hearing because he became depressed on account of his circumstances, according to the report, his relatives demanded compensation of General Howard, claiming that the other Indians called them cowards because they had not taken revenge for his death. To pacify the Stikine, Howard gave them 100 blankets and delivered the body of Fernandeste.


[#44] Aurel Krause, The Tlingit Indians. Seattle: University of Washington, 1956, pp. 155, 281

1 Comment

Filed under Americas, Indigenous Cultures, North American Native Cultures


#43 Barbarities Practised on Widows
     (Ross Cox, citing M’Gillivray, 1794-1795)

The ceremonies attending the dead are very singular, and quite peculiar to this tribe. The body of the deceased is kept nine days laid out in his lodge, and on the tenth it is burned. For this purpose a rising ground is selected, on which are laid a number of sticks about seven feet long, of Cyprus neatly split, and in the interstices is placed a quantity of gummy wood. During these operations invitations are dispatched to the natives of the neighboring villages requesting their attendance at the ceremony. When the preparations are perfected the corpse is placed on the pile, which is immediately ignited, and during the process of burning the by-standers appear to be in a high state of merriment. If a stranger happen to be present they invariably plunder him; but if that pleasure be denied them, they never separate without quarreling among themselves. Whatever property the deceased possessed is placed about the corpse; and if he happened to be a person of consequence, his friends generally purchase a capot, a shirt, a pair of trousers, &c., which articles are also laid round the pile. If the doctor who attended him has escaped uninjured, he is obliged to be present at the ceremony, and for the last time tries his skill in restoring the defunct to animation. Failing in this, he throws on the body a piece of leather, or some other article, as a present, which in some measure appeases the resentment of his relations, and preserves the unfortunate quack from being maltreated. During the nine days the corpse is laid out, the widow of the deceased is obliged to sleep alongside it from sun-set to sun-rise; and from this custom there is no relaxation, even during the hottest days of summer! While the doctor is performing his last operation she must lie on the pile; and after the fire is applied to it, she cannot stir until the doctor orders her to be removed; which, however, is never done until her body is completely covered with blisters. After being placed on her legs, she is obliged to pass her hands gently through the flames, and collect some of the liquid fat which issues from the corpse, with which she is permitted to rub on her face and body! When friends of the deceased observe the sinews of the legs and arms beginning to contract, they compel the unfortunate widow to go again on the pile, and by dint of hard pressing to straighten those members.

If during her husband’s lifetime she had been known to have committed any act of infidelity, or omitted administering to him savory food, or neglected his clothing, &c., she is now made to suffer severely for such lapses of duty by his relations, who frequently fling her on the funeral pile, from which she is dragged by her friends; and thus, between alternate scorching and cooling, she is dragged backwards and forwards until she falls into a state of insensibility.

After the process of burning the corpse has terminated the widow collects the larger bones, which she rolls up in an envelope of birch bark, and which she is obliged for some years afterwards to carry on her back! She is now considered and treated as a slave; all the laborious duties of cooking, collecting fuel, &c., devolve on her. She must obey the orders of all the women, and even of the children belonging to the village, and the slightest mistake or disobedience subjects her to the infliction of a heavy punishment. The ashes of her husband are carefully collected and deposited in a grave, which it is her duty to keep free from weeds; and should any such appear, she is obliged to root them out with her fingers! During this operation her husband’s relatives stand by and beat her in cruel manner until the task is completed, or she falls a victim to their brutality. The wretched widows, to avoid this complicated cruelty, frequently commit suicide. Should she, however, linger on for three or four years, the friends of her husband agree to relieve her from her painful mourning. This is a ceremony of much consequence, and the preparations for it occupy a considerable time, generally from six to eight months. The hunters proceed to the various districts in which deer and beaver abound, and after collecting large quantities of meat and fur, return to the village. The skins are immediately bartered for guns, ammunition, clothing, trinkets, &c. Invitations are then sent to the inhabitants of the various friendly villages, and when they have all assembled the feast commences, and presents are distributed to each visitor. The object of their meeting is then explained, and the woman is brought forward, still carrying on her back the bones of her late husband, which are now removed, and placed in a carved box, which is nailed or otherwise fastened to a post twelve feet high. Her conduct as a faithful widow is next highly eulogized, and the ceremony of her manumission is completed by one man powdering on her head the down of birds, and another pouring on it the contents of a bladder of oil! She is then at liberty to marry again, or lead a life of single blessedness; but few of them I believe wish to encounter the risk of attending a second widowhood.

The men are condemned to a similar ordeal, but they do not bear it with equal fortitude; and numbers fly to distant quarters to avoid the brutal treatment which custom has established as a kind of religious rite.


[#43] Chilkotin/Talkotin: Ross Cox, The Columbia River, Or scenes and adventures during a residence of six years on the western side of the Rocky Mountains among various tribes of Indians hitherto unknown. Edgar I. Stewart and Jane R. Stewart, ed., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957, pp. 380-382., attributed to Duncan M’Gillivray, Journal of Duncan M’Gillivray 1794-95, ed. Arthur S. Morton.   Toronto: Macmillan, 1929.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Americas, Indigenous Cultures, North American Native Cultures


#42 Shame
     (Ruth Benedict, 1934)

The Kwakiutl recognized only one gamut of emotion, that which swings between victory and shame. It was in term of affronts given and received that economic exchange, marriage, political life, and the practice of religion were carried on. Even this, however, gives only a partial picture of the extent to which this preoccupation with shame dominated their behavior. The Northwest Coast carries out this same pattern of behavior also in relation to the external world and the forces of nature. All accidents were occasions upon which one was shamed. A man whose axe slipped so that his foot was injured had immediately to wipe out the shame which had been put upon him. A man whose canoe had capsized had similarly to ‘wipe his body’ of the insult. People must at all costs be prevented from laughing at the incident. The universal means to which they resorted was, of course, the distribution of property. It removed the shame; that is, it reestablished again the sentiment of superiority which their culture associated with potlatching. All minor accidents were dealt with in this way. The greater ones might involve giving a winter ceremonial, or head-hunting, or suicide. If a mask of the Cannibal Society was broken, to wipe out the count a man had to give a winter ceremonial and initiate his son as a Cannibal. If a man lost at gambling with a friend and was stripped of his property, he had recourse to suicide.

The great event which was dealt with in these terms was death. Mourning on the Northwest Coast cannot be understood except through the knowledge of the peculiar arc of behavior which this culture institutionalized. Death was the paramount affront they recognized, and it was met as they met any major accident, by distribution and destruction of property, by head-hunting, and by suicide. They took recognized means, that is, to wipe out the shame. When a chief’s near relative died, he gave away his house; that is, the planks of the walls and the roof were ripped from the framework and carried off by those who could afford it. For it was potlatching in the ordinary sense, and every board must be repaid with due interest. It was called ‘craziness strikes on account of the death of a loved one,’ and by means of it the Kwakiutl handled mourning by the same procedures that they used at marriage, at the attainment of supernatural powers, or in a quarrel.

There was a more extreme way of meeting the affront of death. This was by head-hunting. It was in no sense retaliation upon the group which had killed the dead man. The dead relative might equally have died in bed of disease or by the hand of an enemy. The head-hunting was called ‘killing to wipe one’s eyes,’ and it was a means of getting even by making another household mourn instead. When a chief’s son died, the chief set out in his canoe. He was received at the house of a neighboring chief, and after the formalities he addressed his host, saying, ‘My prince has died today, and you go with him.’ Then he killed him. In this, according to their interpretation, he acted nobly because he had not been downed, but had struck back in return. The whole proceeding is meaningless without the fundamental paranoid reading of bereavement. Death, like all the other untoward accidents of existence, confounded man’s pride and could only be handled in terms of shame.

There are many stories of this behavior at death. A chief’s sister and her daughter had gone up to Victoria, and either because they drank bad whiskey or because their boat capsized they never came back. The chief called together his warriors. ‘Now I ask you tribes, who shall wail? Shall I do it or shall another?’ The spokesman answered, of course: ‘Not you, chief. Let some other of the tribes.’ Immediately they set up the war pole to announce their intention of wiping out the injury and gathered a war party. They set out and found seven men and two children asleep and killed them. ‘Then they felt good when they arrived at Sebaa in the evening.’

A man now living describes an experience of his in the ’70’s when he had gone fishing for dentalia. He was staying with Tlabid, one of the two chiefs of the tribe. That night he was sleeping under a shelter on the beach when two men woke him, saying: ‘We have come to kill Chief Tlabid on account of the death of the princess of our Chief Gagaheme. We have here three large canoes and we are sixty men. We cannot go home to our country without the head of Tlabid.’ At breakfast, the visitor told Tlabid, and Tlabid said, ‘Why, my dear, Gagaheme is my own uncle, for the mother of his father and of my mother are one; therefore he cannot do any harm to me.’ They ate, and after they had eaten, Tlabid made ready and said he would go to get mussels at a small island outside of the village. The whole tribe forbade their chief to go mussel-gathering, but Tlabid laughed at what his tribe said. He took his cape and his paddle and went out of the door of his house. He was angry, and therefore none of his tribe spoke. He launched his canoe and when it was afloat his young son went aboard and sat in the bow with his father. Tlabid paddled away, steering away for a small island where there were many mussels. When he was halfway across three large canoes came in sight, full of men, and as soon as Tlabid saw them, he steered his canoe toward them. Now he did not paddle, and two of the canoes went landward of him and one canoe seaward, and the bows of all three canoes were in a line. The three canoes did not stop, and then the body of Tlabid could be seen standing up headless. The warriors paddled away, and when they were out of sight the tribe launched a small canoe and went to tow in the one in which Tlabid was lying dead. The child never cried, for ‘his heart failed him on account of what had been done to his father.’ When they arrived at the beach they buried the great chief.

A person whose death was determined upon to wipe out another’s death was chosen for one consideration: that his rank was equivalent of that of the dead. The death of a commoner wiped out that of a commoner, of a prince that of a princess. If, therefore, the bereaved struck down a person of equal rank, he had maintained his position in spite of the blow that had been dealt him.

The characteristic Kwakiutl response to frustration was sulking and acts of desperation. If a boy was struck by his father, or if a man’s child died, he retired to his pallet and neither ate nor spoke. When he had determined upon a course which would save his threatened dignity, he rose and distributed property, or went head-hunting, or committed suicide. One of the commonest myths of the Kwakiutl is that of the young man who is scolded by his father or mother and who after lying for four days motionless upon his bed goes out into the woods intent on suicide. He jumps into waterfalls and from precipices, or tries to drown himself in lakes, but he is saved from death by a supernatural who accosts him and gives him power. Thereupon he returns to shame his parents by his greatness.

In practice suicide was comparatively common. The mother of a woman who was sent home by her husband for unfaithfulness was shamed and strangled herself. A man whose son stumbled in his initiation dance, not being able to finance a second winter ceremonial, was defeated and shot himself.

Even if death is not taken into the hands of the shamed person in actual suicide, deaths constantly are regarded as due to shame. The shaman who was outjuggled in the curing dance, the chief who was worsted in the breaking of coppers, the boy worsted in a game, are all said to have died of shame. Irregular marriages take, however, the greatest toll. In these cases it was the father of the bridegroom who was most vulnerable, for it was the groom’s prestige which was primarily raised by the marriage transfer of property and privileges, and his father therefore lost heavily in an irregular marriage.


[#42] Kwakiutl: Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934, pp. 215-219.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Americas, Indigenous Cultures, North American Native Cultures


#41 Suicide by Hanging
     (W. Cline, 1930)

Some data on suicide was obtained from Johnie Louie which may be added here. The pattern for suicide seems to be by hanging. No one was ever hung for punishment. Suicide was rare among men, but common enough among girls. For instance, if a girl was angry she might kill herself, or if a wife was beaten on unfounded suspicion of adultery she might hang herself. If a girl got a reputation as loose, her father might whip her; she, feeling hurt, might kill herself. A child who suggests something important to its parents, which the latter refuse, has good cause to kill himself for shame. Thus, sixty years ago a man was sent by the priests to convert his family. His father disagreeing, the son shot himself through the mouth. Cecile Brooks said that suicides were more frequent in early days than at present. Women particularly were given to it on such provocation as a parental scolding, a disagreement over betrothal, or the like. They would hang themselves with a pack rope. Men also killed themselves, for example, because of jealousy. “They rigged up some sort of arrangement by which they could release an arrow with their toes.”

[#41] Salish: W. Cline, R. S. Commons, M. Mandelbaum, R. H. Post, and L. V. W. Walters, The Sinkaietk or Southern Okanagon of Washington. L. Spier, ed., General Series in Anthropology 6,:1-262 (1938), p. 127A.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Americas, Indigenous Cultures, North American Native Cultures


#40 Strained Sex Relations
     (V. F. Ray, 1928-1930)

Strained sex relations sometimes resulted in suicide. When eloping couples were overtaken and brought back it was not uncommon for the girl to kill herself. Forced marriage to an undesirable husband sometimes resulted in a like action, but more often such a situation was endured for a time until an opportunity to run away appeared. Since she had been married the girl was no longer subject to return to her parents in such a case. A woman ended her life by hanging or by falling forward on her digging stick.

Burke’s maternal grandmother committed suicide by hanging. She had been away with a man for several days. Upon her return she was reprimanded by her older sister and told never to see him again. She then took a tumpline and left the house. Her sister thought she was going for wood. Instead she found a fallen log with a limb projecting upward, tied the line around her neck, crawled out on the end of the limb and jumped off.

Male suicide was not as common as female. Men probably never hung themselves but rather thrust a knife into the heart or shot an arrow into the air and ran under it. A Sanpoil man named taxpa-ikst was told that his wife was cohabiting with his brother. He announced that he was going to kill himself. He went out, shot several arrows into the air, ran underneath, but each time one came near he dodged. Then he went into the house, procured a gun and shot himself through the shoulder. After that he called upon his brother, told him what he had done and gave the reason, and told him that he might have his horse for he was going to die. But he did not die. Instead he took back his horse and his wife.

[#40] Salish: V. F. Ray, The Sanpoil and Nespelem: Salishan Peoples of Northwestern WashingtonSeattle, WA: University of Washington, 1932, p. 149.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Americas, Indigenous Cultures, North American Native Cultures


#39 The Stigma of Suicide
     (Lucy Thompson, 1916)

The Klamath Indians are very much prejudiced against one taking their own life. They look down on the act, and if one should take his own life, which we call o-motch-ser-mer-yer, there is no chance for them to be saved and they go down the broad road that leads to the old woman and she gives them over to the man in the boat and he takes them over and leaves them in the wilderness where they live in misery until the judgement (sic) day and then are destroyed forever, there being no salvation for them and the family will be looked down upon for many generations to come and held back in taking part in any of their social functions. The children will be shunned by their playmates. The Indian seldom commits suicide and will avoid self-destruction by wishing that some wild animal will take them while they sleep, and of such cases they tell some very weird and touching tales. There was a girl taken by a wild animal…

Another was a young man of good family belonging to the Pee-wan village and he wanted to marry a girl of the upper division. The young woman refused him and this nearly broke his heart, so he went back into the mountains all alone and there he busied himself by trapping and hunting until he had accumulated great riches of valuable furs and other things and was there for a number of years when he returned to his home. He never married and lived to be an old man and all the children called him grandpa. As he became old he also became blind but the children all loved him and any of them were always ready to lead him wherever he wanted to go, and he was always ready to give blessings to the newly married couples and to newly born babies. He always wanted to visit where there was a new born baby. This old man would sweep and keep clean the village, even down to the creek and river, feeling and sweeping the whole day long and when he was tired some of the children would lead him home, and he thus lived to a good old age. So this is the way it would go in accordance with their belief in the hereafter. A Klamath Indian would never commit suicide if there was any way to prevent it on account of the stigma it would place on the family.


[#39] Klamath: L[ucy] Thompson, To the American Indian [later subtitled Reminiscences of a Yurok Woman]   Eureka, CA: Cummings Print Shop, 1916, pp. 76-77.

1 Comment

Filed under Americas, Indigenous Cultures, North American Native Cultures


#38 Suicide in Northeastern California
     (Erminie W. Woegelin, 1937)

Modern inquiry into the subject of suicide is revealing a growing number of tribes in northeastern California in which suicide was practised.

In my own experience during a summer’s ethnographic survey work, [1936] I found either aboriginal or recent cases of suicide acknowledged for exactly half of the groups visited (northern foothill Nisenan, McCloud and Upper Sacramento Wintu, Hat Creek Atsugewi, western and eastern Achomawi, Modoc, Klamath), while the other groups visited explicitly denied the practise (western and eastern Shasta, Hayfork Wintu, mountain, foothill, and valley Maidu, northern and southern mountain Nisenan). Out of this total of sixteen groups, the two Wintu groups are notable in their claim to an old and elaborately patterned form of suicide. Somewhat less clearly delineated procedures prevailed among neighboring groups.


…This case is said to have occurred “a long time ago.” It concerns a man whose wife had insulted him. (My informant commented, “She may have insulted him because she was jealous of him; perhaps he had been going with another woman.”) The man took his bow and arrow and went to a sacred spot on the river; when he arrived at the spot he dove in once, then later two or three times more, then again. He was seeking to pick up something on the bottom. But he failed to find anything, so he got out of the water and lay down by the fire; he wanted to sleep and dream. However he could not sleep because he was so angry. Before daylight he slept a little, but did not dream. He woke up, and started the fire at daylight; by sunup he got up and dove in the water again. When he came out of the water, he lay down on his side; he napped, but had no dreams. So he kept sitting around, thinking, praying, smoking; he kept this up all day, going into the water at intervals and diving around on the bottom. He ate nothing all day.

That night he dove into the water again, four or five times, feeling around on the bottom. At the last dive he found a small hole under a rock, but obtained nothing from the bottom. So he came out of the water and warmed himself by the fire, lying on his side, resting his head on the palm of his upturned hand. This time he fell asleep and dreamt; he saw a black crow in his dream. The crow lit near the man’s foot and scratched the man’s ankle with his claw. Then the man woke; it was nearly daylight. He pondered over his dream; “I wonder why a crow scratched my ankle?”

He went home early, about the middle of the morning. All his female relatives had acorn mush and salmon ready for him to eat (after his fast for power), but his wife had prepared nothing for him. The man’s uncle was there talking to the mountains, praying for the man. All the people told him to come and eat, that he must eat now.21 But he refused to eat; he said, “Eat, you folks; I guess my wife doesn’t want to see me eat; go on, you eat.”

His mother and father coaxed him; they said that everyone ate after they came out of a [sacred] spring. His father told him, “You’re young; you can go and get another woman; you shouldn’t feel badly because this woman has treated you this way. You can take another woman; but now you must eat, my son.”

But the man refused to eat; he went to his father’s house and stayed there two days and nights, not eating anything.

Then people came from the south and told the people there to come south; that they were going to have a war dance. The man whose wife had insulted him wanted to go; he had an elkskin robe and cap, and a fisherskin quiver. He took these out and left his father’s house in the morning and swam in the water. The women told him to eat, and made lunch of acorn bread for him to take; but he would not eat. He was singing all the time.

The party of men he was with camped four or five times; still he would not eat. When the party arrived at their destination there was a big fight. The fighting went on, back and forth; finally, the man’s father and brother caught him, because the man was very nearly out of arrows. They advised him to return home.

“No, I’m not going back; I’ve come down here to die. You go back,” the man said. Then he returned to the fight. Finally he was shot by the enemy in the ankle, where the crow had scratched him. His father said, “You’re shot; you’d better go back.” “No, I came to die,” his son replied. So he let the enemy capture him, and kill him, and take his elkhide armor and fisher quiver.

My informant from the Upper Sacramento group of Wintu confirmed the four cases of suicide detailed above, and volunteered the interesting comment that any blame for the act of suicide attached itself to the wives of the suicides, rather to than to the men themselves.

Treatment of the corpse of a suicide was the same as that for persons dying a natural death, provided of course that the body was recoverable. Only the parents of the deceased cried for the dead, however, at the burial of a suicide.

When first questioned on the topic of suicide both McCloud and Upper Sacramento Wintu informants denied that the practice prevailed in aboriginal times. It was only in connection with another subject, and several hours after I had asked about suicide, that my McCloud informant retailed the first of the cases given above; when she realized my interest in the case she gave the other cases in the same succession in which I have presented them. When I went on to my next informant, among the Upper Sacramento Wintu, I again met with a point blank denial of any cases of aboriginal suicide; but when I briefly outlined the McCloud data this informant nodded immediate agreement and remarked, “Yes, that was what people used to do.” There was no hint in his manner that he equated this behavior with suicide as it prevails today.


 Assuming that suicide is an old practise among the Surprise Valley Paiute, we find that there is a practically continuous line of distribution for the aboriginal occurrence of suicide procedures from the Surprise Valley Paiute westward through the Achomawi proper and the Hat Creek Atsugewi, to the McCloud and Upper Sacramento Wintu. To the north among the Modoc and Klamath suicide was also practised under aboriginal conditions. As regards the Hammawi Achomawi who are situated between the Surprise Valley Paiute and the Achomawi proper, and who disclaim aboriginal suicide practices, the negative statement of a single informant cannot be taken as the final word on the subject, especially when this informant admits to a recent case of suicide being accomplished by eating wild parsnip root, which was elsewhere an aboriginal procedure.

In the cluster of groups mentioned above, three disparate suicide patterns are encountered. Of these three patterns that of the Wintu has already been discussed in detail. As regards the second pattern, found among the Klamath and Modoc, we lack at present many specific details, but at least one notable fact emerges from our various references to suicide in these two groups. For both the Klamath and Modoc suicide is a romantic gesture, motivated by disappointments in love and, indirectly, jealousy. Women hang themselves, men in some instances drown themselves.

The third pattern, found among the Atsugewi, Achomawi, and Surprise Valley Paiute, may be briefly summarized as follows. Suicide was usually motivated either through jealousy or quarreling; eating wild parsnip root was one of the more generally accepted modes of committing suicide; the bodies of suicides were accorded the same disposal as the bodies of persons dying natural deaths, but only close relatives wailed; suicide was regarded with disapproval, and among most of the groups occurred only rarely. If we were seeking for a more extended areal distribution of this latter, or characteristically northeastern California suicide pattern, we would first of all turn eastward to the Great Basin tribes of Nevada, since among the Modoc and the Klamath to the north there is a definite change in pattern, among the Wintu to the west the pattern is also of a different order, while among the Maidu-speaking people to the south all suicide practises are consistently denied.

[#38] Wintu and others: Erminie W. Voegelin, “Suicide in Northeastern California, “ American Anthropologist 39:445-456 (1937), pp. 445-449, 454-456.


Leave a Comment

Filed under Americas, Indigenous Cultures, North American Native Cultures