#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.

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