#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.

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