#24 from Notes on Navajo Suicide
     (Leland C. Wyman and Betty Thorne, 1945)

The principal motives for our thirty-three cases of suicide were response to love-motives (grief over death of relatives, marital jealousy and quarreling) and avoidance of the consequences of crime or illness.18 The distribution was roughly equal for the two motive groups and for the two causes for each. These motives and causes are not unlike those existing in other cultures, Indian and white, but the whole group differs in the absence of certain motives common in other cultures, e.g., the economic causes of suicide in “white” society, and the revenge for mistreatment (and recognition-seeking) motives characteristic of the Iroquois.19

The behavioral action pattern of the sequence murder-suicide (or crime-suicide) and its accompanying avoidance motive may be a signal of a configuration something like “avoidance of trouble with white legal processes.” Definition of the pattern as major or minor, conformant or deviant, requires further study of its incidence and comparison with that of murder alone in the culture as a whole. Statements such as “sometimes person can do wrong things which will be very bad for him, then he have to kill himself” (AT) hint at its being conformant with the ideal pattern, but the consensus of disapproval of suicide and certain other statements (“some other people get into trouble, but they don’t kill self”—LU) militate against its conformity.

We were not able to learn of an abstract term for suicide. Navaho employs only reflexive forms of the verb “to kill,”20 e.g. ? άdi∙lyé—he kills himself, ?άdi∙syí—he killed himself, etc. Father Berard Haile very kindly told us of these terms and added “Navaho prefers the verb ‘to suicide’ rather than a noun ‘suicide,’ perhaps because a personal action is involved in suiciding.

Thirds may also function in an impersonal sense so that ?άdi∙lyé also means ‘there is suiciding, or a suicide,’ and so on for the perfective and future, which is pretty close to our abstract noun ‘a suicide’.” Dr. Clyde Kluckhohn tells us that in the Ramah region the third person singular perfective (?άdi∙syí) is used as a noun (colloquially) to mean “the suicide,” i.e., “the man who committed suicide.”

Father Berard also told us that “There is another word that approximates suicide, namely ?άdqhnaxqstą∙go, ‘when he or they put time conditions upon themselves’ or he exposes himself and takes chances on life. A person may feel himself cornered and is ready to defend himself to the last regardless of consequences. The inference is that such a person realizes that his action is suicidal but proceeds anyway. To induce another to such action is not approved.”

None of our informants had ever heard of an origin myth for suicide, nor any mention of it in any of the myths known to them. RA related the story of the first death from the emergence legend,21 and added “Many years after that, people started to make story people who kill self wouldn’t go someplace same but separate from other group down there.” One of Father Berard’s informants rationalized the descent of a man into Emergence Place to join the spirit of his former wife, in a version of the first death, as accounting for suicides today, but other informants said that suicides were comparatively rare.22 We have been able to find only one reference to suicide in the recorded legends which we have seen, and here there is some question as to whether it was suicide or accidental death, different versions varying.23 We may assume (pending future discovery) that suicide was not sanctioned in Navaho mythology.

If one were to judge alone from the statements in English of the interpreter the conclusion would be that our Navaho informants had a rather casual attitude towards suicide. A victim is merely an unfortunate person who could have lived longer if he had done the right thing. The act is not condoned, neither is it greatly condemned. The usual expression was one of mild sorrow for the victim, and mild disapproval of the practice. For instance; “People don’t like it—it’s a great mistake. Would be better for person not to kill himself. Especially young people. If they live like they should then they would die someday” (AT). “Kind of feel sorry about it. People who do that they bring it up among themself” (DCW). “The people think it pretty bad. But they can’t help it, after it happens. But feel sorry for person. Not very good thing to do” (JA). “Bad thing to do. They don’t try to take care of self, wife, or family like the others. They could live longer if they did. They supposed to live long just like others. Like way they do they just cut their life off” (RA). “If he didn’t do that he could live more” CY). “Pretty bad. People says they just wonder why people have to kill themselves like that. They have to die anyway someday, might just as well not do it” (TW). “Not very good thing. That’s all they can do, feel sorry for man who kill self” (LU). Navahos are sometimes prone to understatement,24 however, especially when speaking in English. Our conclusion would be then, that suicide is condemned (although perhaps not violently), mainly because one should not shorten one’s life and thus escape the responsibilities of life, e.g., caring for one’s family, but after the act considerable sorrow is felt for the victim and for his family.

We obtained ample confirmation of the idea pattern that the spirit of a suicide must continually carry the lethal implement in the afterworld25 (gun, knife, stick, rock—DCW, CY, LU), and that he is excluded from association there with the spirits of those who have died otherwise.26 Six of eight informants expressed this belief and explained it somewhat as follows. “People who kill themselves don’t go where other dead people go. In crowd people scared of him, try to push him off. No friend down there any more after kill himself. They carry gun, knife, etc., so those people down there afraid of visitor. Afraid they kill people down there” (DCW). “They go same place where all dead go but they don’t go into that crowd, they put them off, they afraid to have them with other people. They know these people who kill themselves they bad already so they afraid of those kind of people. They rather have them go separate from the others. All go same country where they can see each other but is different place” (RA). “They go different place. Have another place just from there. People afraid of him when he gets down there, have to put him off not to get in crowd. Still got with him whatever kill self with. Carry all time, want to kill man all time, that’s why” (LU). Only TW said that the spirit of a suicide might be earthbound (“where a man kill himself he have to be right there where he kill himself, no other place. Stays there always.”) but her further discussion of ghosts (“don’t know whether ghosts of suicides do that”—i.e., behave like earth people in the afterworld as do the spirits of others) indicated uncertainty as to her beliefs. The other two informants (FJ, CY) said that the spirits of suicides go to the same place as those of others, but they did not discuss the matter of association with the other spirits, nor did they say anything contrary to the idea of exclusion. Indeed CY said “after kill self they go on where other people goes and take their gun who kill self with (or knife) and people say they are danger after they kill themselves.”

Four informants (RA, CY, FJ, JA) stated that the usual burial practices are accorded to a suicide (dressing the deceased in his best clothes and jewelry, killing saddle horses at the grave, etc.) the same as to anyone else. These preparations for the afterworld and precautions against the return of the ghost27 likewise betoken the beliefs that the destination of the spirit of a suicide and the behavior of his ghost (v.i.) are similar to those of any other dead person. Again these ideas are not concerned in the question of whether or not a suicide’s spirit is allowed to mingle with the others in the afterworld. In summary, the idea pattern is that the spirit of a suicide goes to the afterworld and can return thence as a ghost (v.i.), but while there it may not live with nor in the same place as the spirits of other mortals (because they are afraid of it).

This pattern is similar to that of the Hidatsa (“self-murderer will live isolated in the future life, but will not be less well treated”28) but differs from the Iroquoian belief that suicides are earth-bound, excluded from the land of the dead.29

Most informants thought that the ghost of a suicide is of the same nature as that of anyone else.30 Three (JA, CY, DCW) definitely stated this as true, two (AT, TW) said that they did not know of any difference, and two (RA, FJ) did not express any opinion but their discussion of kindred matters indicated that they knew of no ideas to the contrary. One woman (DCW) did say that ghosts of suicides might “come around more often; don’t know just how often.” Only one informant (LU) said that the ghost of a suicide is more dangerous than that of someone else. “They more afraid about people who kill self. They mad all time, got mad when start to kill self. When come back already mad.” In spite of the reasonableness of this idea it seems to be a minor deviant pattern.


17 The only additional cause given was senility, an obsolete pattern according to JA (e.s.). Allied to this may be the reported belief that an aged Navaho can end his life by wishing to die; see Newcomb, p. 79.

18 The “lover’s leap” reported by van Valkenburgh (case 28) may have been a love-motive response, but according to the story it appeared more as an avoidance of censure for incest.

19 See Fenton, pp. 124-128. Navaho motives are strikingly similar, however, to those given for the Chiricahua Apache by Opler, pp. 250, 409, 472. For data from the Pueblo Indians, where “suicide is almost unheard of,” see Parsons, p. 75.

20 As in the Iroquoian languages; see Fenton, p. 85; “While this is typical of Iroquoian languages which generally have few abstract terms, it does show that the act was not frequent enough to cause the progressive reduction of the descriptive verb to an abstract concept.”

21 See Wyman, Hill, and Osanai, p. 36.

22 Haile, p. 412

23 The suicides by drowning during the separation of the sexes in the uppermost underworld, in the Emergence Legend: Matthews, p. 72; Goddard, p. 129. This episode would seem neither to account for nor sanction the practice of suicide by the Navaho.

24 Cf. Reichard, 1934.

25 Wyman, Hill, and Osanai, p. 39.

26 Ibid., pp. 39-40. This idea pattern should be added, therefore, to the summary of the assemblage of behavioral patterns of Navaho eschatology, possibly as a major pattern pending further study. See footnote 75, p. 40, and 5d, p. 46.

Leland C. Wyman and Betty Thorne, “Notes on Navaho Suicide” in American Anthropologist, vol. 47, no. 2, 1945, pg. 278.

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