The Appollonian attitude of the Pueblos toward death cannot outlaw the death of relatives nor the killing of enemies; it can at its best only make them sources of blessing and provide means of getting past them with the least violence. Homicide, the taking of life within the group, occurs so seldom that there are hardly even tales remembered of it, but if it occurs, it is settled without ado by payment arranged between the kin groups. The taking of one’s own life, however, is entirely outlawed. Suicide is too violent an act, even in its most casual forms, for the Pueblos to contemplate. They have no idea what it could be. Pressed to match stories, the Zuñi tell of a man who had been heard to say that he would like to die with a beautiful woman. One day he was called to cure a sick woman, and his medicine involved the chewing of one of their wild medicinal plants. In the morning he was found dead. It is as close as they can come to the idea of the act, and it does not occur to them that he could have taken his life. Their story is only of a man whose death occurred in the form he had been heard to wish for.
The situation that to us parallels our practice of suicide occurs only in folktales. A deserted wife in the tales occasionally asks the Apache to come in four days to destroy the pueblo and hence her spouse and his paramour. She herself cleanses herself ritually and puts on her best clothing. On the appointed morning she goes out to meet the enemy and be the first to fall before them. This, of course, falls within our category of suicide, though they think only of the ritual revenge. ‘Of course we would not do that now,’ they say; ‘she was mean.’ They do not get beyond the fact of her vengefulness. She was destroying her fellow villagers’ possibilities of happiness, from which she felt herself shut out. In particular she was spoiling her husband’s newfound pleasure. The rest of the tale is not really imagined in Zuñi; it is beyond their experience, like the supernatural messenger she gets to carry her message to the Apaches. The more particularly you illustrate the practice of suicide to a Zuñi audience, the more politely and smilingly incredulous they become. It is very strange, the things that white people do. But this is most laughable of all.
The Plains Indians, on the other hand, did far more with the idea of suicide than we do. In many of the tribes a man who saw nothing ahead that looked more attractive to him could take a year’s suicide pledge. He assumed a peculiar badge, a buckskin stole some eight feet long. At the end where it dragged behind upon the ground it had a long slit, and the pledger as he took his pledged place in the forefront of their guerilla warfare was staked to his position through the slit in his insignia. He could not retreat. He could advance, for the staking did not, of course, hamper his movement. But if his companions fell back, he must stay in his foremost position. If he died, he at least died in the midst of the engagements in which he delighted. If he survived the year, he had won by his courting of death all the kinds of recognition that the Plains held dear. To the end of his life, when great men publicly recounted their exploits in the constant, recognized boasting contests, he could name his exploits and the year of his pledge. He could use the counts he acquired in joining societies and in becoming a chief. Even a person who did not despair of his life at all might be so tempted by the honours that were attainable in this fashion that he would take the pledge. Or a society might try to pledge an unwilling member. The warrior’s pledge was by no means the only way in which suicide was recognized on the plains. It was not a common act among them as it is in some primitive regions, but tales of suicide for love often recur. They could well understand the violent gesture of flinging away one’s life.
[#34] Pueblo: “Ritual Revenge,” from Ruth Benedict, Patterns of Culture, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1934, pp. 117-118.