#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.


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