(documented 1840-1940)

Eskimo of Diomede Island:

  1. Father and Son
    (Edward Moffat Weyer, 1932)


  1. Are the Aleut Prone to Commit Suicide?
    (Veniaminov, 1840)

St. Lawrence Eskimo:

  1. Notes on Eskimo Patterns of Suicide
    (Leighton and Hughes, 1940)


  1. Suicide as Shameful or Insane
    (Osgood, 1937)

Copper Eskimo:

  1. Death Taboos
    (Rasmussen, 1921-24)
  2. Suicide as Rare
    (Jenness, 1913-18)

Eskimo of Cumberland Sound:

  1. Man’s Two Souls: The Afterlife
    (Boas, 1883-84)

Caribou Eskimo:

  1. Moral Rights, Social Obligations
    (Birket-Smith, 1921-24)

Netsilik Eskimo:

  1. Famine; On the Treatment of the Aged
    (Rasmussen, 1921-24)

Iglulik Eskimo:

  1. The Moon Spirit
    (Rasmussen, 1921-24)
  2. Death, and Life in the Land of the Dead
    (Rasmussen, 1921-24)
  3. Those Who Were Left Behind
    (Rasmussen, 1921-24)

Hudson Bay Inuit:

  1. Desertion of Old Women
    (Turner, 1882-84, 1889-90)

Eskimo of Baffin Island:

  1. Theological Questions
    (Hall, 1860-62)
  2. Tribal Life
    (Bilby 1923)

Labrador Eskimo:

  1. Respect for the Aged
    (Hawkes, 1914)

Greenland Eskimo:

  1. The Old Woman and the Cliff
    (Nansen, 1893)

The native inhabitants of Arctic and sub-Arctic North America and the tip of northeastern Siberia include a wide range of groups, often loosely referred to as the Eskimo or the Inuit. Generally, these peoples had no name for themselves as a group, and terms for the complete population were given by outsiders. The word “Eskimo,” a name sometimes said to mean “eaters of raw meat,” is now often regarded as derogatory; more plausible etymologies trace the name from Montagnais, an Algonquian language, as “snowshoe netters” or “people who speak a different language.” The terms “Inuit” or “Yuit” (meaning “people” or “real people”) and “Inupiaq” are also frequently used. There is no universal term accepted in all regions: the terms “Eskimo” and “Alaska Native” are more frequently used in Alaska; “Inuit” and “Inuinnaq” in Canada; and “Kalaallit” or “Greenlanders” in Greenland. Names used in the sources presented here follow the original in each case.

Arctic groups are speakers of languages within two principal branches, the Aleut and the Eskimoan, which include among others the languages Yupik, Yuit, and Inuit. While there is ongoing disagreement about precise dates, most specialists believe that all Eskimo-Aleut groups moved across the Bering land bridge several millennia ago; after reaching Alaska, they first separated into Aleut and Eskimoan, and then the latter group separated into Yupik and Inuit; some Yupik groups then migrated back across the Bering at a later date. They are all primarily coastal groups. Arctic cultures spread from Siberia in the west, across Alaska and Canada, to Greenland in the east; the selections provided here are presented in approximately this geographical order. At the westernmost extent of Arctic habitation are the Siberian Eskimo and the Eskimo of the Bering Strait, a grouping that includes the inhabitants of the St. Lawrence and Diomede Islands, as well as the Aleutian Islands. Moving east and north, Eskimo groups are found in western, northern, and southern Alaska, as well as the Mackenzie Eskimo near the Canadian border. In north-central Canada, there are several groups including the Netsilik and Iglulik, along with the Caribou and Copper Inuit. Toward the east, there are the Labrador Eskimo and the Eskimo of Baffin Island. Finally, the Inuit of Greenland inhabit the easternmost portion of the western-hemisphere Arctic world. Many of the religious, social, psychological, and economic patterns of culture are relatively constant across these various groups, although important differences do exist.

Arctic peoples have persisted despite harsh climatic conditions. Winter temperatures across the areas inhabited average minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit; snow blankets the ground from September until June. Most groups live in coastal regions and have traditionally subsisted by hunting marine mammals, including seal and whale, as well as by fishing and hunting some land animals, like caribou.

It is believed that the first contact between Europeans and Arctic peoples occurred in southern Greenland around the 12th century A.D. as the Eskimo migrating south and east came into contact with Norse settlers (including Erik the Red). Friendly relations apparently deteriorated and conflict raged until the early 1400s, when the Norse disappeared somewhat mysteriously; the poor relations with the Inuit, climate changes, and trade difficulties all might have contributed to the demise of the Scandinavians in Greenland. Also, some have speculated that the Norse were assimilated by the native inhabitants (see, e.g., Nansen, 1911, and Oleson, 1963). The similarities that exist between the Viking and the Greenlandic conception of death by violence might serve to support this theory, or they may indicate some other sort of exchange of ideas and cultural values between the two groups.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, Arctic peoples first came into enduring contact with Europeans. The Jesuits began missionizing in 1605; whaling ships and other vessels used routes along the coast; Henry Hudson arrived in 1610; and Hudson’s Bay Company opened its first trading station in Labrador in 1749. Europeans began fishing intensively off the coast in the late 1770s. Such contact initiated a cultural revolution among the Eskimo that continues today. Widespread interaction with Europeans began in the 18th and 19th centuries, and several American and European expeditions were sent to study Eskimo ethnology and archaeology during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These include the famous Fifth Thule Expedition (1921–24) led by Knud Rasmussen, a Danish explorer and ethnologist born in Greenland who was himself half Inuit and spoke Greenland Inuit, as well as several Canadian dialects, and the Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913–18) led by Diamond Jenness. Since the Eskimo were not a people who kept written records, the accounts of these early expeditions are the only way to access original Inuit beliefs; however, it must be remembered that these accounts are filtered through the lenses of outside observers who bring with them their own sets of assumptions and biases.

The Selections

A review of these early accounts indicates that suicide was a common practice among many Arctic groups, though Veniaminov (selection #2) voices skepticism about claims that the Aleut are prone to commit suicide and Jenness’s account of the Copper Eskimo (selection #6) argues that suicide is extremely rare. In some or many groups, individuals who were near the end of life, when they perceived their utility to the group as minimal, would seek suicide as a way to relieve their fellows of the burden of having to care for them. Examples of this seemingly altruistic type of suicide include Ernest W. Hawkes’s 1914 report on the Labrador Eskimo (selection #16), Kaj Birket-Smith’s description of the Caribou Eskimo, documented in 1921–24 (selection #8), and Julian Bilby’s 1923 observations of the Inuit of Baffin Island (selection #15). If these reports are accurate (though like all reports of oral cultures by outside observers, they may well be distorted by outside values and suppositions), this practice was probably linked to other Inuit activities, such as infanticide and abandonment of the elderly: under the inexorable conditions of the Arctic tundra, those who could not contribute were undesirable. The more unproductive members of the group understood this, it is said, and thus often participated in their own demise. Suicide, according to Foulks, was also believed to be able to save the life of another, often that of a sick child. Sometimes it is true, however, that death was forced upon a sick or aged individual—see, for example, the observations of Lucian M. Turner in 1882–84 (selection #13) and Rasmussen’s report on the Netsilik (selection #12).

It was commonly reported that family members assisted in the death of their relatives; sometimes this participation became highly ritualized and subject to taboo regulation—the St. Lawrence account of Leighton and Hughes (selection #3), who did pioneering fieldwork in ethnopsychiatry in the 1940s, exemplifies this tendency. The Diomede Islander who, according to Weyer’s 1928 report (selection #1), aided in the stabbing of his father demonstrates that in other Inuit groups, there was also a community and familial involvement, although at a less formalized level. Thus, among many groups, suicide possessed a strong public flavor. In many groups, hanging was the favored method, although regional variations did exist, including throwing oneself into the frigid seawater or exposing oneself to the cold.

Inuit conceptions of the afterlife may also have contributed to a readiness to commit suicide. Most Inuit groups are said to have believed in a continuance of the soul in an afterlife and in the existence of multiple destinations that a soul could achieve after death. Broadly speaking, the Inuit thought that the conditions of the soul after death depended, at least in part, on how the person died—whether by starvation, in childbirth, by sickness, or by accidental or intended violence. Violence was often seen as having a purifying effect on those that experienced it; therefore, death by violence—including suicide—often led to a placement in the better regions of the afterlife, as for instance in Hall’s report of the Baffin Islanders, 1860–62 (selection #14) and Hawkes’s 1914 report on the Labrador Inuit (selection #16). Turner’s field study (selection #13) and Boas’s report from the early 1880s (selection #7), however, demonstrate different beliefs for other Inuit groups. If, as certain Inuit groups asserted, how one dies is largely beyond one’s control, the lot of the soul is largely determined by accidents of chance. Suicide, however, would be one way a person could exert more control over his or her future state, and might, therefore, present an attractive alternative.

Rasmussen’s account of the intellectual culture of Iglulik Eskimo, documented during the Fifth Thule Expedition of 1921–24, contains a more detailed account of these religious influences (selection #10). The Moon Spirit, protector of all those who die violently and commit suicide, beckons the Inuit soul: “Come, come to me! It is not painful to die. It is only a brief moment of dizziness. It does not hurt to kill yourself.” The Moon Spirit, for this Inuit group, was a benevolent deity, offering to the Eskimo the hope of a pleasant afterlife. It should be noted that in this system, the honored souls go up, while in other groups, the preferred direction is down to warmer regions.

Although most writers suspect that suicide practices among Arctic peoples are of ancient origin, some disagree. Asen Balikci (1970) has argued that the suicides reported by the early explorers among the Netsilik Eskimo were largely (but not entirely) a product of greater societal upheavals during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, exacerbated by increases in emigration and the introduction of new technologies like firearms (and later intrusions such as radar stations) that disrupted traditional hunting schemes. As with accounts of all oral cultures, descriptions of native beliefs and practices are filtered through the often disapproving eyes of outside observers, although the early accounts of the Inuit are clearly not as distorted by the ideologies of colonizers and missionaries as, say, those of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca, or of various African groups. And some practices are dramatically altered in more recent times, presumably in response to European influences; see Osgood on the Ingalik, 1937 (selection #4), for responses to practices concerning abandonment of the elderly. In any case, caution is important in trying to determine the content and antiquity of beliefs and practices concerning suicide in Arctic cultures.

In contemporary times, suicide rates are high in many Inuit groups. Alcohol, unemployment, and the stress and social upheaval associated with loss of traditional cultural patterns and the challenges of adaptation to modern Alaskan and Canadian life are often blamed, though some researchers have suggested that the high suicide rate is due at least in part to cultural traditions in pre-contact times that accepted altruistic self-destruction—as, according to Leighton and Hughes (selection #3), apparently was the case among all Eskimo from Alaska to Greenland.

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