#9 Famine; On the Treatment of the Aged
     (Knud Rasmussen, 1921-1924)

…In seasons when hunting is bad they have to move incessantly from place to place, and the winter becomes a hard one, not only for the hunters themselves but especially for all the old people. The treatment of the aged, of course, varies with the individual. Here, as everywhere, there are helpful and sympathetic, or hardhearted sons and sons-in-law, and fate of the old people lies in their hands. A removal from one hunting place to the other is like a whole migration, on which men and woman have to carry along everything they possess. True, this is not much, but when clothing, sleeping skins and household utensils are piled up on the small, often miserable sledges, there is at any rate no room for people to sit. Then in a long procession the sledges move off over the ice to find a good camp with deep drifts for building snow huts. Men and women have to help the dogs to draw the loads, and then when they arrive at a place where good hunting may be expected, they stop and pitch camp. These removals are slow processes. Children who can walk must be able to keep up with the sledges. The only ones who sometimes have difficulty are the old. Worn-out men or women; bent with rheumatism they come plodding behind, and no matter how slowly the main body moves, they are usually unable to keep up but only arrive at the camp when the snow houses are finished.

I made exhaustive enquiries as to the treatment of the aged, and the only case of heartlessness that I came across was that of an old woman by name Kigtaq. She was the mother of a woman named Terigssaq who was married to Arfeq. When they moved from camp to camp she was often left out on the ice in midwinter, clad only in a thin inner jacket and no thick, warm outer coat. Even in bad weather she often had to sleep out on the ice as she had not caught up with the others: but, as they said to me, “she was not dead yet and life was still sweet to her”. When I passed Matty Island she was on the long journey to Lord Mayor Bay to spend the spring and summer in that region.

I took up this case of Kigtaq and asked whether it was not thought wicked that more care was not taken of an old woman. To this Samik answered: “No one here among us wishes harm to old people. We ourselves might be old some day. Perhaps there are those among us who think Arfeq might take more care of his mother-in-law, particularly by giving her better clothes. But others excuse Arfeq, in that he has been so unlucky in his hunting that he has barely been able to procure furs for his wife and his children, and people think he must first and foremost attend to them; for not only are they more closely related to him, but they have their lives before them and they may live long, whereas there is no future for an old worn-out woman. Then again there are others who think that Arfeq should allow his mother-in-law to ride on his sledge, or at any rate go back for her when he has built his snow hut, while others say that he only has two dogs and with his wife has to help to drag his sledge from place to place. And if he has to be at the breathing holes next morning at the proper time to secure food he can not travel backwards and forwards between the old and the new camp to salvage an old woman. He has the choice between helping one who is at deaths door anyhow, and allowing his wife and children to starve. This is how it is, and we see no wickedness in it. Perhaps it is more remarkable that old Kigtaq, now that she is no longer able to fend for herself, still hangs on as a burden to her children and grandchildren. For our custom up here is that all old people who can do no more, and whom death will not take, help death to take them.

And they do this not merely to be rid of a life that is no longer a pleasure, but also to relieve their nearest relations of the trouble they give them.”

…A man is fond of life as long as he is well, but as soon as life becomes a burden to him, either on account of age or sickness, they believe they have the right to seek death themselves. Hanging is the method chosen, and it is a common thing for the relatives of the old or sick person concerned to make everything ready for the suicide.

[#9] Knud Rasmussen, The Netsilik Eskimos: Social Life and Spiritual Culture (Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24) (Copenhagen: Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag, 1931): 138; 143-44; 507.

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