#3 Notes on Eskimo Patterns of Suicide
     (Alexander H. Leighton and Charles C. Hughes, 1940)

Three methods of ritual suicide were mentioned [by Yuit informant] as having existed on St. Lawrence: hanging, shooting with a rifle, and stabbing with spear or knife. Hanging was the most, and stabbing the least, common. The victim himself apparently had his choice.. . .

…The general procedure for suicide was the same, no matter whether the blow was self-administered or given by someone else. Once having decided to do away with himself, the individual initiated the process by asking his relatives to kill him or at least help in the suicide. As a rule they would not consent at first, but rather tried to dissuade him from his intentions. One of the St. Lawrence informants said that among their ethnic counterparts at Indian Point (Siberia) the custom was for the prospective suicide to ask three times for someone to help him, the third request being one that could not be refused. There was no indication of limits to the number of requests at Gambell.

The requirement that the prospective suicide warn his relatives of his intentions is one of the most significant aspects of the pattern, for it is here that the group involvement begins to emerge. Unfortunately, however, there are as yet no adequate data on whether an individual could ever “legitimately” commit suicide by himself without first warning his relatives of his plans; or whether he always had to implicate the wider social group in his demise. Probably it was the latter, however, for an informant questioned on this point by CCH on a visit to the island in 1954 said that it simply never happened that a person would go off and kill himself all alone—“always lots of people around.”

…If the prospective suicide continued to ask among his relatives for death they finally had to agree. He would then dress himself in his house as one already dead, i.e., with his clothing turned inside out. Presently a group of relatives would arrive and carry him seated on a reindeer skin to the “Destroying Place.” This was the spot where in any regular funeral some of the deceased’s property was broken. There were two such places on the edge of Gambell village. Sometimes, particularly if the man were sacrificing himself to save someone else, he would walk to his death. This was considered an especially praiseworthy act.

Before his death at the Destroying Place, the prospective suicide commonly addressed his relatives, giving them advice about life, and his reflections upon parting from this world. Informants describe this speech somewhat as follows: “Sometimes he say ‘You big enough. You know what you can do. Older people must teach younger ones. And after me you won’t need me any more. You can defend you self.’ Because our custom is: anything when we couldn’t think clear, we had to come to older people.” And another excerpt: “He says ‘My time is up, so I couldn’t tell you anything more to what to do. So you be think you selves and you almost grown man now.’ ”

. . .Once the decision and arrangements for the death had been made by an individual, retraction was very difficult. The consequences of such action were not specified by an informant, but among the neighboring Chukchee it was believed that all forms of bad fortune would ensue unless the retractor made a heavy sacrifice to the “Outer Being,” an important deity in the Chukchee supernatural hierarchy. It was, however, mentioned on St. Lawrence Island that in at least two cases dogs were killed after a suicide vow had been retracted, presumably in the attempt to have them substitute for the human being.

The treatment accorded the relative who acted as executioner is particularly interesting as illustrating a case in which the necessary violation of a basic and deeply held value is followed by ritual activities which seem to constitute both symbolic punishment and exorcism of any evil that might arise from the killing. The prevailing attitude seems to have been, as one informant expressed it, “No one likes to kill anyone; people usually kill themselves when they want death.” This informant himself put forward the suggestion that the treatment of the killer was some form of punishment.

The executioner was confined to his or her house for a period of twenty days. During this time he was not allowed to go outside for fresh air; he could not change his clothes; and he could not do any sort of work in the house. He always wore his clothes with the hair turned inward, and his head and eyebrows were shaved without water. A small net made of baleen was placed over his head or parka hood. He could not wash himself nor use his fingernails for scratching, though he was allowed to use a stick or comb for the latter purpose. For picking up meat he had to use a pointed knife rather than his fingers. After this initial twenty-day confinement, he was free to go outside, but still could not engage in constructive labor for another (unspecified) period of time…

…When death was by hanging, several relatives participated in holding the post, and in raising and lowering the deerskin. It was apparently felt that in such an operation no single individual was responsible for the death and as a result none had to undergo the severe treatment accorded a person who alone caused a death. It is likely that they nevertheless had to carry out some ritual limitations of activity, similar to those described above for ordinary mourning. Adequate information on this point is unfortunately lacking.

The commonest reason given for suicide was suffering due to physical sickness. A second cause was prolonged grief over the death of a loved one; another was pervasive despondency without apparent cause. The latter, as described by the informants, seemed to be very similar to the clinical depressions known in our culture. ..

The above motives are found in other Eskimo groups. On St. Lawrence there was one additional reason not found in these groups nor in the Chukchee culture, as far as the evidence at hand indicates. This was the belief that a man, by giving his own life, could thereby save the life of an ill son or grandson. …In the words of one informant, “My own parents, father and brother (sic), they been hang. I know my own father very well that time. We was both sick, myself and my father same time. Maybe my father was think ‘If I die myself maybe he (son) get well.’” And a similar case at Indian Point was related: “Seems to me he wasn’t very sick. He shot because he want to save son who was sick. Shot by own son (other son). …He was talking aloud before shot him. Say, ‘I want to be shot because I want my son to live so I take his place to die.’ ”…

…Usually it was old men who committed suicide, but occasionally elderly women and people in the prime of life did so too. No clear-cut information on patterns of abandoning the aged (which, if practiced, might have increased the prevalence of suicides, especially among old women) is available, although the practice probably did exist. When it was a case of saving somebody else, it was often the able-bodied men in their most productive years who sacrificed themselves. Those who committed suicide were thought very brave and courageous; they, along with people who were murdered, were said to go to heaven—to a “place where they would be happier.” It was particularly proper, according to one of the early ethnographers, for what the St. Lawrence Islanders termed an “athletic man” (i.e., the strong, able, aggressive individual who dominated his fellows) to kill himself rather than die a natural death. One reason for this may be, as Margaret Lantis has suggested, that the prestige and high social evaluation accorded a good hunter in this culture was greatly enhanced by this ultimate act of killing—the killing of oneself. Thus, rather than suffer the social decline concomitant with waning physical powers, the athletic man and hunter often chose to destroy himself while still enjoying a large measure of prestige.

[#3] Alexander H. Leighton and Charles C. Hughes, “Notes on Eskimo Patterns of Suicide,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 11(4): 327-335 (Winter 1955), with data collected from Yuit informants on St. Lawrence Island, Summer 1940.

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