Dear Straight Dope:
It's a cliche that the Eskimo put their old folks out on the ice to die when they can no longer contribute. Does this really happen? Do Eskimos really abandon their elderly?
Nick Keenanpr, Washington, DC
Do Europeans cause rat-borne plagues by killing cats because cats are demon spawn?
Sorry for the iciness, but it bugs me when questions about strange Eskimo customs are phrased in the present tense, as if nothing could have changed since the eighteenth century. But yes, in the past some Eskimos did kill old people when circumstances were sufficiently desperate. Pressure from missionaries and national authorities, improving economic conditions, and no doubt evolving notions of acceptable behavior among native peoples eventually brought an end to the practice. The last reported case was in 1939, but the custom was a rarity long before that. In any case, the common perception of taking Granny out to the nearest ice floe and setting her adrift is wrong. I can’t prove it never happened, but it wasn’t the usual method.
Senilicide (the killing of old people) was never universal among Eskimos. It was common in some parts of their range but more so among the Inuit (Greenland to Northern Alaska) than the Yuit (western and southwestern Alaska). Even among the Inuit, some groups found the custom repugnant.
Where it was practiced, senilicide was rare except during famines. As long as there was enough food to go around, everyone got their share, including the relatively unproductive. Given that the usual diet consisted of fairly dependable catches of caribou, fish, and sea mammals, many years could pass between episodes of scarcity. Considering the dangers of hunting, the old and infirm who weren’t expected to hunt could outlive a hunter in his prime.
On the other hand, when food did run short, the old and sick were looked upon as drains on the community’s resources. Sometimes they were killed – thrown into the sea, buried alive, locked out in the cold, or starved to death. Far more commonly they were simply abandoned to die. The victim might be taken out in the wilderness and left there, or the whole village might pick up and move away while the old person slept. If the villagers were unexpectedly restored to prosperity, they might go back to rescue those left behind. An abandoned person would also be welcomed back as a full member of the community if he could manage to make his way back to the village on his own. But usually he couldn’t.
Most of what has been called senilicide is better called assisted suicide (though we can’t discount the possibility of old people being pressured into asking for assistance). Unassisted suicide was also common, but in many regions, it was believed that a more pleasant afterlife awaited homicide victims (including volunteers) than suicides. Assisted suicide was always much more common than involuntary senilicide, and was common throughout the range inhabited by Eskimos, Yuit and Inuit alike. In hard times, older Eskimos often felt they were a burden, and asked their younger relatives to kill them. Similar requests could be made by any Eskimo, young or old, for any number of reasons: pain, grief, or clinical depression. The person who was asked to help felt bound to comply even if he had misgivings.
The popular legend that the Eskimos put their old people on ice floes and set them adrift is wrong in detail, but it’s not terribly far off in the broad strokes. I can’t say for sure how this particular idea got started, but it may have come from the movie The Savage Innocents (1959) starring Anthony Quinn or the novel it was based on, Top of the World (1950) by Hans Ruesch. (Thanks toSDSTAFF samclem for this lead.) I haven’t seen the film, but I’ve just read the book and found two scenes of interest. In one, the mother-in-law Powtee is put out on the solid sea ice to die, only to be rescued soon after. In the other, the wife Asiak walks across the sea ice to drown herself in the open water. At the edge, a piece of ice breaks free under her weight and she floats along on this small ice floe briefly before drowning herself. It’s possible that a conflation of these two episodes led to the popular idea of old people being set adrift on ice floes.
In addition to senilicide, some groups also practiced invalidicide (the killing of sick or disabled people). The sick received care as long as there was any hope of recovery. When hope faded, care ceased and they were left to die. Infanticide (especially female infanticide) was also fairly widespread, but not as universal or routine as has been depicted. Like senilicide, it was rare in most areas except during famine.
In good times, a healthy old person (or child or disabled person) was almost never killed or abandoned merely for being a burden. In the few recorded cases where younger family members did kill their elders without cause, they suffered social stigma, the severest punishment available in traditional Eskimo culture, which was essentially anarchic.
None of this is especially comforting when your kids start making noise about putting you in the Shady Rest and how much better it would be than an ice floe. I can only suggest pointing out the economic realities: Even the Eskimos didn’t do away with elders who were still providing free room and board.
“Senilicide and Invalidicide among the Eskimos” by Rolf Kjellström in Folk: Dansk etnografisk tidsskrift, volume 16/17 (1974/75)
“Notes on Eskimo Patterns of Suicide” by Alexander H. Leighton and Charles C. Hughes in Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, volume 11 (1955)
Eskimos and Explorers, 2d ed., by Wendell H. Oswalt (1999)
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