Feature – Eskimo Old Age
One of the most well-known stories about the Eskimos is the strange practice that they have adopted when facing death, and old age.
According to the popular conception, Eskimos must work so hard to survive that they simply cannot manage to support adults who are no longer contributing to the well-being of the group.
Thus, when old-age strikes, rather than waiting around as they dwindle toward death, eating food their companions fight to catch and clothing their companions struggle to construct, the elderly Eskimos are taken to sea, and set adrift on a floating iceberg.
Alone on their iceberg, the elderly must inevitably freeze or starve to death, facing their end, uncomfortable, and horrifyingly alone.
However, it is important not to instill modern Western values on the practices of another culture.
To see this as a disgraceful abandonment of those they should love the most is to fail to understand the dire circumstances which might lead to such a practice, as well as the spiritual understanding that might justify it.
As the Eskimos believed that another world awaited their dead, they would not be sending the elderly off to die and disappear, but to move on to the afterlife.
Beliefs aside, it is extremely important to understand how difficult survival was for an Eskimo family, and each person had to put their full attention toward their own survival. Though tasks may be shifted around so that the women accomplished the household tasks for both women and men, and the men hunted for both men and women, the productivity equaled out to just about one person’s daily work to accomplish one person’s daily needs.
Children were seen as an amazing blessing, and thus would be provided for until they could begin to provide for themselves. Thus any surplus food and materials would be expended primarily on children. But even children were not given a free ride; as soon as it was possible, young boys and girls were helping to take care of each other, maintain the living area, fashion clothing, and bring in the day’s hunt.
For the old to be sent out to sea could actually be a blessing, a way to gracefully exit without becoming a burden and a point of resentment. In a way, this allowed the elderly to be preserved, in the minds of the living, in a more ideal state—untainted. They would be spared disgraces such as senility and loss of bodily function, and would, in some sense, be granted an opportunity to die without first decaying.
So the story goes.
To what extent is this story true?
First of all, it is important to note that the modern Eskimo culture is very different from Eskimo culture before it was affected by modern Western civilization. As discussed in a companion article, most modern Eskimos lead a lifestyle that is not unlike any other group living in a rustic small town.
Modern Eskimo culture has been infiltrated by capitalism, which has allowed Eskimos to purchase goods such as food and clothing. Unfortunately, in many areas, Eskimos are having a difficult time adapting their culture to a modern way of life; consequently, there is a high rate of unemployment among modern Eskimos. However, Eskimos no longer live in isolation, so, for better or worse, those Eskimos living below the poverty line receive government pensions and support. Eskimos are no longer in an environment in which their survival is on the line.
Even in the old Eskimo culture, though it was tight, there were usually enough game animals about to provide sufficient food (and materials, such as skin for clothing and shelter) for everyone in the group, including the old.
However, the Eskimos were completely dependent upon their environment, and due to various circumstances, they were, occasionally, put under the extreme stress of famine. We’re talking once every several years, here. During such times, the old and infirm were seen as drains on the resources of their community.
Some groups of Eskimos, mainly Inuit in northern Alaska, did practice senilicide (the killing of the elderly), as well as infanticide (killing babies, especially with female babies), and even invalidicide (killing the irrecoverably sick or disabled). However, these were not widespread practices, and while adopted under extreme circumstances by some groups, they were seen as grotesque by others.
When senilicide was practiced, they might be thrown into the sea, locked outside to face the cold, buried alive, or starved to death.
There is no evidence to support claims that they were sent to sea on an ice-float, and this seems unlikely, as it would be logistically difficult—imagine trying to pull an existent ice-float in to shore, or to create a new icefloat by cracking it away from the ice on the seaside…without accidentally cracking off the wrong section.
This popular conception probably originated with the popular work of literary fiction, Top of the World (1950), or the 1959 film adaptation, The Savage Innocents.
More often than active senilicide, a practice of passive manslaughter was used. The ‘victim’ might be taken to the wilderness and abandoned, or the whole village might pick up and move while during the night as they slept. This allowed the abandoned person to find their way back to their group, thus proving their continued productivity….though more often than not, they were unable to return. If the group was unexpectedly restored to prosperity, they often returned for their abandoned family members and took them back in since they were again able to accommodate them.
Senilicide and abandonment were far less common though, than assisted suicide. During times of famine, an elderly or infirmed member of the group might ask a family member to kill them, as death by unassisted suicide was believed to lead to a less pleasant afterlife than death by even voluntary homicide (even voluntary homicide). Assisted suicide was not reserved just for the elderly; in fact it was acceptable for all aged members of a group to ask to be killed for any number of reasons, including pain, depression, or grief. And in the Eskimo culture, the person asked to assist was bound to comply with such requests, without expressing any misgivings.
In good times, senilicide was rarely practiced, and, when practiced without reason, resulted in social stigmatism of the enactors.
So, the truth behind the popular myth is that the elderly and sick were taken care of if at all possible; when extreme circumstances pressed, some small groups of Eskimos would kill their elderly, though rarely actively, except upon the elder’s request. The idea of the ice-raft is a romantic notion, only thinly based on facts.
Even this rare practice does not exist in modern Eskimo culture, as pressure from missionaries and national governments, as well as improved economic conditions, have eliminated the dire circumstances that might lead to such a practice. The last reported case of senilicide was in 1939.
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