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 persons daily work
to accomplish one persons 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 days
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 stateuntainted.
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. Were 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 difficultimagine 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
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
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 elders 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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