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Suicide Among the Inuit

February 10, 2012

Inuit suicide rate

A little while ago over at Evo and Proud, Peter Frost discussed the extremely high rate of suicide among Inuit youth. Suicide was not historically frowned upon by the Inuit (though it was generally restricted to the elderly), and it may be that the Inuit have evolved with a greater-than-typical willingness to commit suicide.

The threshold for suicidal ideation may be lower in some human populations than in others, depending on one’s risk of becoming a serious burden on kinfolk. This risk is high in Arctic hunting bands because their members are almost entirely close kin and because their nomadic lifestyle limits food storage for lean times. When food is scarce, who eats and who doesn’t? The question is especially difficult because close kin are involved. The easiest solution, in terms of keeping the peace and maintaining group cohesion, is one where the burdensome individual voluntarily bows out.

This is one of those situations in which you realize that no one is really that serious about preserving traditional ways of life. The attempt to revive traditional patterns is highly selective. (Not that youth suicide was really traditional.) The main reason people talk so much about preserving native traditions is, as I’ve suggested before, that natives have so signally failed to thrive in modern society—hence something needs to be tried.

Frost makes an interesting observation about the role of schooling:

School presents learning goals and standards of behavior that are likewise difficult to attain, especially for boys. By postponing adulthood in order to extend the learning process, school also has the unintended effect of humiliating Inuit youth.

I believe the average Inuit IQ is around 90. It’s unreasonable to expect the same educational attainment from aboriginals as from whites.  Real harm can be done trying to avoid “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” We should encourage people to do things they can do well at, not things they’re sure to fail at. (This kind of schooling is again our tradition, not theirs.)

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Yesterday I described my experience with a native university student.

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Update: Just today in The Globe: “Aboriginal education gaps can no longer be tolerated.” It looks like a bunch of new bureaucracy will likely be created in yet another attempt to do the impossible.

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