Suicide among indigenous Amazonians: News from Brazil

Credit: Michael F. Brown, CC license, Attribution CC BY
Two Awajún girls, Alto Río Mayo, Peru. Credit: Michael F. Brown, Creative Commons license, Attribution CC BY

The New York Times (4 January 2015) has just published an op-ed piece by the journalist and filmmaker Charles Lyons that describes a shockingly high rate of suicide among Guaraní people of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

Lyons and the experts that he consults blame the suicides on the Guaraní’s removal from their traditional territories as well as the emotional despair arising when indigenous peoples are forced to straddle two cultures, one scorned by the national society and another to which they are granted only partial membership thanks to persistent discrimination.  This pattern, Lyons notes, is found among the countless indigenous peoples who have been forced to deal with colonial dispossession.

This argument is compelling for the peoples mentioned in the essay, although it’s worth noting that there are a fair number of indigenous peoples among whom suicide has a long history that cannot  be blamed entirely on the effects of colonialism.

The Awajún of northern Peru represent one such case.  References to frequent suicide by Awajún women can be traced back to early twentieth-century sources.  This doesn’t, of course, entirely rule out colonialism as a factor, since the Awajún had been in sporadic contact with people of European descent since the sixteenth century.  But the distinctive pattern of Awajún suicide, which is vastly more common among young women and, to a more limited extent, young men than among others in the society, suggests that internal cultural factors help to shape the practice’s epidemiology.

As I explain in considerable detail in Upriver, the prevalence of female suicide among the Awajún with whom I lived in the 1970s and -80s took me entirely by surprise.  Back in the U.S., I tracked down an excellent report on this phenomenon by the Norwegian anthropologist Henning Siverts as well as detailed records of specific suicides documented by Jeanne Grover, a missionary linguist with the Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Mourning women surrounded the body.  One climbed on the platform and kissed her dead brother’s face, keening in a high-pitched wail . . .  We saw a sudden scramble as a female mourner tried to run outside.  “She wants to kill herself!” someone shouted.  A man grabbed the woman by the hair before she could slip away.  She kicked, struggled, and screamed frantically . . . The suicidal behavior was more than ritual drama: family histories included many cases of women who had committed suicide in the throes of extreme grief (From Upriver, p. 147).

In 1984 I combined case-study material from Siverts and Grover with my own observations and presented an interpretation of what appeared to be one of the world’s highest rates of indigenous suicide at a session of the International Congress of Americanists in Manchester, England.  The response of the audience shocked me: I was challenged not for the plausibility of my interpretation, which I was prepared to debate, but for the accuracy of my figures.  “There’s no way these people could be killing themselves that often,” one audience member remarked.  “They must be disguising murders as suicides.”  No matter that many of the case studies had been recorded by others from different parts of the Awajún homeland.

Eventually my analysis found its way into print.  My work then moved in other directions, but the subject of Awajún suicide, especially by women, was researched in great depth by Astrid Bant and more recently figured prominently in a 2012 study of indigenous Amazonian suicide sponsored by UNESCO (available in Spanish).  The Awajún themselves recognize this as a major social problem in their society and are doing what they can to deal with it.

Although most observers of this sad and disturbing phenomenon recognize that rapid social change is a contributing factor, there is little question that traditional values sometimes bear on the matter as well—a humbling reminder that not every social ill of indigenous societies can be blamed on European colonialism (even if most can).