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Who put the ‘Indian’ in Indian summer?

The term’s etymology is vexed. It was first used in the Northeastern United States in the 18th century, but that is all we can say with relative certainty.

Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium/AP
A paddleboarder works his way along Lake Michigan near Silver Beach in St. Joseph, Mich., on Sept. 6, 2018.

If the temperature has dropped and then risen again, and my kids are in school, I think “It’s Indian summer!” But I realize that I stretch the definition too far. What is Indian summer, actually, and why do we call it that?

There are some quite specific criteria. According to the American Meteorological Society, it is a period of abnormally warm temperatures in October or November, featuring clear skies but hazy air, following a long spell of cool weather and a killing frost. People often use the term more loosely to mean any stretch of balmy weather after a cold snap, which can occur as early as September and as late as January. In areas with hot, humid summers and cold winters, Indian summer is often considered the most pleasant time of year. During these few days or weeks, the Northeastern United States experiences “the Climate of Paradise,” as mapmaker Thomas Pownall put it in 1776.   

Metaphorically, Indian summer refers to any happy, calm, or productive period late in the life of a person or a culture. Music critics often note that composer Richard Strauss had an “Indian Summer when, in the last five years of his life, inspiration came to him once more.” Literary critics describe how, nearly a thousand years after its Golden Age, Greek poetry “enjoyed a remarkable Indian summer in the age of Justinian (527-565).”

The term’s etymology is vexed. It was first used in the Northeastern United States in the 18th century, but that is all we can say with relative certainty. Some explanations of its origin hold that Native Americans shared their knowledge of the environment and climate with early settlers, much as they shared their food at the first Thanksgiving.

It has been cited, variously, as the period when Native Americans preferred to hunt, or stored food for the winter, or lit lots of campfires. Other folk etymologies reveal more overt racism, asserting that it gained its name because Native Americans used the unexpected good weather to sneak up on unsuspecting settlers and attack. Other accounts make a connection between the “deceitfulness” of the season – it looks like summer, but it’s a trick – with the supposed untrustworthiness of Native Americans, exemplified by the derogatory term Indian giver.

Given the term’s possible racist origins, we might expect its usage to be declining today, when we are paying more and more attention to the power of words and symbols that are or might be considered derogatory. 

There is some evidence that this is occurring, but it’s quite equivocal. What else could we call this lovely season? In many European languages it’s “old women’s summer.” I’ll take that, as long as I can go outside without a coat in November.

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