It’s been an odd summer, weather-wise: roasting in April, cool in June and July, and just a few blazing weeks in August before the current chill September. So yesterday I mused, are we going to get an Indian summer?
And then I stopped thinking about the weather itself and started thinking about the term “Indian summer.” I had no idea where the term came from. The surface meaning—an unusually warm period between the leaves changing and the first snow—is harmless, but I had a sneaking suspicion that the origin of the term was racist.
Wikipedia gives three theories of the term’s etymology:
- That was when the Native Americans in the Northeast harvested their corns and squash.
- Raids on European colonies by native war parties were generally though to end in the fall, so summer-like weather in the fall was associated with more raids.
- Like “Indian giver,” it was based on the idea that Indians were deceitful: as false as summer in October.
So, that’s one non-racist explanation and two racist ones. I doubt anyone really knows how the term came about.
Likewise, there’s the Cleveland Indians. I don’t know much about sports, but when I was reading Louis Sockalexis: Native American Baseball Pioneer, I was struck by this note in the backmatter:
“In 1915, two seasons after Louis Sockalexis’s death, the Cleveland Spiders were renamed the Cleveland Indians. Some baseball historians assert the name was chosen to honor Louis, while others argue that the team simply adopted the derogatory nickname sportswriters used back when Louis wore a Cleveland uniform.”
Is it a slur or is it an homage? Words have a rich history and their origins are important, but we reach a quandary when that history is lost. Is it just a team name or warm weather in late fall, or is it problematic? Can a term lose its racist connotations and be redeemed, or can a term that started honorably become racially charged when we look at it through a modern lens? Does it matter that most people use the terms innocently?
Of course, they way things are going, warm weather in October may not be Indian summer, or Native American summer—it may just be climate change.