Is the term Indian Summer racist?

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:

  1. That was when the Native Americans in the Northeast harvested their corns and squash.
  2. 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.
  3. 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, although this article seems to trace the phrase as far back as it goes.

Likewise, there’s the Cleveland Indians. I don’t know much about Louis Sockalexis 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?

At Lee & Low Books, we would argue that words do matter–in fact, getting the right word is so important that our books often go through many rounds of revision before they go to print. Regardless of intention, words can hurt by opening old wounds or betraying a lack of understanding, even when their roots aren’t clear.

If there’s a question about whether they’re hurtful or not, our approach is: say it a different way. In this case, we like “Second Summer.” What about you?

Related reading:

The Miseducation of Native American Students

The Library of Congress Battle Over “Illegal Alien”

Author Monica Brown on Dehumanizing Language and the Immigration Debate

11 thoughts on “Is the term Indian Summer racist?”

  1. Here’s another alternative for the origins of Indian Summer: It is the generous season when hunting is good and the weather is cool enough to make preserving the meat easier. There isn’t deep snow on the ground yet, but it is cold. Sadly, we may indeed lose Indian Summer to global warming.

  2. Why can’t it just be an Autumn Summer: summer weather during the Autumn season…..

    1. I like Autumn Summer. I always thought the terms refers to the time when Native Americans harvest their crops but to the Harvest Moon which provided enough light so that they could harvest well into the night.

      1. I am confusing the two terms. The Harvest Moon is called the Harvest Moon because Native Americans harvested their crops into the night by the light of the moon.

  3. Had this conversation with friends and colleagues and we like : Little Summer, as it usually manifests for a short period of time.
    We also like : the Last Summer, as it is the last little bit of summer we get before long and dark winter.
    These conversations were had in French on Kanyen’kehà:ka unceded territory, what we currently call Montreal, Canada

  4. I was wondering about this same thing…obviously that’s why I am here. I suspect another explanation could be that when Europeans came here, they noticed that there was a short reprise of summer in fall. Maybe this is unusual in Europe? And, Natives, being the only residents at the time, it was called “Indian Summer”. Maybe as a ne weather phenomenon they had encountered. Total speculation on my part.

  5. You are taking too much juice out of the language. Do you also live your actual life in such a flaccid, cautious manner?

    I like words too. A little edge gives juice. Like what runs from your knife when you cut into a steak right off the grill.

    And Indian summer is way tamer than the above.

    It’s a good thing there’s still young men keeping you free. Where you can say what you want, do what you want. Not all the world has that. And it was won with blood. Of young men. Go watch a Marvel movie.

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