November 14, 2020
These first few weeks of November have been idyllic here in Michigan in terms of weather. Even though we’ve had our first sprinkling of snow and a few nights of below freezing temperatures, most of our days have been blissfully sunny and unseasonably warm!
Growing up, we called this spate of pleasant November weather Indian Summer, but in writing this piece, I wondered where that term actually came from and was it even politically correct to say ‘Indian Summer’ anymore. This required some research and what I found was that both the origin of the term and the political correctness of it, depended on who you asked!
No one really knows how “Indian summer” came to describe such periods of unseasonably warm weather. One theory suggests that early American settlers mistook the sight of sun rays through the hazy autumn air for Native American campfires, resulting in the name “Indian summer.” Others speculate that Native Americans recognized this weather pattern and used the opportunity to gather additional food for the winter.
Some believe the term was coined by European settlers who observed Indigenous people hunting during hot fall days. More derogatory theories say it refers to a summer that is not on time or one that is phony or fake.
According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the most likely explanation can be traced to settlers in New England who welcomed cold wintry weather because they could leave their stockades unarmed. They feared warmer weather would invite attacks from the Indians, and they coined the expression “Indian summer” to describe the weather conditions that might make them more vulnerable.
San Francisco State University American Indian Studies Professor Andrew Jolivette, said “Using the term Indian summer might seem innocuous, but it’s really part of a larger body of normalized euphemisms that keep Indians tied to nature and an imagined past in the minds of most Americans.”
To be on the safe side, maybe it’s time for us to find a new name. In many European countries, a November warm spell is called St. Martin’s summer. In Germany, the Netherlands and Eastern Europe, warm autumn streaks are called old wives’ summer (which might also be politically incorrect!) Spain has a quince summer, (because it’s around this time of year that quince finishes its ripening), and Sweden has a “badger summer” (when badgers have one last chance to replenish their stocks for the winter).
For me, though, I’m going to stick with an English term I found along the way that is definitely innocuous and was put into use long before Indian Summer even came into vogue: Second Summer.