Jessica Crabtree

What is an “Indian Summer”?

by on Nov.01, 2011, under JOURNAL: Nature, art, cultural perspectives

Injun Summer - McCutcheon
John T. McCutcheon’s Injun Summer, Chicago Tribute, 1907

According to the National Weather Service,

“…The most popular belief of Indian Summer is as follows…It is an abnormally warm and dry weather period, varying in length, that comes in the autumn time of the year, usually in October or November, and only after the first killing frost/freeze. There may be several occurrences of Indian Summer in a fall season or none at all…”

The article goes on to describe many popular and scientific theories about the origin of the expression:

“One explanation of the term “Indian Summer” might be that the early native Indians chose that time of year as their hunting season. This seems reasonable seeing the fall months are still considered the main hunting season for several animals. Also, the mild and hazy weather encourages the animals out, and the haziness of the air gives the hunter the advantage to sneak up on its prey without being detected. Taking this idea one step further, Indians at that time were known to have set fires to prairie grass, underbrush and woods to accentuate the hazy, smokey conditions. But Albert Matthews pointed out that the Indians also did this at other times of the year.

Other possibilities include; the Indians made use of the dry, hazy weather to attack the whites before the hard winter set in; that this was the season of the Indian harvest; or, that the predominant southwest winds that accompanied the Indian Summer period were regarded by the Indians as a favor or “blessing” from a “god” in the desert Southwest. Another idea, of a more prejudicial origin, was that possibly the earliest English immigrants equated Indian Summer to “fools” Summer, given the reliability of the resulting weather. Finally, another hypothesis, not at all in the American Indian “camp” of theories, was put forward by an author by the name of H. E. Ware, who noted that ships at that time traversing the Indian Ocean loaded up their cargo the most during the “Indian Summer”, or fair weather season. Several ships actually had an “I.S.” on their hull at the load level thought safe during the Indian Summer.”

(From JUST WHAT IS INDIAN SUMMER AND DID INDIANS REALLY HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH IT? by William R. Deedler)

But there’s another side to this coin: if there was such a thing as an “Indian summer” among Indians, that begs the question – what do they have to say about its origins?

The following article was first published in the Denver Post, 2001 (thanks to NativeVillage.com for the text.)

Celebrating an Indian Summer
(Richard B Williams, President, American Indian College Fund)

“Lately we have heard the phrase “Indian summer” used frequently to describe our stretch of good weather. Most of us are taking advantage of the warm weather rather than contemplating the etymology of the term “Indian summer.” However, a study of the phrase is an eye-opening look into our nation’s history. After years of asking elders and prominent Indian historians, I stumbled across an article written by a leading American Indian author from an Eastern tribe who explained the origins of “Indian summer.”

Early settlers who coined the term would see Indian farmers celebrating the blessing of being able to add a second and sometimes third harvest to their winter store following the first frost. The author described how the Indian farmers would give thanks to the creator for the warm days. As we celebrate our own recent warm weather, we must also recognize the contributions that these Indian farmers made to our overall well-being. American Indians were not only the first landowners in North America – they were also accomplished farmers whose agricultural aptitude would eventually transform the world.

Most Americans today do not know that American Indians owned the land upon which they farmed largely because the land-tenure system to the American Indian was vastly different than what the European colonists knew and would later institute in North America. The Indian farmer owned the land as long as it was occupied. When land was abandoned, anyone could claim the land as long as the new owner farmed it.

Because the farmed land did not look like the parceled-out sections of Europe when settlers arrived, they mistook the symbiotic, ecologically friendly farming style used by Indians as meaning the land was not owned.

According to Jack Weatherford’s book titled “Indian Givers; How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World,” American Indians cultivated more than 300 food crops with dozens of variations that improved the world’s diet both in quantity and quality of foods.

As testimony to the skill and knowledge of Native farmers, three-fifths of the world’s crops in cultivation today originated from the ingenious farmers who were successfully growing crops in varied soils and climates throughout the Americas.

The Native farmers’ agricultural proficiency and understanding of the need to farm in harmony with the land is reflected in “Three Sisters,” a traditional horticultural technique of planting corn, squash and beans together.

The Three Sisters are inseparable because each crop benefits the growth of the other two crops in a limited space. The growing corn provides a pole for the bean plant to climb and needed shade for the squash that covers the ground to provide even moisture and reduce weed growth.

Through agricultural experimentation, Native farmers employed highly developed agricultural methods and introduced nutritious crops to the world that included corn, new grains, wild rice, tomatoes, chilies, sunflowers, numerous bean and pepper varieties and potatoes.

Ironically, the introduction of high-yield crops such as the potato and a more nutritious diet helped spawn a population explosion in Europe that heralded the colonization of the Americas. The eventual displacement of Indian people from their traditional farming lands would encourage the eradication of Indian civilizations.

Some 7,000 years before the first Thanksgiving, farming was an integral part of the culture and economy of indigenous people in the Americas. By introducing new agricultural principles, foods and improved cultivation techniques, the American Indian farmer made an immeasurable contribution to the world. This is indeed a blessing we should all celebrate during this Indian summer.”

See also: Food for Thought: Little-Known Facts About American Indian Innovations

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About Me

I am a freelance artist living in Arkansas, US, specializing in historical portraits of American Indians. I blog about the portrayal and influence of Native Americans in art, history, and the media.

I am fascinated by history and world cultures, ancient and modern, and particularly indigenous peoples. My other interests include wildlife ecology, environmental issues & sustainability, journalism, photography, web design & development. I enjoy music and reading (see my book list here).

You can see some of my pastel work, and my drawings in charcoal and graphite, by visiting my online Gallery.