In the past couple of weeks several people have used the phrase ‘Indian summer’ in conversations with me, such as “How are you enjoying this nice Indian summer we are having?” It is the most commonly used phrase in America to describe the period of unseasonably warm and dry weather that usually occurs in the northern hemisphere from late September to mid-November. It is a most pleasant and enjoyable time to be outdoors. This little season is known by many names around the world. In various European countries it is called: “old women’s summer,” “grandma’s summer,” “gypsy summer,” and “poor man’s summer.” In Latin American countries it is called simply “little summer.”
Only in America though is it called by a term that disparages an ethnic group, America’s indigenous population. One fairly benign derivative is that it is a false summer – in the same sense that the ‘Indians’ of north America were originally and mistakenly – falsely – taken to be India Indians. The other, less benign, derivative is that is that it is false in the sense of being a trick – a weather phenomenon deceiving us by pretending to be summer, In this sense it is related to the notion of Indians as a people not to be trusted, and not far from the prevailing sentiment during the westward expansion that the only good Indian is a dead Indian. Wikipedia offers yet another derivative I’d never heard before which is not insulting at all – as a term used by the American Indians themselves to refer to an autumnal hunting season.
Ever since learning of the connotation of deceitfulness I have purged ‘Indian summer’ from my vocabulary. Except for this essay, though, I’ve never deigned to mention this to anyone who says ‘Indian summer.’ I’d bite my tongue first, because no one uses it disparagingly today. It’s just a phase now that refers to pleasant weather in November. Nonetheless, in an effort to avoid even the slightest of ethnic slurs I think I’ll follow South American practice and call it ‘little summer.”
Dear God, forgive us our sins, known and unknown.”
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 10-November-2015.