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

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