By Jamie K. Oxendine, Lumbee/Creek
Director, Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation
WHAT INDIAN SUMMER IS
For most people including meteorologists and other weather people, “Indian Summer” is a warm spell after a cold snap usually during Autumn. But for a more thorough definition it is the warm spell of sunny and clear weather with temperatures above normal (usually at least 70 °F) and with all the leaves turned or fallen but before the first snow. To be even more precise and to the original Native American origin it is a warm spell of as little as 4 days and as much as 7 days after the final hard killing frost that occurs in Autumn or a warm spell after a snow in Winter. As the original story happened in January, some Native American Elders even say that “Indian Summer” can only be a true “Indian Summer” if it occurs in January during warm temperatures when the ground is not frozen or covered with snow. (Of course each of the definitions here are highly dependent on geography).
This phenomenon is a natural part of a weather system with a technical term of weather singularity (a climatic event that recurs around the same time of year) and can occur all over the world. In the Northern Hemisphere and especially North America however, “Indian Summer” is always a very memorable and welcome warm spell that occurs during Autumn.
The American Meteorological Society defines “Indian Summer” as:
“A time interval, in mid- or late autumn, of unseasonably warm weather, generally with clear skies, sunny but hazy days, and cool nights. In New England, at least one killing frost and preferably a substantial period of normally cool weather must precede this warm spell in order for it to be considered a true “Indian summer.” It does not occur every year; and in some years two or three Indian summers may occur.”
EUROPEAN & AMERICAN TERMINOLOGY ORIGINS
Europeans and later Americans had many conceptual ideas on the origins and names of “Indian Summer.” A brief description is given in the next few paragraphs, but the most amazing factor is that no one that was and is still curious about the phenomenon has bothered to discuss and or confer with Native America on the weather pattern. If only those in the past had asked Native America they could have saved some 300+ years of theories (mostly incorrect). Also if those that are still not sure of the phenomenon like many a meteorologists or weather persons would ask Native America, then they could have the correct knowledge and the Native American Culture could finally get respect for something that is uniquely indigenous in its explanation here in the New World.
For over 230 years the White Man has known of “Indian Summer” and has written in many Farmers Almanacs the following: “If All Saints brings out Winter, Saint Martin’s brings out Indian Summer.” This has been an old saying based on the idea that if winter started right after All Saints’ Day (November 1) then “Indian Summer” was always any warm spell between St. Martin’s Day (November 11) and November 20. The earliest of these references to “Indian Summer” can be found in The Farmer’s Almanac by Robert B. Thomas as early as the 18th Century. But this concept was not Native American and was a recollection to what the White Man called the warm spell in former times in Europe. Another name for “Indian Summer” from the White Man was Saint Luke’s Little Summer. It was any warm spell that occurred about the same time as Saint Luke’s Feast Day of October 18. The many European names for this warm spell were:
Altweibersommer or Goldener Oktober – Austria, Germany
Brittsommar – Sweden
Crone’s Summer – Norway, Finland
Old Ladies Summer – Russia, Baltic States and some Slavic States
Saint Martin’s Summer – England, France, Italy, Portugal & Spain
The earliest known literacy use of the term “Indian Summer” was in 1778 by French-American soldier turned farmer/writer J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur who wrote the following on the phenomenon and the land:
“Sometimes the rain is followed by an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian Summer; its characteristics are a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness. Up to this epoch the approaches of winter are doubtful; it arrives about the middle of November, although snows and brief freezes often occur long before that date.”
“Then a severe frost succeeds which prepares it to receive the voluminous coat of snow which is soon to follow; though it is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian Summer.”
As for any real reference to the Native America Culture, the Europeans and later Americans all had some very interesting theories on the use of the term “Indian Summer.” Here are just ten theories as to its etymology:
1. American settlers mistook the sight of sunrays through the hazy autumn air for Native American campfires and called this “Indian Summer.”
2. Early European settlers first came across the phenomenon in America as Indian’s Summer.
3. Native Americans made use of the dry, hazy weather to attack the whites before the hard winter set in.
4. In Colonial New England “Indian Summer” referred only to a January thaw when Native American raiding parties would be expected on the western and northern frontier territories.
5. The writer Boorstin speculates in The Americans: The Colonial Experience that the term originated from raids on European colonies by Native American war parties in late autumn during the warm spell.
6. There are two accounts from 18th Century American Army Officers leading retaliation expeditions against Native Americans for winter raiding parties during warm spells on settlers in Ohio and Indiana Territories in 1790, and the State of Pennsylvania in 1794.
7. This was the traditional period during which Native Americans harvested crops.
8. It was considered the main hunting season for several animals for the Native Americans as it was thought the mild and hazy weather encourages the animals to come out and the haziness of the air gives the hunter the advantage to sneak up on its prey without being detected.
9. Native Americans at that time were known to have set fires to meadow grasses, underbrush and woods to accentuate hazy, smokey conditions. (Even though the Native Americans did this at other times of the year for both hunting and agricultural reasons).
10. Pure Prejudice: Because the Europeans and later Americans did not trust the Native Americans, any term relating to “Indian” was seen as a negative aspect and thus the word “Indian” was applied to many falsities and untrustworthiness. The phrase “Indian Summer” then came to be used to describe a “Fool’s Summer” or false summer.
NATIVE AMERICAN TERMINOLOGY
As early as the 16th Century some of the White Man was using the term “Indian Summer” in regards to Algonquian Native Americans in New England that believed the condition was caused by a warm wind sent from The Creator Cautantowwit (Kiehtan). This wind was sent from the court of his house which was always in the direction of the South West. Upon death, most Algonquian bodies were placed in the grave with a southwestern orientation, the direction of Cautantowwit’s house.
The phenomenon was well known among many Nations of Native America and has several names including:
Lateness Warmth – Haudenosaunee
Little Summer – many Nations from the Powhattan in VA to the Muscokee Creek in GA
Little Thaw – Algonquian
Man’s Summer or Nibubalnoba – Abenaki
Person’s Summer – Narragansett
Another Summer – Anishinaabe & other Great Lakes Nations
Zimo’s Summer – Penobscot
Although “Indian Summer” was known across Indian Country from the Atlantic to the Rockies, its main origin is a Story of Love Among The People of the Eastern Woodlands. There are several versions of this story among the Eastern Nations and most involve a single person’s need for foods and provisions after the hard killing frost or the onset of winter.
THE STORY: SOUTHEAST WOODLANDS (As told by the Author)
Among The People of the South East Woodlands, there lived a most noble Warrior. He was a man of integrity, kindness, compassion and honesty. He was a rather skillful farmer, resourceful hunter, strong warrior, and all around well respected man. He loved The People very much and often was first to help with anything related to their needs.
During each growing season The Creator blessed The Warrior with a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and more. The Warrior always gave to The People from his overwhelming harvest. For each and every hunting trip The Creator blessed him with more meat than he ever needed for himself or his family and for this reason The Warrior always shared his abundance with everyone in all the Towns of The People.
In time The Warrior met and married the loveliest of the Ladies among The People from all the Towns. They lived a most wonderful life and were blessed with two beautiful children: a son and a daughter. The Warrior, his family and The People lived in great happiness and all seemed well among the Towns of The People.
But one Season things grew dim and hard. The Moon of the Hard Frost (November) came early so it seemed. Actually the Hard Killing Frost did come early during the Moon of Harvest (September) and brought with it a great illness to the Towns of The People. Many grew sick but no one died. This illness however was very grave to The Warrior’s Town as all grew ill and The Warrior lost his beloved wife and children. No one knows why The Creator only took the lives of The Warrior’s wife and children.
Now the loss of a family member is very painful; but the loss of three members of the family and especially one’s spouse and children is massively devastating.
The Warrior fell into a great depression which was very understandable. He cleaved to his Wife’s Family as The People were taught and they gladly took him in and provided for him. Seeing that the loss was so great it was of no shock to The People that his depression was to last for some time and thus many Moons passed as well as many Seasons. After Four Seasons had passed a few felt that he should begin to start a new, but others did not and neither did his Wife’s Family. Knowing the great love that The Warrior had for his Love, his Wife’s family continued to take on the position of his care. The Matriarch knew that there could be no set limit for the loss of a spouse and children and thus The Warrior could grieve as long as needed.
Of course The People did not question the Matriarch and they also helped with provisions for The Warrior that the family could not provide. But after many more Moons and many more Seasons the depression of The Warrior grew to anger and resentment towards The Creator and The People. The Warrior was now blaming and cursing God for the loss of his family. Eventually this anger led to pure hatred.
After the Seasons had passed four times, the wife’s family begins to see a disturbing trend in The Warrior. They knew the loss was great as they had lost a daughter and grandchildren. They however, saw that this was no longer one grieving but one set on hatred towards The Creator. This could only bring Bad Medicine to The People. The People had only one choice and that was to set The Warrior on his way. They spend the next few Moons trying to help The Warrior find his way back to The Creator and The People.
The Warrior was not ostracized as one might think. Instead he was asked and even begged upon to seek wisdom and guidance from The Creator and cease to have any hated. It was at this time that The People knew they must set up a personal lodge for The Warrior on the outskirts of The Town on the opposite side of a great field and small Branch of the river.
At first The Warrior did not care about his situation and even cursed The People and The Creator as they escorted him through the Town, across the field and over the Branch. The People loved The Warrior very much and for this they built him a lodge near the Branch and placed provisions of food including some meat, fruits, vegetables and nuts in calabash containers within the dwelling.
This was done during the Moon of Much Heat (August). The Warrior was actually fine as he had plenty of food in the lodge and he could easily gather foods from any fields or the woods if he so choose. He chose not to take care of himself in that way though and lived only off what was in his lodge. By the Moon of Big Winter (December) The Warrior was far from fine and had very little food.
In his great despair and hunger The Warrior finally succumbed to his senses and realized that he had wrongly been blaming The Creator for his demise. He immediately fell to his knees and beseeched The Creator for forgiveness. God heard his plea and spoke to him in a kind and gentle voice that he was forgiven. The Warrior then begged for sustenance as he was on the brink of starvation now in the Moon of Much Cold (January). God was more than happy to help and told The Warrior to heed his words and do everything that would be asked of him and not question any directions he would be given.
The Creator immediately told The Warrior to look in the empty gourds within the lodge. Upon looking The Warrior discovered many seeds of The Three Sisters (Corn, Beans, and Squash) as well as those of other fruits and vegetables. While The Warrior was pleased to find these seeds he was disappointed that this was the only food The Creator was to give him. God could sense his reluctance to survive on seeds for the Winter and in a firm voice said, “Remember to do exactly as I say and not question my directions. Save enough seeds to eat for two days and take the rest and go out and plant them.”
The Warrior was shocked and rather amused and began to chuckle in response, “But it is the dead of winter and the Moon of Much Cold. Nothing will grow even if I could get it in the hard frozen ground.” In a much firmer voice, The Creator asserted, “Go forth and plant the seeds!”
The Warrior bundled himself and went out from the lodge into the bitter cold. The wind was fierce and the air was very thin. He could feel his skin almost close to freezing even before he had left his lodge just a few paces. He prevailed and made it to a field just over the Branch not far from his lodge. There The Warrior toiled the soil and planted the seeds. He went back to the lodge with a sad face and shook his head in great disbelief that any of these seeds would come up at all.
In the lodge, God spoke to The Warrior again and said, “Make haste and sleep for tomorrow you must arise early and tend the plants.” The Warrior thought that The Creator might not be The Creator and instead could be the Tricksters Briar Rabbit or Briar Fox in disguise playing another one of their mean tricks. The Warrior knew there is no way any plants will grow from these seeds in the frozen Earth. But then The Warrior thought that even the Tricksters would be not be this bold to play games in such bitter cold as they had to be sleeping in their dens and burrows. So The Warrior lay down and rested.
Early the next morning, The Creator came to The Warrior and commanded, “Arise Warrior and tend the garden for the plants need water.” The Warrior arose and bundled himself greatly for the wind and cold, but upon leaving the lodge he noticed that the day was clear and only cool. Instead of it feeling like the Moon of Much Cold if felt like the Moon of Spring (April). The Warrior went to the field and was amazed to see that every mound in the garden had a seedling ready to burst up through the Earth. He gave each of the seedlings a drink of water and cleared any obstacles that might be in their way.
The 2nd morning The Creator spoke to The Warrior announcing “Arise Warrior and till the plants.” The Warrior arose and as soon as he left the lodge he felt the warmth of the Moon of Flowers (May). He walked to the field and noticed that the seedlings were now plants and all in bloom showing the much food that they would soon produce. The soil was rich and he did till and wean out each and every mound of plants and returned to his lodge. When the evening came God said to The Warrior, “Make haste and sleep for tomorrow you must arise early and weed the plants and begin to enjoy the food I will give you.”
On the 3rd morning The Creator beckoned to The Warrior, “Arise Warrior and weed the plants and eat.” The Warrior was amazed that this day was like the Month of Green Corn (June). Upon reaching the field he was in total shock to see that there was food for him to enjoy. The Warrior also noticed that many of the plants were being chocked by weeds. So The Warrior weeded the plants and picked some fresh fruits and vegetables and returned to his lodge. That evening God told The Warrior to take care of the garden and enjoy the produce it would provide for the next few days and to share this with The People.
The Warrior was awoken on the 4th morning by the voice of The Creator saying, “Arise Warrior and begin the little harvest.” The Warrior arose and felt the warmth of the Moon of Much Ripening (July). He proceeded to the field and begins to harvest many ripe foods. Late that evening when The Town was asleep, The Warrior placed food at the doors of each lodge in The Town.
By the 5th morning, The Creator yelled out, “Arise Warrior and protect the garden!” The Warrior went out of the lodge and was blasted with the heat of the Moon of Much Heat (August). He went to the field and as mentioned by God he saw that he needed to protect the garden from Crow, Coon, Rabbit, Fox and others. He did this as well as gather more food that the garden was creating and shared it with the People.
Very early the 6th morning The Creator called out “Arise Warrior and this day you must very quickly harvest and gather all the foods that I have given you and prepare for Winter.” The Warrior stepped out and felt the cool of the Moon of Harvest (September). He rushed to the garden to harvest all the food. There was much to do for the entire garden had produced a great deal of food. The Warrior worked hard all day and was able to gather and prepare all that was provided from the garden. The Warrior shared all of the prepared food with The Town.
At the 7th morning, The Creator came to the Warrior saying “Arise Warrior and till up the garden and leave the plants for the four-legged and birds of the sky. Then you must go hunting so that you may procure meat.” The Warrior left the lodge and felt the crisp air of the Hunting Moon (October). God also added, “You must be done with your hunting and drying of meat by dusk for the Moon of Hard Frost will fall at the end of the day and tomorrow when you arise it will be the Moon of Much Cold again.” The Warrior did all that he was directed and had a great hunt and dried much meat for the coming Moons. That evening The Warrior was very tired but very grateful and gave praise and thanks to The Creator for the miracle of the past 7 days.
As The Creator said, the Moon of Hard Frost fell that evening and overnight the Moon of Winter (December) passed and when the next morning came it was the Moon of Much Cold. At Sunrise The Creator proclaimed to The Warrior and all The People:
“Oh Warrior you have done well following my words and giving back to The People. Now you see that I am always here and a part of whom you are. Ever be happy for what you have when you have it for someday it may not be there and may never be there again. Always Take Care of The People.”
“When the times turn cold and it seems that all is gone after the Hard Killing Frost do not fear for I will always give the people the time of another warmth in your honor to gather just a bit more food. Make it a time of great happiness and sharing and it shall always be known as Little Summer.”
The People heard the voice of The Creator and forever more remembered The Warrior. Now they would never fear the Moon of the Hard Frost for the joy of Little Summer would be close at hand.
As Moons and Seasons past into years the story of The Warrior and Little Summer soon passed to the coming People From Across the Great Water and in time they also learned of the joy of this warm spell after the Hard Killing Frost. They called it after the name they had given The People and thus it has always been known to the White Man as “Indian Summer.”
Boorstin, Daniel J. 1958. The Americans: The Colonial Experience. New York: Vintage Books.
Cooper, Vernon. Lumbee Elder, Mentor & Teacher to the Author.
Cypress, William. Seminole Elder, Leader & Mentor to the Author.
Deedler, William. 1996. Just What Is Indian Summer & Did Indians Really Have Anything To Do With It? Detroit: National Weather Service.
Hudson, Charles. 1976. The Southeastern Indians. University of Tennessee Press.
Lawson, John. 1967. A New Voyage to Carolina. University of North Carolina Press.
Oxendine, Early. Lumbee Elder, Grandparent, Teacher and Mentor to the Author.
Richter, Daniel, K. 1992. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization. University of North Carolina Press.
St. John De Crevecoeur, J. Hector. 1981. Letters from an American Farmer & Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America. Edited: Albert E. Stone. New York: Penguin Books.
Swanton, John R. 1929. Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
Tanner, Helen H, Ed. 1987. Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History. University of Oklahoma Press.
The American Meteorological Society. 1996. Glossary of Weather and Climate.
Thomas, Robert B. 1792-1846. The Farmer’s Almanac. Dublin, NH.
Thomas, Robert B. 2009. The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Dublin, NH: Yankee Publishing Incorporated.
Whittier, John Greenleaf. 1884. The Complete Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Company.
Wood, Peter H., et al. 1989. Powhatan’s Mantle: Indians in the Colonial Southeast. University of Nebraska Press.
Vogel, Carole G. 2001. Weather Legends – Native American Lore and the Science of Weather. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press.
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