What does ‘Indian summer’ even mean?

Common weather term has uncertain roots despite widespread use

The Hamilton College women’s C-4 boat enters Upper Saranac Lake on the final day of the Adirondack Canoe Classic on Sunday, Sept. 9. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

SARANAC LAKE — Although the forecast doesn’t call for a heavy frost anytime this week, the North Country will no doubt have one soon. And if that frost is followed by warm weather, that will be what is commonly known as an Indian summer.

It’s not just an extended summer, although we have had that this year. Except for the past week’s cool-down, September’s days have mostly been in the 70s, 80s and even 90s. But there hasn’t been a serious frost yet, and that is required for it to be an Indian summer.

What it is

Nick Bassill, a Ph.D. meteorologist with SUNY Albany, said he was surprised to find that “Indian summer” is an actual meteorological term, and that the definition generally fit what he thought of when he heard it.

“If you had asked me before I looked it up, I would have said it’s extremely unlikely it’s an actual meteorological term, despite the fact I’ve heard the term,” Bassill said in an email. “However, I was surprised to find that it does indeed have an AMS [American Meteorological Society] Glossary definition.”

The AMS says an Indian summer is “a period, in mid- or late autumn, of abnormally warm weather, generally 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.'”

Bassill said there’s no big mystery to why Indian summers occur, and there could be years without one or years with multiple warm stretches.

“I guess a ‘simple’ answer is that it’s not substantially different from a heat wave in summer, or a stretch in January where the temperature is 45 or 50 for a few days — basically we get into a pattern likely associated with sustained south/west winds that are relatively warm, and keep us warm, until a cold front goes by,” he wrote. “Another aspect of it is that in fall (and spring), we’re much closer to both the impending arctic air, as well as warm tropical air. So the temperature swings, and peaks/valleys of temperature, can be a bit more extreme.”

Bassill said Indian summer is a rather subjective term, and “if you asked 10 meteorologists, you’d probably get 10 answers, so it’s not a term that has a very clear definition.”

History

According to a 2016 Atlas Obscura article, the first time the term Indian summer was used was in the late 1700s, when a Hudson Valley, New York, farmer mentioned it. The term took hold over the next 40 years or so, and by the 1830s it was common across New England, in Canada and in England.

Although the term has always seemingly referred to what we now know as Indian summers, researchers have found evidence of why it’s called that.

“There were plenty of ideas floating around: Native Americans had predicted the warm spell to settlers; they used that time of the year to extend their harvest; a tribe’s mythology connects the weather to the sigh of the personified southern wind,” the Atlas Obscura article says. But “[Albert] Matthews [rightly] dismisses all of the explanations he found as ‘vague and uncertain.'”

Culturally sensitive?

Arnold Printup, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe’s historic preservation officer, said he is familiar with the term and personally doesn’t find it offensive.

“I’ve heard it growing up pretty much my entire life,” he said. “It depends on who you talk to. Me, by and large, I don’t find it offensive. I don’t call it Indian summer, but I know it’s the period after the first killing frost. We don’t really call it anything here.

“For people in the North Country, it’s time to get out and enjoy one last day before you start freezing your butt off.”

Printup said the difference between Indian summer and more offensive uses of Native terms, such as professional sports teams’ use of “Braves” or “Redskins,” is that those uses are justified by saying they’re meant as a tribute. But Printup said if those teams really wanted to pay tribute, they would talk about the forced migration Native Americans faced, along with the endemic problems of alcohol and drug abuse, poor living conditions and inadequate housing and schooling that Native Americans still face today.

“I think where Native people have issues with these types of things, and in particular when people say, ‘It’s not meant to be offensive; it’s meant to celebrate Native history,'” he said, “well, those types of things are so very superficial. When a person takes the effort to actually sit down and learn and study Native history and see the trials and tribulations — the genocide we went through, all those type of things — those get glossed over.

“I say, ‘You’re neglecting the heroes in our own history.'”

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