This is a guest post by Sarah Strenio.
Anonymous asked: It’s 96ºF in NYC today, which means everyone’s throwing around the term “Indian Summer”. am I the only one who cringes a little when they hear it? Also, what comes next, White Man’s Autumn?
To be fair, every season belongs to the white man.
Having actively engaged friends on the internet, I got a comment on it, which read as follows:
Intolerable, racist, over-generalizing honkies! How dare they use terms that could offend only those looking to be offended!
Now, the person who responded is a friend of mine, and it’s hard to tell when one is joking on the internet. Which I typically respond to by assuming they are not joking, and instead taking them at their word. So what I’m hearing is: the idea that the phrase “Indian summer” could be racist is absurd, and only overly sensitive people who seek out ways to be offended would take offense at someone using it. That is the attitude I will be addressing.
The Origins of the Phrase
There’s dispute about where the term comes from. The farmer’s almanac says “Indian summer” probably refers to the idea that during this warm period after the beginnings of Fall, Indians would “have one more go at the settlers” (raiding etc.) before winter comes in in full force. The Encyclopedia Britannica posits that it comes from Indians taking advantage of the agreeable weather to finish gathering stores for winter. Wikipedia says that what we refer to as “Indian summer” went by saint feast-day names in Great Britain, such as St. Martin’s Summer, because it fell at the same time as that feast day. Wikipedia also says that the phrase has been used to “suggest inconsistency, infertility, and depleted capabilities, a period of seemingly robust strength that is only an imitation of an earlier season of actual strength”. The phrase, for me, brings to mind the phrase “Indian giver“, which has similar deceitful implications about the nature of Indians, and that it’s about how the summer isn’t a true summer, just a fickle “Indian” one.
That just shows that the history of the phrase could be anything, and might even be a compliment, right? Well…
Language is important. You can have no idea that a particular phrase is insulting, and yet it is still insulting. For example, I did not know for a very long time that when you say you were “gypped”, you’re actually referring to a real live culture of people and implying that they are thieves. I don’t say that anymore, now that this has been pointed out to me.
Language is particularly important when using words that refer to minorities who have suffered genocide, and when the words have a dubious history. When you use the name of a (non-uniform, may I add) group of people who are still not treated well today and who have suffered many indignities, maybe it’s not a Big Freaking Deal. But how many stereotypes do you think they come across every day? Natives hear stuff all the time that has nothing to do with who they are, whether it’s careless/unintentional or actively hateful. When it’s not clear what a speaker’s intent is, and the listener’s experience has caused them to learn distrust, I would expect the reference would inspire caution of the speaker, if not irritation and general fed-up-ness from this micro-aggression. A tiny trickle of water can cut deeply into the earth. Little things add up. Let’s try our best not to add to those.
***Obviously I can’t speak directly to the experience of Native Americans, not being one. Obviously not every Native person has an identical experience. I’m talking here about this phrase similarly to how I think of the word “bitch”, being a woman, but that would be a different post.***