October 12, 2003

Celebrating an Indian summer


Lately we have heard the phrase “Indian summer” used frequently to describe our stretch of good weather. Most of us are taking advantage of the warm weather rather than contemplating the etymology of the term “Indian summer.”

However, a study of the phrase is an eye-opening look into our nation’s history. After years of asking elders and prominent Indian historians, I stumbled across an article written by a leading American Indian author from an Eastern tribe who explained the origins of “Indian summer.”

Early settlers who coined the term would see Indian farmers celebrating the blessing of being able to add a second and sometimes third harvest to their winter store following the first frost. The author described how the Indian farmers would give thanks to the creator for the warm days. As we celebrate our own recent warm weather, we must also recognize the contributions that these Indian farmers made to our overall well-being. American Indians were not only the first landowners in North America – they were also accomplished farmers whose agricultural aptitude would eventually transform the world.

Most Americans today do not know that American Indians owned the land upon which they farmed largely because the land-tenure system to the American Indian was vastly different than what the European colonists knew and would later institute in North America. The Indian farmer owned the land as long as it was occupied. When land was abandoned, anyone could claim the land as long as the new owner farmed it.

Because the farmed land did not look like the parceled-out sections of Europe when settlers arrived, they mistook the symbiotic, ecologically friendly farming style used by Indians as meaning the land was not owned.

According to Jack Weatherford’s book titled Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World, American Indians cultivated more than 300 food crops with dozens of variations that improved the world’s diet both in quantity and quality of foods.

As testimony to the skill and knowledge of Native farmers, three-fifths of the world’s crops in cultivation today originated from the ingenious farmers who were successfully growing crops in varied soils and climates throughout the Americas.

The Native farmers’ agricultural proficiency and understanding of the need to farm in harmony with the land is reflected in “Three Sisters,” a traditional horticultural technique of planting corn, squash and beans together.

The Three Sisters are inseparable because each crop benefits the growth of the other two crops in a limited space. The growing corn provides a pole for the bean plant to climb and needed shade for the squash that covers the ground to provide even moisture and reduce weed growth.

Through agricultural experimentation, Native farmers employed highly developed agricultural methods and introduced nutritious crops to the world that included corn, new grains, wild rice, tomatoes, chilies, sunflowers, numerous bean and pepper varieties and potatoes.

Ironically, the introduction of high-yield crops such as the potato and a more nutritious diet helped spawn a population explosion in Europe that heralded the colonization of the Americas. The eventual displacement of Indian people from their traditional farming lands would encourage the eradication of Indian civilizations.

Some 7,000 years before the first Thanksgiving, farming was an integral part of the culture and economy of indigenous people in the Americas. By introducing new agricultural principles, foods and improved cultivation techniques, the American Indian farmer made an immeasurable contribution to the world. This is indeed a blessing we should all celebrate during this Indian summer.


Richard B. Williams is the executive director for the American Indian College Fund. This column first appeared in The Denver Post, November 7, 2001.

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