Did you know that the earliest known citation of the term “Indian summer,” meaning a spell of unusually warm, hazy weather sometime after the first hard frost of autumn, was in a collection of essays written in Orange County in the 1770s? It’s true. The author of Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, the son of a French count, had an exciting life that included being imprisoned as a spy by the British during the Revolutionary War. He wrote admiringly of the Hudson Valley’s indigenous people, and became an early abolitionist after returning to France. St. Johnsbury in Vermont is named after him.
Nowadays, of course, “Indian summer” is a dicey usage, with little consensus as yet among Native Americans about what they prefer it to be called, other than that we should use someone’s tribal affiliation if we know it. Many older Native people, including Lakota activist Russell Means, still prefer “American Indian,” though their number is dwindling. Some object to “Native American” as a bureaucratic label thought up by the federal government. “First Nations” has caught on big-time in Canada but has been slow getting established in the US. And on the question of what would constitute a better term for Indian summer, the jury is still out.
Still, the time of year bookended by Columbus Day/Indigenous People’s Day, with its burden of commemorating the beginning of a cruel age of imperialism, and Thanksgiving, with its mythos of a fragile period of harmony and sharing between starving settlers and their generous Native hosts, continues to resonate for us with reminders of the New World’s indigenous peoples, their resilience through centuries of persecution and injustice. Perhaps there are less unkind ways of referring to this time of reflection than “Indian summer.” And maybe Unison Arts in New Paltz is on the right track in choosing these golden days of autumn for staging an event that honors the artistic traditions of Native peoples of our continent, as well as their modern florescence.
A program at Unison on Saturday, October 19 titled “Native America: Old and New” is the work of several indigenous artists in collaboration: singers, instrumentalists, dancers and choreographers. Witness traditional Native American dances as Louis Mofsie sings songs from the Haudenosaunee, Southwest and Plains peoples. Rob Mastrianni performs on both double flute and guitar. Matoaka Little Eagle plays indigenous instruments to accompany original songs by contemporary singer/songwriter Sherry Lee. Using a combination of traditional and modern dance, the featured piece Silent Echoes of Time, choreographed by Michael Taylor, depicts the traumatic wartime experiences and subsequent journey of healing of a Lenape Vietnam veteran, Alan Shooting Star, who dances the lead role himself.
This evening’s program promises to be a rich, poignant and beautiful aesthetic and emotional experience. It begins at 8 p.m. on Saturday, October 19, with ticket prices ranging from $10 to $25. Call (845) 255-1559 or visit www.unisonarts.org/event/native-america-old-and-new for tickets.
Native America: Old and New, Saturday, Oct. 19, 8-10 p.m., $10-$25, Unison Arts & Learning Center, 68 Mountain Rest Rd., New Paltz, (845) 255-1559, www.unisonarts.org