The Education of Little Tree–and Wannabe Indians

When I was in the bookstore, I sold many copies of The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter, AKA Little Tree. It was the story of a child raised by Cherokee grandparents to the wonders of the natural world and Indian ways of living. The book was published in the same year that I opened the bookstore, 1976, and soon gained a devoted following—I remember people reading it and then buying multiple copies to give to friends. Carter had already written and published The Rebel Outlaw, Josey Wales, and worked that title—and Clint Eastwood’s “Josey Wells” movie—into an appearance on Barbara Walter’s celebrity TV program.

A few people then recognized—or thought they did—Forest Carter as Asa Carter, the former member of the Alabama KKK, advocate for an all-white school system, and speechwriter for George Wallace. But it didn’t seem to stick.

I was at the very beginning of my own education in Indian history and Indian writers weren’t a big part of it. I began reading Alvin Josephy’s books, and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. But I had a bookstore to run, children’s books, mysteries, and the local books of Grace Bartlett and Lola Hopkins to read and sell. I do not remember why I didn’t read Little Tree, although I remember many recommending it and even the occasional mention that something might be fishy about Forest Carter and Little Tree.

I sold the store in 1988, moved on to Fishtrap and many Western writers—including Indian writers: James Welch, Linda Hogan, Mark Trahant, and once, before he became the “Indian writer of the day,” Sherman Alexie. We also brought Nez Perce speakers and storytellers to tell us about language and culture.

I don’t remember thinking about Little Tree, and don’t remember a 1991 New York Times article by Dan T. Carter, an Emory University professor who wrote that “Between 1946 and 1973, the Alabama native carved out a violent career in Southern politics as a Ku Klux Klan terrorist, right-wing radio announcer, home-grown American fascist and anti-Semite, rabble-rousing demagogue and secret author of the 1963 speech by Gov. George Wallace of Alabama: ‘Segregation today . . . Segregation tomorrow . . . Segregation forever.’”

The urges of White Americans to hate Indians or love them—or to ignore them as a “vanished race”—takes up big space in my head. I’m encouraged and fascinated by the current upsurge in attention to American Indians. I recently wrote notes to myself about reasons:

Romanticism—Europeans, and then early European immigrants to North America, often had romantic notions about Indians, the “noble savage,” in Rousseau’s words.

Guilt—and justice—Native Americans had the land in America, and European settlers wanted it, needed the lands to construct their own new lives. Now many feel guilty about how the land was stolen.

Indian resilience—Native Americans have retained culture, traditions, and some languages, despite all attempts at “assimilation.” This arouses admiration—and majority culture now likes the term “resilience,” better than the oft-use “sustainable,” when talking about culture and agriculture.

Research by historians—Treaties, languages, descriptions of Indian wars and responses to government laws and programs, were all written down. Modern academic historians are using this material to retell the Indian story in America.

Educated Indians—Indians have been educated in White ways since first colonization, in churches, boarding schools, and universities. Indians have advanced degrees, are poets and novelists, and now, in the Biden administration, are in positions of power in government agencies.

White mistakes with Natural Resources—White America rolled over the land, extracting resources from beaver pelts to precious metals. Some practices have been harmful: big fires are burning because “science” said we should put all small fires out; fish numbers are declining because of dams and agricultural chemicals. There is a new desire for old Indian ways to help correct wrongs.

Asa Carter was quintessentially American in wanting to re-invent himself, and Indians, in the 1970s, were beginning to capture minds concerned with justice, the environment, and recapturing a happier, more natural and loving time.

According to a fascinating book by an academician, Laura Browder of Virginia Commonwealth University, titled Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities, Asa Carter stands in a long line of Americans who slide from one identity to the next, moving towards more socially, economically, or ethnically acceptable positions of the day. Wannabe Indians are legion, and Asa Carter is the prime example of a wannabe who won fame and fortune, “skillfully employ[ing] his knowledge of racialist thinking to create an Indian self who could appeal to the masses.”

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1 Comment

  1. So glad people are writing and normalizing this conversation. So much to learn. Thanks for your great work.

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