Published in the 1970s, and passed off as autobiography, it was exposed as a work of fiction in 1991. It’s author, “Forrest” Carter was not Cherokee. He was Asa Carter, member of the KKK, and the person who wrote George Wallace’s “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” speech.
The Education of Little Tree was in the news last week. Around 6:00 AM on Sunday, November 11th, I did a Google search using [Oprah +”Education of Little Tree”] and got 572,000 hits that include news outlets in
Oprah pulled The Education of Little Tree from her list of recommended books. She was a fan of the book, but decided, given its author, she could no longer keep it on her list. I wish that she knew there are additional problems with the book. It isn't only a hoax, it's deeply flawed in its presentation of Cherokee people and their ways.
As a person who studies children’s and young adult books about American Indians, I’ve known for a long time that the book is a hoax. A best-selling hoax. Curious about its reception, I logged on to Amazon to read some reader reviews there.
When I clicked on the link to customer reviews, the page that came up had a different format than what I’m used to seeing on Amazon. On the left side of the page is “The most helpful favorable review” and on the right side of the page is “The most helpful critical review.” The critical review is titled “Should not be shelved as Non-Fiction.” I like this dual presentation, and hope to see it more often.
I wanted to read more reviews, so clicked on the “Newest First” button. Scrolling down, I saw one titled “The WORST book I’ve ever recorded…” posted on June 6, 2006, by J. Woodman. The person named J. Woodman, apparently, recorded the audio book version: In his review, Woodman says
Woodman’s remarks aside, review after review describes the story as “heartwarming” or “well-written, compelling” or “entertaining and thoughtful.” Many say they’ll pass it along to their children and grandchildren.
The thrust of the mainstream criticism of the book is about the author, about the hoax. Many say we should not discard a book because of its author, that it should be considered on its own merits. To many, it is a well-written book, and therefore, much-loved.
There are a lot of well-loved children’s books that miss the mark when viewed for the accuracy of presentation of Native content. These books are, in my view, bogus. A good example of this is Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, illustrated by Susan Jeffers. It is an award-winning, best-selling book that purports to be a speech given by Chief Seattle, who was the leader of a west-coast tribe, but Jeffers illustrations are the usual (stereotypical) Plains Indian-like items (fringed buckskin, tipis). Books like this do nothing to interrupt the cycles of misinformation circulating throughout mainstream
While those with little or no factually based knowledge of the Cherokee people think The Education of Little Tree is a wonderful story, those who are Cherokee find it deeply flawed. In his article “A Lingering Miseducation: Confronting the Legacy of Little Tree,” Daniel Heath Justice writes:
…Carter’s Indians live apart from their tribal community as much in spirit and philosophy as in geographic proximity. Grandpa, Granma, Little Tree, and Willow John are the only Indians around; reference to “the Nation” in
On the authenticity in the book, Justice says:
Granpa is the Noble Trickster, Grandma the dignified Indian Princess (and a Cherokee Princess, no less!), and Little Tree is just what so many generations of Boy Scouts have dreamed themselves to be: the Little Brave roaming wild in the forest, with few rules and all sorts of generic “Indian” woodlore to consume and exploit. In most ways they are generic Indians, with few if any attributes that are distinctly Cherokee. None of them have any connection to the Cherokee clan system, which would have been quite unusual for Cherokees like Granma and Granpa during that time period….
This fictionalization of Native lives and histories poses a very real threat to Native America, for it creates powerful stereotypes of Indians (what Anishinaabe writer and critic Gerald Vizenor calls “interimage simulations”) that take on a white cultural reality that is seen as a more “authentic” than the realities of living, sovereign American Indians.
Justice opens his article by speaking of reading it himself, as a young boy, and how it affected him. He is Cherokee, or as he prefers, Tsalagi. He closes his article with this:
Many generations have suffered from the stereotypes that Little Tree draws upon, stereotypes that find their deepest grasp in the minds and spirits of the children. We have spent many years resisting colonialist intrusions into our lives, histories, and identities, to varying degrees of success, sometimes with strategies that would make true understanding more difficult for the children and grandchildren who would follow. Until 1996, my parents and I didn’t know that The Education of Little Tree was a fraud; three generations of removal kept us ignorant of who we are among our people. But we know now. We’ve reclaimed the story from Asa Carter and others like him who would define Indians out of existence and take their places as the indigenes of the
Justice’s article came out in a journal published by the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures. Published since the 1970s, it is among the handful of academic journals created by American Indians for the purpose of publishing research articles that provide American Indian perspectives on, in this case, literature. Older issues of the journal are on line at http://oncampus.richmond.edu/faculty/ASAIL/.
The Library of Congress classifies The Education of Little Tree as fiction but at least 20 libraries in
The case of The Education of Little Tree illustrates the many problems in children’s books about American Indians. From writers who claim a Native identity, to the differences in reviews by mainstream and Native critics, to the problems involved in shelving books.
Things can be better, but only if teachers and librarians have time to do some professional reading in journals that aren’t necessarily among their regular readings. This blog is an attempt to help you find those articles. When they’re available on-line, I link to them (see column at right called ARTICLES.)
So…. I close this blog post with the question I started with: Where is your copy of The Education of Little Tree shelved?
[Note: Thank you, readers of YALSA and ISLMANET, for providing feedback on an earlier draft of this post.]