Friday, September 12, 2014


So! Scott (a colleague) wrote to ask me if I'd read The Education of Little Tree. I've written about that book here on AICL several times because it is not really a memoir. It was published as the memoir of a Cherokee named Forrest Carter, but that author's brother outed him as Asa Carter. Yeah, that guy. Of the KKK.

Scott said that a friend's daughter is reading it as a class assignment. She is telling the teacher that there are problems with it, but the teacher things there are valuable lessons in it, so I guess that means the teacher thinks they can ignore the problems. I don't know what the daughter is pointing out. Scott owes me big time for having to read this book...

This afternoon, I read The Education of Little Tree. Published in 1987 by the University of New Mexico Press, it is set in the 1930s. Little Tree and his grandparents are amongst the Cherokee people who did not go to Indian Territory on the Trail of Tears.

As I read, I was shaking my head, sighing deeply, again and again as I read. I just can NOT see what ANYONE would see of value in this book.

There are several words in the first chapter that we are meant to understand as Cherokee words. Using the Cherokee Nation's translator, I found that one or two of Carter's words are close to what I found as being good translations but most of them don't work at all. So--if you think you're learning Cherokee words by reading this book, you're not.

That first chapter is called Little Tree. It sets the stage for why this five-year-old is now living with his grandparents. His mother has died. He gets on a bus with his grandparents who've come to his mom's funeral. As his grandfather is paying the bus driver, that bus driver turns to the passengers, holds up his right hand, and says "How!" They all laugh, and Little Tree thinks they are friendly people. There's another part there, where a passenger calls out "Wa...hooo" as they walk past her seat.  We, the reader, know what's going on, and we go along with Carter, thinking that the driver and the passengers are racist. Maybe that is what draws people into the book. The thing is, with Carter being a fraud, I think readers are the ones who are the butt of his joke.

Once they've gotten off the bus and are walking into the mountains where his grandparents live, he hears his grandma singing an Indian song and that makes him feel safe. I guess that means his mom sang those songs to him? Nonetheless, he's about to learn a lot of what it means to be an Indian by living with these grandparents.

Like in "The Way" --- which is chapter 2. Here we learn of "Mon-o-lah" or "earth mother." If you search on "Mon-o-lah" you're going to get a lot of hits about this book. You're also going to get some hits to New Age sites and some odd stuff, too.

In "The Way" Little Tree and his grandfather see a hawk hunting quail. It gets one, and Little Tree is sad. His grandfather says:
"Don't feel sad, Little Tree. It is The Way. Tal-con [I think we're supposed to think that is the Cherokee word for hawk] caught the slow and so the slow will raise no children who are also slow." 
That was one of the shake-my-head moments. That struck me as a twisted eugenics philosophy. Grandpa continued:
"Tal-con eats a thousand ground rats who eat the eggs of the quail--both the quick and the slow eggs--and so Tal-con lives by The Way. He helps the quail."
Not only does Tal-con kill slow quail, he kills the rats who eat the quick and slow ones before they're hatched, too. I know Carter's trying to get us to buy into some Circle of Life thing but, this hawk/quail/rat cycle is kind of messed up.  And then, he says:
"It is The Way. Take only what ye need. When ye take the deer, do not take the best. Take the smaller and the slower and then the deer will grow stronger and always give you meat. Pa-koh, the panther, knows and so must ye." 
That's just baloney. Animals do that "smaller and slower" hunting, but human beings do not do that. Human beings leave the female deer alone. That is the way it is done. A doe is smaller than a buck. If you kill the smaller, you kill the females and then guess what? No more deer! This seems silly to even say, but my guess is that a pregnant doe would be a bit slower than the rest of the deer, too. According to Carter's "The Way" she's the one to kill! This is just a bunch of nonsense.

But it must work! For millions of people who love this book, it works. WHY?! Because the portrayal of Native people as animals rather than humans has been done so well, that readers don't notice this nonsense!

More animal-like framing happens in chapter six, "To Know the Past." Little Tree's grandparents tell him it is important to know the past, so, they tell him about the Cherokee removal. According to Carter, the soldiers came after harvest time. That harvest time, though had been preceded by springtime, when
"...the Cherokee had farmed the rich valleys and held their mating dances in the spring when life was planted in the ground; when the buck and doe, the cock and peahen exulted in the creation parts they played."
Mating dances?! EVERYONE should stop reading at that point. Why bother reading this book? How 'bout we just all agree not to assign it any longer?

(Note: There's a lot more sillyness in the rest of the book. You'll find the stoic Indian who feels no pain. Carter's going to give you a bogus explanation for the word "How." In "To Know the Past" Carter tells us that the Cherokees refused to ride in the wagons on the Trail of Tears. He goes on and on about the empty wagons behind them. That doesn't reflect anything I've read about removal, including the accounts on the website of the Cherokee Nation.)

Update, Saturday September 13

In an earlier post (Where is Your Copy of The Education of Little Tree), I quoted from Daniel Heath Justice's article. In a comment to this post last night, Daniel pointed me to a documentary on Carter.

There's also a short film about the words Carter uses in the film. The people in it are Cherokee speakers. The words Carter uses are not Cherokee.


Daniel Justice said...

Hi Debbie--you should check out the PBS documentary about Carter, titled *The Reeducation of Asa Carter*--a well-researched and shocking account of the man and hiis writing. ( Asa Earl Carter used Indians as stand-ins for the fallen Confederacy and his racist ideas about the "guv'mint"; the book pulls at the heartstrings, but it's dripping with romanticized Southern class nostalgia and stereotypes about Indians and has nothing to do with Cherokee cutlure, history, lives, or experiences.

Marianne said...

I don't even know what to say -- I had no idea people still read this book and took it seriously. Thank you for sharing your critique!

Gabriele Bianchetti said...

'Mating dances'!?
Whooooooa, that's harmful! It seems like an excerpt from Slapin's terrific 'Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook', but, unfortunately, that's not.

Debbie Reese said...


Yes--the documentary is excellent, and I think NPR has now done two pieces on him. I've done several, including one where I quote from your article.

I could have said more in my review. Like the part where he rails about 'fornicatin' -- I wonder if that is the "lesson" that teachers want kids to get?

Gabriele Bianchetti said...

can I ask you what the 'fornicating' part is about?

Debbie Reese said...

Gabriele--the character, Pine Billy, thinks the world is coming to an end and is determined to "git saved":

"He said fornicatin' had always been his biggest block toward gettin' saved. He said he fornicated at dances where he played, but he laid most of the faulting on the girls. He said they would not leave him alone. He said he had tried going to bush arbor meetings to git saved, but there was always girls around them too that kept after him to fornicate. He said he had found an old preacher who was too old to fornicate, he figured, because he was holding a bush arbor meeting and was preaching, no-holds-barred, agin' fornicating'."

There's another paragraph about it there, too. This is in the chapter titled "Willow John." But there's more!

In the "Church Going" chapter, they're at church at the "once a month testifying time." A woman stands up and said "she had been fornicatin'." and was going to stop. Someone yells "Tell it all!" so she goes on to say she had "done some fornicatin' with Mr. Smith." Mr. Smith hastily leaves the church. She called out two more names "with which she had done some fornicating." After church the men "walked wide around the women" who were clustering around the woman. Grandpa says they did that hoping it would get more women to testify about their fornicating. Grandpa wonders if the woman will want to go back to fornicatin', she'd be in for a disappointment because "she would not find anybody hardly atall to fornicate with, less'n he was drunk and out of his senses."

Beverly Slapin said...

Hi, Debbie--

This book is awful, on so many levels. Deconstructing it the way you and others are doing gives educators the tools they need to look at other problematic material.

Is the entire documentary available online? I've only been able to find the trailer.

Truth Unleashed said...

Lucky Cherokee, at least they get to mate instead of fornicate. *snort*

Jennifer Sargent said...

I am grateful for the work you are doing about Native American literature. I learned about your website through my Native American Lit class with Debby Dahl Edwardsen. My daughter's summer reading program list included this book. I would have never known the truth about the subject matter or the authenticity of material. Thank you for all that you do!