Educating with Little Tree: Reshaping The Education of Little Tree’s Cultural and Pedagogical Value in English Classrooms

By Chris Drew

At a recent conference session on literary diversity in classrooms, I and other attendees were encouraged to pass around a selection of books, examine them, and discuss their possible classroom use. A school librarian next to me picked up a copy of Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and we began lamenting the scarcity of American Indian literature in classrooms. Then I asked her if she knew Forrest Carter’s The Education of Little Tree. Her smile tightened. “Oh, what a horrible book,” she replied. Her reaction did and didn’t surprise me. The book is a fixture in many schools, so I suspected she would recognize it. However, Little Tree’s broader history is still relatively unknown, so I was pleased to meet someone who knew the truth about this faux-memoir. Based on her reaction, I suspect Little Tree holds no prominence in her library, though it still does in numerous classrooms.

A 2014 episode of This American Life explored attitudes toward Carter and his book, including interviews with high school students that helped contextualize its classroom impact. A student from Massachusetts, Joseph, made the kind of connection English teachers dream of:

[Little Tree] was learning to deal with racial discrimination and prejudice and try and expand his understanding of the world and nature. And I’m trying to do that, too…. This is kind of embarrassing. But near the end, I really—I sort of found myself getting a little emotional. But I really liked it. I found that I really connected to Little Tree. I felt like he was a lot like me. Sort of I’m on the same journey that he was. We’re both trying to become better people. I’m trying to learn to be a good person, become who I am, be a man. But so was Little Tree. (“180 Degrees”)

Who wouldn’t want to teach this book? And how could Joseph be describing the same novel that horrified the librarian? As is often the case, the teacher knew a bit more than the student. Specifically, she knew that Forrest Carter was originally Asa Carter, the author of Alabama governor George Wallace’s infamous 1963 “Segregation Forever” speech. She knew that the writer whose novel inspired Joseph was a virulent racist in the 1960s. She knew that Little Tree began as a fraud, and negotiating space for it in today’s classrooms is a troublesome task.

Because of Carter’s deceptions and reprehensible past, Little Tree has garnered much critical disdain, but it is still a book beloved by readers, including many secondary teachers unaware of Carter’s past. For those educators who know its history, two concerns are central: does it still merit study in English classrooms, and if it does, what should that study look like? Continued critical engagement with the novel suggests that the first answer is yes, it still rewards thoughtful study. Addressing the second concern requires careful pedagogical consideration, but starts with acknowledging that it can no longer be approached as Carter’s mystical autobiography. Instead, it should be scrutinized as a duplicitous text by a deceptive author. Such an approach fundamentally alters its classroom use, challenging students’ preconceptions and impacting literature- and culture-based curricula. It also allows teachers to “unmask” both the book and its author in a controlled environment, plumbing its educational value while exposing the injustices its author perpetrated. More generally, new perspectives allow the dominant and sustained ignorance of the book’s true history to be exposed, transforming its classroom utility and adding necessary considerations of social justice, both textually and paratextually. Simply put, Little Tree offers more educational value today than it did before Carter’s past was revealed, and in the hands of a thoughtful teacher, it can bring unique opportunities to the secondary English classroom.

A Brief History of Little Tree

Some additional context may be useful for those unfamiliar with the book, its author, or its history. The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter was published with little fanfare in 1976, presented as the true story of the author’s upbringing in the Tennessee hills with his Cherokee grandparents, who served as guides toward a pan-tribal Indian spirituality emphasizing respect for nature. Many critics found it to be the perfect book for its time, offering the “primordial wisdom” (Browder 130) of American Indians (real or imagined) that non-Indians had begun seeking as an alternative to Western philosophies. Little Tree sat on bookstore shelves throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, gaining a small but loyal following, even as the author’s first book, The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, was made into a blockbuster western starring Clint Eastwood. It didn’t enter the American consciousness, however, until the University of New Mexico Press obtained the rights and reissued it in 1986. This occasioned the book’s first serious critical attention—a foreword by Cherokee legal scholar Rennard Strickland identifying Little Tree as “one of those rare books like Huck Finn that each new generation needs to discover and which needs to be read and reread regularly” (v) and noting that upon its initial release, Little Tree was “universally acclaimed” (vi) and found audiences among young adults, librarians, secondary English teachers, and “students of Native American life” who “discovered the book to be as accurate as it was mystical and romantic” (vi). In 1991, it won the American Bookseller’s Association ABBY award as the book merchants most enjoyed hand-selling (Reuter 104), and a modest position in the modern literary canon seemed assured.  

Then the bottom fell out of the whole enterprise. In 1991, twelve years after Forrest Carter’s death, Dan T. Carter (a possible distant relative) wrote to the New York Times identifying Forrest as Asa Carter, a “Ku Klux Klan terrorist, right-wing radio announcer, home-grown American fascist and anti-Semite, rabble rousing demagogue” (A31). Though his business associates, admirers, and family resisted this information, by year’s end, Asa’s widow admitted the truth: Forrest was Asa. He had not been raised by Cherokee grandparents, and he was responsible for racist speech and activities during the Civil Rights era in the South. Immediately, the critical winds shifted. No longer was Little Tree “sold on the gift tables of Indian reservations” (Gates 15). Instead, academics vilified it as a manufactured deception, offering speculation of white supremacist agendas buried in its pages and eventually using it primarily as a referent to frame discussions of newer literary pariahs such as James Frey. Little Tree’s fall from grace reached its nadir when Oprah Winfrey removed it from her recommended book list, explaining that, while the book touched many people, the revelations regarding Carter meant that she “had to take the book off [her] shelf” (“Oprah”).

The book itself has not changed much in those forty years. Other than alterations to its cover art (removing the words “a true story”), it is the same text Freeman Owle suggested could help readers understand the Cherokee mind (Gates 15), the same text The Atlantic championed by writing, “Some of it is sad, some of it is hilarious, some of it is unbelievable, and all of it is charming,” and the same text of which the Chattanooga Times wrote, “If I could have but one book this year this would be my choice, for it is a deeply felt work which satisfies and fills” (Forrest Carter cover). Most importantly, it is the same text that continues to be taught to students like Joseph in Massachusetts by teachers who are either unaware of its history or simply desperate for a book that engages their students.

Shifting the Central Appeal

My mentor at my current institution has long asked prospective teachers to consider the “problems and possibilities” of any teaching text. I have continued using this framework, and in Little Tree’s case, it is especially suitable. The novel offers numerous teaching possibilities, but they depend on reexamining its pedagogical implementation. In the past, teachers and students valued its ability to inspire students like Joseph by teaching them something about the “Cherokee Way,” but this appeal is now valid only to the extent that it can be juxtaposed with the hard truths of its author.

Literary critics have explored this juxtaposition for decades. Daniel Heath Justice writes of his first encounter with the book as a young Cherokee boy, reading it once and then immediately reading it again, drawing parallels between Little Tree’s family and his own. He “memorized favorite passages and took to imagining [himself] as Little Tree” (20). As an adult critic, however, Justice describes Little Tree as a “fanciful story based on stereotypes and lies” (21). Viewing a text through the lens of its author’s fraud, especially when the fraud is revealed post-publication, complicates a reader’s relationship to any work, and exploring this complication helps students develop the critical faculties needed to conduct close textual analysis—a much more rewarding task than simply reading for enjoyment and inspiration. Because of this, studies of Little Tree can usefully shift to examine the book’s controversies, and in doing so, push students’ critical faculties to new heights, especially if they are also provided critical writings about the text before and after Asa Carter’s unmasking. In fact, many secondary education standards push students toward such considerations at higher grade levels. The Common Core Standards in Reading for 11th/12thgraders ask students to “Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence” (35), and the Indiana Academic Standards relevant to my own program require them to “[a]nalyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama” (Indiana n.p.). Engaging students in the challenging work sorting fact from fiction in Little Tree helps address these standards and prepare students for the kind of close, intertextual reading that is expected in college.

Such reading leads to perhaps the most interesting pedagogical “promise” of an unmasked Little Tree: the opportunity to explore the central mystery of Asa/Forrest Carter. That Asa was a racist and a practitioner of hate speech in the 1960s is unquestionable, as is his attempted reinvention as Forrest, and much of Little Tree’s critical fate rests on a revisionist reading of the text based on such information. Shari M. Huhndorf writes that “the idyllic portrait Carter paints in The Education of Little Tree in many respects actually complements the author’s earlier Klan politics” (132), and that through the pretense of Indian family life in the Tennessee hills, Carter “attempts to vindicate the South from its violent racial history and to redeem an explicitly white supremacist perspective fallen into disrepute” (132). Her first point, that Carter sought to gloss over much of the racial history of the South, is beyond dispute, as is his fondness for an idealized antebellum South and the rugged individualism he believed had been suppressed by Northern aggression—ideas clearly typified in the character of Granpa, whose distrust of politicians and “big-city men” (Forrest Carter 123) echoes Southern sentiments popular during Carter’s lifetime. However, Huhndorf’s critical shift to her second point—positioning Little Tree as a white supremacist text—is less ironclad.

In her consideration of the book’s first scene, in which Little Tree and his grandparents board a bus shortly after his parents’ death, Huhndorf writes that the back of the bus, where the family is forced to sit, is “clearly a racialized space recalling the conflict over bus segregation and the subsequent boycott in the mid-1950s. In the novel, though, the back of the bus is not an undesirable place signifying its occupants’ oppression. Rather, it is a comfortable place where Little Tree finds a sense of love and belonging” (156). Does Carter mean to suggest there is nothing inherently wrong with their being forced to the back of the bus, thereby minimizing the pain inflicted on Little Tree and his grandparents by white racists, or does Huhndorf misread the passage in support of her thesis? Can the scene in question also be viewed as a gently ironic passage that emphasizes Little Tree’s innocence in contrast to the bus passengers’ blatant racism? The latter reading conflicts with much of what we know about Carter, while Huhndorf’s reading is more at odds with the text itself. These are fascinating questions, and though students may not understand every nuance of Huhndorf’s argument, an astute teacher can elicit their own critical responses by asking whether they see troublesome subtext in the scene, based on their symbolic understanding of the back of the bus and close readings of both texts. Such discussion can also usefully connect to current events and provide context for students to understand the horrifying resurgence of white supremacist ideologies in today’s political landscape.

Such passages also illustrate the difficulty of considering Little Tree through the lens of Carter’s politics. Though he never publically repudiated his racist beliefs, the question of whether he carried such sentiments wholly unchanged into the “Forrest” period of his life is less easily answered. Anecdotal evidence exists of at least two instances after Carter assumed his new persona when he used racial epithets in public and voiced racist ideas (Rubin 79-80). In contrast, his editor at Delecorte Press, Eleanor Friede, responded to the revelation of Carter’s true identity by saying, “Oh, no. It couldn’t be the same guy. He’s such a sweet, gentle, fine man. He would never say a word about anybody because of the color of their skin. And I know he’s not anti-Semitic, because my husband and I are Jewish, and we’ve had him to dinner a number of times. And he’s always just as nice as he could be. It just couldn’t be the same man.” Additionally, Chuck Weeth, a bookstore owner who worked with Carter during Little Tree’s initial publication, said, “I guess it’s sort of that feeling that give a man a chance, he might change himself. And we felt like, well, he tried to change himself and he succeeded with us. I didn’t like Asa Carter, I’ll guarantee you. But I did like Forrest Carter” (“180 Degrees”). Clearly, something had changed about the man, but whether it was sincere or performative is unknowable. Because of this, asking students about possible repentance or ideological shift in Carter’s later life requires them to delve deeply into assigned texts, cultivating more complex literary analysis.

Such analysis might also provide teachers with an opportunity to connect a controversy that might seem distant and minor to their students with more current and well-known events. In the past several years, the idea of cultural appropriation and impersonation has found its way into news headlines on a regular basis, from the case of white former-NAACP activist Rachel Dolezal’s self-identification as an African-American woman to the current political headlines relating to senator and 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s disputed family history of American Indian descent. While each of these cases (including Carter’s) should be independently considered in the classroom, aspects of their discussion might usefully overlap. For example, does Elizabeth Warren’s explicit apology separate her from Carter’s lack of clear repentance? Does Dolezal’s direct involvement with NAACP differentiate her from Carter’s more nebulous use of his assumed identity? Such conversations not only promote deeper consideration of Little Tree, but also encourage the sorts of intertextual and multimedia explorations valued in nearly all state standards.

As Gina Caison writes in her excellent reconsideration of Little Tree, “The three most common claims regarding Little Tree have been that it 1. represents Carter’s atonement for his racist past; 2. hides a sinister narrative of white supremacy beneath a hopeful exterior of ‘Cherokee’ mythology; or 3. produces such positive valuations of good morals that these contradictory possibilities and the immorality of its author become irrelevant” (575). Asking students to evaluate these claims in light of anecdotal evidence from Carter’s acquaintances and comparisons of his subterfuge to other cases of cultural appropriation gets to the heart of how teachers should be equipping them to engage with literary texts, and illustrates perhaps the most educationally useful “promise” Little Tree can make for today’s classroom.

The Caveat of Context

For teachers interested in using Little Tree to engage these teaching possibilities, it is also important to acknowledge its pedagogical problems and the resulting cautions teachers should take in their classrooms. The most important of these caveats has already been acknowledged: if Little Tree is taught, it cannot be read as it was in the past, despite students’ natural engagement with its surface appeal. Full context must be provided and processed. Because of this, it seems unlikely that the book can be effectively taught in middle schools, where students are less intellectually equipped to engage in such weighty critical considerations, and its use is probably most appropriate in high school courses designed for advanced students. The novel’s rewards are worth pursuing, but only by mature and inquisitive readers supervised by pedagogically sophisticated teachers. The prose remains appealing, but this allure should be treated not as an end, but rather as a means for deeper textual exploration. In capable hands, the book’s earnest simplicity is an excellent conduit for subtextual and paratextual considerations of the novel, whereas works with denser prose often complicate such analysis for students. In other words, because Little Tree is an easy read, students can better scrutinize subsequent challenges to their initial perceptions.

If educators should not dismiss Little Tree, but should also guard against its misinterpretation and oversimplification, what teaching methods successfully thread this needle in the classroom? Because of Carter’s political backstory, Little Tree cannot exist in a vacuum, and its teaching should be accompanied by secondary readings such as Justice’s, Huhndorf’s, and Caison’s, as well as the additional pedagogical and moral questions their inclusion elicits. Is it more effective, for example, to let the students experience Little Tree as Carter intended and then confront them with criticisms (thereby forcing them to challenge their initial assumptions), or is it more useful to provide all information up front for an informed initial reading? Any teacher using Little Tree in the classroom should have pedagogically sound answers to such questions.

Michael Marker articulates another caveat when he suggests that Little Tree should be avoided because of its reliance on American Indian stereotypes (226). While his caution is warranted, it presupposes viewing the book explicitly as American Indian literature, which is clearly no longer acceptable. However, Little Tree can provide effective object lessons if coupled with legitimate Indian writings by authors such as Alexie, Leslie Marmon Silko, or Louise Erdrich, as well as many of the primary Indian texts included in literature textbooks. Such works not only expose students to legitimate American Indian writers, but can also facilitate comparisons between Indian self-identification and non-Indian perceptions of Indian life. For example, how might students view the generic “Cherokee Way” of Little Tree against the specific tribal beliefs explored in many of Erdrich’s stories? Such lessons foster critical analysis and address standards such as Common Core Reading Standard 9: “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take” (35). As mentioned before, representations of American Indian culture are too often either absent in English classrooms or viewed reductively. Bringing Little Tree into conversation with legitimate Indian literature can provide useful perspectives on how and why that happens.

Such intertextual contact introduces another caveat: while Little Tree can be taught as a standalone text, it is most pedagogically valuable in multitextual units. Whether used as a comparative tool in American Indian literature lessons or interdisciplinary units on the Civil Rights movement, it can provide unique counterpoints to other writings. Caison explores this interdisciplinarity by reframing Little Tree primarily as a Southern novel, explaining that “The text’s articulation of a Confederate Lost Cause ideology further connects it to larger trends in Southern literature, as does its appeal to an affective bond of Southern identity that is highly invested in a quasi-mystical attachment to the land” (574). Imagine a Southern literature unit that assigns Little Tree alongside works by William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, illuminating perspectives on Carter’s writing and persona that are often downplayed when the book is approached as American Indian literature.

A final, critical caveat: teaching a text as contentious Little Tree requires a good deal of foresight and preparation by the teacher. Understanding the nuances of the text and its author is important, but making them clear to students is crucial. It would be unwise for teachers to bring the novel into their classrooms without first consulting administrators and contacting parents to make their intentions clear and providing the necessary context for a successful unit of study, and those interested in guidance on initiating such actions are encouraged to consult the National Council of Teachers of English position statement, “The Students’ Right to Read.

Even more critically, teachers who choose to study Little Tree in their classrooms should explore resources and engagement opportunities provided by American Indian tribes, organizations, and scholars. Non-Indian teachers, however well-intentioned, must avoid the temptation to speak in an uninformed or underinformed manner about, or on behalf of, tribal members generally and those in the Cherokee Nation specifically. Most active tribes, including the Cherokee, offer educational literature and outreach programs through their websites and governmental offices, and a number of American Indian scholars, including several listed in the Works Cited page of this essay, have written extensively on the topic of Indian representation in culture, literature, and classrooms. No educator should undertake the formidable task of teaching Little Treewithout first utilizing such resources.

Little Tree as Teachable Moment

Given these cautions, any discussion of Asa Carter and Little Tree in the 21st century classroom begs a central question: why teach this troublesome book at all when there are so many better ones? There are more answers to the question than this article provides, but two seem particularly relevant. First, Little Tree is already included in many classrooms, where it is often taught with ignorance of its author. While it is possible to simply ask teachers to remove the book from their classrooms, such a request runs contrary to the aforementioned NCTE missive, which states that “[i]n selecting books for reading by young people, English teachers consider the contribution which each work may make to the education of the reader, its aesthetic value, its honesty, its readability for a particular group of students, and its appeal to adolescents. English teachers, however, may use different works for different purposes” (National Council; emphasis added). If such freedom is leavened with an earnest sense of responsible purpose, adjusting how the book is taught offers more benefit than simply decreeing that it shouldn’t be taught. This approach will more profoundly transform the book’s use over time, both revealing the full truth of Carter and his novel in a structured environment and educating students on key historical and contemporary issues in social justice. A corollary to these methods is that, when approached thoughtfully, Little Tree provides unique teaching opportunities that are difficult to find elsewhere, helping students engage a comprehensible text in complicated literary and cultural analysis.

Ultimately, secondary teachers should explore ways to reshape their use of Little Tree, shining a light on its blemishes, controversies, and authorial shame while also asking hard questions about its content and themes. It rewards careful study in ways it could not have when published forty years ago, and it should be both criticized thoroughly and recognized as the work of a talented and immensely flawed writer. In important ways, and especially in secondary classrooms, Little Tree faintly echoes Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: both are the product of gifted but intolerant writers, offering substance, thoughtfulness, and deception. Just as the anti-Semitism of Shakespeare’s play forever bars it from being mentioned in the same breath as Hamlet or Macbeth, so Little Tree can never be the classic critics once suggested. Its innate contradictions and puzzles, however, alongside its engaging, lucid prose provide useful and unique pedagogical tools for English teachers. As Caison writes, “we should take the worst parts of our history out of the basement. Not because we want to celebrate them, but because we want to move forward—honestly and legitimately” (593). Few books provide this opportunity as fully as The Education of Little Tree.

 

Works Cited

“180 Degrees.” This American Life. National Public Radio, WBEZ, Chicago, 13 Jun. 2014.

Browder, Laura. Slippery Characters: Ethnic Impersonators and American Identities. U of North Carolina P, 2000.

Caison, Gina. “Claiming the Unclaimable: Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree, and Land Claim in the Native South.” The Mississippi Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 3/4, 2011, pp. 573–95.

Carter, Dan T. “The Transformation of a Klansman.” New York Times, 4 October 1991, p. A31.

Carter, Forrest. The Education of Little Tree. U of New Mexico P, 1991.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “‘Authenticity,’ or the Lesson of Little Tree.” New York Times Book Review, 24 November 1991, p. 26.

Huhndorf, Shari M. Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination. Cornell UP, 2001.

Indiana Department of Education. Indiana Academic Standards. Authors, 2014.

Justice, Daniel Heath. “A Lingering Miseducation: Confronting the Legacy of Little Tree.”Studies in American Indian Literature, vol. 12, no. 1, 2000, pp. 20-36.

Marker, Michael. “The Education of Little Tree: What It Really Reveals about the Public Schools.” Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 74, no. 3, 1992, p. 226.

National Council of Teachers of English. “A Students’ Right to Read.” 1981, http://www.ncte.org/positions/statements/righttoreadguideline. Accessed 30 June 2017.

National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects.Authors, 2010.

“Oprah Winfrey Spurns Racist’s Book.” New York Times on the Web, 8 November 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/08/arts/television/08arts-OPRAHWINFREY_BRF.html. Accessed 30 June 2017.

Reuter, M. “‘Education of Little Tree’ Wins Booksellers’ First ABBY Award.” Publisher’s Weekly, 10 March 1991, p. 2.

Rubin, Dana. “The Real Education of Little Tree.” Texas Monthly, February 1992, pp. 78+.

Strickland, Rennard. Foreword. The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter, U of New Mexico P, 1991, pp. v-vi.