Posted by on May 11, 2012 in Uncategorized

The Mis-education of a Dream

By Dana Lone Hill

My grandpa Joe used to love to buy stuff from infomercials, except back then they were just commercials. Back then the stuff he bought took up a whole room. This was in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I remember because my Grandma Erna would take the huge TV remote control away and turn the TV off, telling him they didn’t have the space.

My stepdad Robert was the same way. He had everything from a breadmaker, to a food dehydrator, to a belly shrinker. I always thought it was funny, almost everything he bought was about food and losing weight. I bet the infomercial people loved him.

Buying a dream, my mom used to say. The same way my Grandma Erna said it. That didn’t stopped either of them- they always bought into a dream.

People will, that’s the funny thing. Buy into a dream, and there is always someone willing to sell one- like my stepdad’s belt that shocked him, but never shrunk his belly. Clearly, he knew it wasn’t that easy to lose belly fat, but he was still disappointed. God bless his soul.

The other day I saw the ultimate hustle. A hustle that was so genius, it went beyond the grave. Seriously, nobody is making that big of a deal about it, but maybe they can’t because this man who sold this dream, to Oprah Winfrey even, is dead and has been for close to 40 years.

Forrest Carter wrote the book The Education of Little Tree. His so-called autobiography, that sold ok back in the 70’s, turned into a sleeper hit when it was made into a paperback in the 80’s. The book was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey in 1994. It was adapted into a screenplay and made into a movie in 1997. Even when Oprah removed it from her list of recommended books in 2007 it wasn’t made as big a deal of as when she took back her endorsement of James Frey’s spotty and fabricated memoir A Million Pieces of Me.

After reading the story on NPR, I decided to watch the movie. The movie is cute. It is a coming of age movie about an orphan child who is half white and half Cherokee, who goes to live with his grandparents. His “Granma” is Cherokee and his “Granpa” is Scottish-Cherokee and a moonshiner. Little Tree, the supposed author Forrest, soon learns the art of hustling as a moonshiner. He also eventually learns about racism. He is removed from his grandparents’ home and sent to a boarding school where he encounters more strife. It could be a believable, if not somewhat romantic viewpoint, as most ‘typical’ American Indian movies go. It is the typical sad, ‘plight of the Indian’ theme, as he grows in two worlds. Yeah, I cried- but so what. I have been known to let my eyes water up a little bit for certain Disney and Pixar movies, once in a great while.

So where is the hustle?

Mr. Forrest Carter never existed. Little Tree never existed. If that still doesn’t seem like a big deal because so many authors use pen names and have ghostwriters, listen to this.

Forrest Carter was Asa Carter. Asa Carter wasn’t even Cherokee. The whole story was fabricated from his research about the Cherokee. Then he became Cherokee himself, along with half the nation. Still no one really thinks it’s a big deal, right? I mean it’s not like today, where Johnny Depp is starring as a comic book character and his Hollywood make-up throws people in an uproar. There have been other books about Native Americans written by white people, right? Maybe even by wannabes. Especially those who’ve written books that were made into movies. After all, who wrote Dances with Wolves, anyway?

Yet what about a book that was purported to be an autobiography by a self- proclaimed “Story Teller of The Cherokee Nation,” who was also a former radical Klu Klux Klansmen?

That’s right, the author of the ABBY award winning The Education of Little Tree was the speech writer for segregationist Governor George Wallace of Alabama, an opponent of the civil rights movement. He founded one of the most radical independent Klu Klux Klan groups ever, The Klu Klux Klan of The Confederacy. In fact, it was the group that attacked Nat King Cole at a concert in Birmingham in 1956, and the same radical group that abducted a black handyman in 1957 and castrated him. He spread hate and he spread it well. Those are only a few of the notches on his belt as a radical racist, including murder charges that were dropped.

So how does Asa Carter become Forrest Carter, the man who teaches the world how wrong racism is? Since he is gone, and he vehemently denied who he was to the end, this is my theory. I believe Mr. Carter was so racist, he reversed his ideals, wrote about them, and made money. He was a hustler. He was selling dreams, not his dreams anymore- but the opposite, because he saw the opportunity.

So how are we supposed to feel about this cute little story called The Education of Little Tree? I saw comments about the Minnesota NPR report, “The Artful Reinvention of a Klansmen,” and was wondering why it was a big deal. Some wondered, why can’t people just take what they want from the story? I decided to ask one of the actors of the movie how she felt about it herself.

If you ever saw a movie about Indians, then you know who Tantoo Cardinal is. She has been in more movies than I even knew about and I thought I knew them all. Well respected among Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities for her superb acting, as well as work as an activist, this is what she had to say:

“I didn’t see wicked racism in the story. It was a story, sweetly told, fiction, of a moment in history. I heard that he had been a member of KKK. I thought perhaps it was a rethink? Perhaps? Then, consider the closets of other writers and artists… what lurks there. I felt it was an opportunity to tell a story. We who retold the story are not, and never have been (as far as I know) a member or actors in such wickedness. I didn’t believe he was Indigenous. It didn’t make sense that a redskin would be welcome in that club.

As an actor in my position there are always elements to be weighed. In the early years they were all white stories in the sense they are being told through “their” filter. I had to do things I was not happy about to keep the ball rolling as best I could, in the hopes that we would (and we did) get to the place where were telling our own stories. Every project was an opportunity to move forward in some way…an opportunity to learn more, for more people to gain some experience. And sometimes an opportunity to open the door to a newer set of stories. This was an opportunity to drop a little hint about the removal of our children from our homes and communities. This was not a mainstream consciousness, nor is it yet.”

Much respect to Tantoo for her input, and it is at that point, like she said. We are here, we are telling our own stories, from Gyasi Ross, to Sherman Alexie, to Adrian Louis, to Louise Erdrich- and all the other wonderful Native authors out there who tap the keyboard and pick up the pen, because they know they carry the stories of our people. Maybe Asa Carter fooled the world but you can bet that won’t happen again. There are too many of us that are here to tell our stories, and thanks to outlets like Lastrealindians, we are here to stay.

“`Little Tree’ is a lovely little book, and I sometimes wonder if it is an act of romantic atonement by a guilt-ridden white supremacist, but ultimately I think it is the racial hypocrisy of a white supremacist.” -Sherman Alexie