About Face: How a KKK Leader Became the Author of One of the Most Famous ‘Native American’ Texts

Any first-time reader of The Education of Little Tree, published in 1976 as a memoir of a Cherokee orphan, would never suspect that it is, in fact, one of the biggest literary hoaxes in American history. Published initially as a memoir of the Cherokee man Forrest Carter, the true author was later revealed to be Asa Carter, KKK member and speechwriter for segregationist Gov. George Wallace of Alabama.

Upon its publication in 1976, The Education of Little Tree soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, securing its spot as a bestseller for 14 weeks.

The tale of a gentle young orphan learning the ways of the Cherokee from his grandparents enchanted readers It was quickly adopted by school teachers across the nation as a tool for teaching children about Native American culture and has been widely assimilated into public school curricula.  

Soon after the book's publication, the Times ran an exposé uncovering Asa Carter as the true author of the book. The copyright of Forrest Carter’s other book, The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, was registered under the same address that Asa Carter was known to live at. In a moment of bravery (or maybe stupidity) Asa appeared on the Today Show as cowboy-turned-writer Forrest Carter, only to be recognized by many close friends and Gov. Wallace’s campaign members as Asa Carter, himself.

Dubbed “the poet laureate of southern racist speech writing” by NPR’s Alex Blumberg , Carter penned Governor Wallace’s famous words “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and founded his own branch of the KKK in Alabama. Many accounts claim that Carter separated himself from Wallace because he felt Wallace was becoming too liberal in his stance on segregation.

To this day, Carter never explained his identity about-face, but after so-called Forrest Carter’s death in 1979 he was buried in Alabama under a tombstone reading “Asa Earl Carter”.

Despite its fraudulent authorship, The Education of Little Tree is still used in many school curriculums and lauded by some readers as a beautiful tale of Native American life.

Perhaps the most glaring reason that The Education of Little Tree is so appealing to teachers is it’s serene portrayal of Cherokee life, complete with rolling mountains, hand-stitched moccasins, and loving family values. While the young protagonist faces racism at the residential school that he is briefly confined to by the state, he is whisked safely back to the warm protection of his grandparents’ cabin in the Tennessee woods.

This brief encounter with contention allows the tale to be easily digested by students and teachers, providing a palatable, guilt-free image of Native American life, absent of any consideration of the long history of violence, oppression, and institutionalized discrimination that indigenous peoples were subject to for generations, and still are today.

“Teachers are encouraged to provide answers, but are discouraged from providing questions,” Dr. Michael Marker, associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s Department for Educational Studies explains in his essay “The Education of Little Tree: What It Really Reveals about the Public Schools.”.

“This sort of incident is likely to recur as long as the schools remain resistant to exploring the countercultural aspects of the First Nations culture,” he explains. What does it say about our education system that Native American history is taught using a text proven to be fraudulent?