Politics & Policy

Honest Injun?

The incidence of fake Indians is almost epidemic.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the March 28, 2005, issue of National Review.

In his book The Education of Little Tree, Forrest Carter tells the tender tale of becoming an orphan and growing up in the Appalachian boondocks under the careful watch of his Cherokee grandparents. The book is full of sweet lessons about the importance of family and the need to live in harmony with nature. There’s quite a backstory to it as well. First published in 1976, The Education of Little Tree received warm reviews and garnered a cult following, but wasn’t a commercial hit. Ten years later, the University of New Mexico Press bought the rights to it for just $500.

That purchase ranks as one of the publishing industry’s most lucrative coups: The Education of Little Tree has since sold hundreds of thousands of copies. “The values as well as the prose touched many who didn’t usually read,” wrote Prof. Rennard Strickland in a foreword to the original paperback edition. “Students of Native American life discovered the book to be as accurate as it was mystical and romantic.” On June 23, 1991, the book debuted on the New York Times bestseller list for paperback nonfiction. It remained there throughout the summer and well into the fall, eventually rising to the top position. Then, on November 10, it vanished–and reappeared on the bestseller list for paperback fiction.

That’s because it had been exposed as a fraud. Forrest Carter was really Asa Carter, a white supremacist who had written speeches for Alabama governor George Wallace in the 1960s. Wallace’s viciously memorable line–”Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!”–probably came from Carter’s pen. Carter, who died in 1979, was a forerunner to such fabulists as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. He was no Indian and his famous book was no memoir.

Carter was one of the more spectacular examples of a white person trying to come off as an Indian. There is a long history of this make-believe behavior, going back at least as far as the Boston Tea Party. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the emergence of fraternal orders and other organizations that aped Indian identities. Yet nobody seriously believed the Campfire Girls were the authentic daughters of Sitting Bull. That’s not the case with some of the most recent forms of real Indian bull, as Carter and The Education of Little Tree demonstrate. “It’s an epidemic,” complains Vernon Bellecourt of the American Indian Movement. “These people are culture vultures, and their motive is to make money.”…

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John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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