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GINA CAISON University of California, Davis Claiming the Unclaimable: Forrest Carter, The Education of Little Tree, and Land Claim in the Native South FOR THE PAST TWO DECADES SCHOLARS OF NATIVE AMERICAN LITERATURE have continually returned to a perplexing question in the field: what motivated Asa Carter, a notorious white-supremacist from Alabama, to re-invent himself as a Cherokee man named Forrest Carter and to compose one of the most successful Native American literary texts in history, The Education of Little Tree? The corresponding question, of course, is why did audiences, publishers, and scholars—Native and non-Native alike—fall for it?1 Typically, examinations of this text begin with a discussion of Carter’s identities, real or imagined, and end by assertingtheimplicationsofthecontroversyforNative(andoccasionally ethnic) literature as a whole. This approach does give us specific insight into the what, how, and why of the ever-growing interest in, and canon of, Native American texts. However, it neither enacts nor encourages a prolonged consideration of Carter’s novel within the field to which it might most rightly belong: the literature of the US South. Instead of revealing only the false preconceptions about Native American literature, Little Tree has equally serious implications for audiences’ conceptions and misconceptions of the South. Rereading the text as Southern rather than as Native literature may not generate the answers critics desire regarding Carter’s identitarian motives, but to do so may begin to explain the novel’s early and continued popularity. Considering Carter and Little Tree as a part of the discussion in Southern as well as Native literature foregrounds the need that Eric Gary Anderson identifies when he asks that “American and Southern Studies . . . 1 The author extends thanks to Mark Jerng, John Garrison, Karolyn Reddy, and the readers forMississippiQuarterlyfortheirthoughtfulandprecisesuggestionsonprevious drafts. For the background on Forrest Carter’s identity as Asa Carter and his political activities, see Allen Barra, Dan Carter, and Jeff Roche. 574 Gina Caison reimagine their own provocative presences and absences within Native Studies, to rethink . . . the tenets and governing assumptions of these disciplinary ‘regions’” (par. 16). In other words, this examination of Carter’s novel argues for a more dynamic exchange between the two often separated conversations. Little Tree necessitates such an engagement as it pushes audiences to consider their expectations, valuations, and analyses of texts based upon their correspondence to an author’s racial or regional identity. Additionally, Little Tree highlights the role of the US South in the nation’s imagination as an emotive and abject space and provides insight into where the construction of a popular Southern identity formulation fits within the American literary landscape. Through the novel’s temporal and spatial construction of an imagined Native South, Little Tree foregrounds the deep historical narratives that continue to affect the way we read within Native American and Southern Studies today. Carter’s problematic conflation of generalized Native and white southern character constructions is not the only reason that we could productively read Little Tree as a work within the canon of US Southern literature. Rather, reading Little Tree as Southern fiction yields insight into the terrain of racial identities within the region that extend past the familiar black-white binary and renders visible the ways in which the US South has been imagined by the rest of the nation as a paradoxically romantic and disavowed space. Instead of simply identifying Carter’s false construction of Cherokee culture in the novel, it also seems necessary to consider why he chose an escape into Native identity, not as a generalized instance of “playing Indian” or “going Native” but rather as an act deeply invested with his own specific regional identity as Southerner. The book and the discourse surrounding it—including celebratory reader responses, national awards, and scathing critiques— are infused with concerns over genealogy and origins. This genealogical concern constitutes one way that the South has continually constructed and reconstructed racial identity and the fear of racial amalgamation. 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...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2689-517X
Print ISSN
0026-637X
Pages
pp. 573-595
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-27
Open Access
No
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