The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter (Quotes)

This book is about the childhood of a Native American orphan boy in the 1930’s, raised by his grandparents and by nature. It was so charming and poignant at the same time; I couldn’t stop bawling my eyes out. While I was reading it, it feels like I was also being educated by the Cherokees. I have written some quotes from the book that I personally want to read from time to time in order to remind myself of some Native American wisdom.

About Man

“A man rises of his own will in the morning.”

“Ol’ Tel-qui is like some people. Since he knows everything, he won’t never look down to see what’s around him. Got his head stuck up in the air too high to learn anything.”

“Granpa had all the natural enemies of a mountain man. Add on to that he was poor without saying and more Indian than not. I suppose today, the enemies would be called ‘the establishment,’ but to Granpa, whether sheriff, state or federal revenue agent, or politician of any stripe, he called them ‘the law,’ meaning powerful monsters who had no regard for how folks had to live and get by.”

“Like Granpa said, ol’ Maud had no smell sense at all and was practical worthless on a fox trail; but she had keen hearing and eyesight, and this gave her something she could do and take pride in knowing she was of worth. Granpa said if a hound or anybody else has got no feeling of worth, then it’s a bad thing.”

“Granpa said he had many’s the time seen that same kind of thing, feelings taking over sense, make as big a fools out of people as it had ol’ Rippit. Which I reckin is so.”

“Granpa said that if there was less words, there wouldn’t be as much trouble in the world. He said privately to me that there was always some damn fool making up a word that served no purpose except to cause trouble. Which is reasonable. Granpa favored the sound, or how you said a word, as to its meaning. He said folks that spoke different words could feel the same thing by listening to the sound of music. Granma agreed with him, because that’s the way they talked to each other.”

“Granma’s name was Bonnie Bee. I knew that when I heard him late at night say, ‘I kin ye, Bonnie Bee,’ he was saying ‘I love ye,’ for the feeling was in the words. And when they would be talking and Granma would say, ‘Do ye kin me, Wales?’ and he would answer, ‘I kin ye,’ it meant, ‘I understand ye.’ To them, love and understanding was the same thing. Granma said you couldn’t love something you didn’t understand; nor could you love people, nor God, if you didn’t understand the people and God.”

“Granpa and Granma had an understanding, and so they had a love. Granma said the understanding run deeper as the years went by, and she reckined it would get beyond anything mortal folks could think upon or explain. And so they called it ‘kin.’”

“Granpa said back before his time ‘kinfolks’ meant any folks that you understood and had an understanding with, so it meant ‘loved folks.’ But people got selfish, and brought it down to mean just blood relatives; but that actually it was never meant to mean that.”

“Granma and Granpa wanted me to know of the past, for ‘If ye don’t know the past, then ye will not have a future. If ye don’t know where your people have been, then ye won’t know where your people are going.’ And so they told me most of it.”

“Far behind them, the empty wagons rattled and rumbled and served no use. The wagons could not steal the soul of the Cherokee. The land was stolen from him, his home; but the Cherokee would not let the wagons steal his soul.”

“And as the Cherokee walked farther from his mountains, he began to die. His soul did not die, nor did it weaken. It was the very young and the very old and the sick.”

“I got pretty wet, splashing in the spring branch, but Granma never said anything. Cherokees never scolded their children for having anything to do with the woods.”

“…Granma said you could easy spot dead people. She said dead people when they looked at a woman saw nothing but dirty; when they looked at other people they saw nothing but bad; when they looked at a tree they saw nothing but lumber and profit; never beauty. Granma said they was dead people walking around.”

“He said it was a funny thing, but when you got old and remembered them you loved, you only remembered the good, never the bad, which proved the bad didn’t count nohow.”

“When ye hear somebody using words agin’ somebody, don’t go by his words, fer they won’t make no damn sense. Go by his tone, and ye’ll know if he’s mean and lying.”

“Granpa said they was only one thing certain. The Indian was not never going to git control. Which appeared not likely.”

“The Indian never fishes or hunts for sport, only for food. Granpa said it was the silliest damn thing in the world to go around killing something for sport. He said the whole thing, more than likely, was thought up by politicians between wars when they wasn’t gittin’ people killed so they could keep their hand in on killing. Granpa said that idjits taken it up without a lick of thinking at it, but if you could check it out – politicians started it. Which is likely.”

“Granma said very few was picked to have the total love of the trees, the birds, the waters – the rain and the wind. She said as long as I lived I could always come home to them, where other children would find their parents gone and would feel lonesome; but I wouldn’t ever be.”

“Once, after we taken our seats, I found a long knife laying where I set. It was as long as Granpa’s and had a deer skin sheath that was fringed. Granma said Willow John gave it to me. That is the way Indians give gifts. They do not present it unless they don’t mean it and are doing it for a reason. They leave it for you to find. You would not get the gift if you didn’t deserve it, and so it is foolish to thank somebody for something you deserve, or make a show of it. Which is reasonable.”

“Granpa said that preachers got so taken up with theirselves that they got the notion they personal held the door handle on the pearly gates and wouldn’t let nobody in without their say-so. Grandpa figgered the preachers thought God didn’t have nothing atall to do with it.”

“He cut loose with the big stick acrost my back. The first time it hurt; but I didn’t cry. Granma had learnt me. Oncet when I stumped off my toenail…she learnt me how the Indian bears pain. He lets his body mind go to sleep, and with his spirit mind, he moves out of his body and sees the pain – instead of feeling the pain.”

About Nature and Animals

“Mon-o-lah, the earth mother, came to me through my moccasins. I could feel her push and swell here, and sway and give there…and the roots that veined her body and the life of the water-blood, deep inside her. She was warm and springy and bounced me on her breast, as Granma said she would.”

“Granpa knew the thinking of the ‘coon too and laughed at his mischievous ways, and swore a solemn oath that on occasion, the ‘coon had laughed at him. He knew where the turkey ran, and could track a bee from water to hive with a look of his eye. He could make the deer come to him, because he knew his curious nature; and he could ease through a covey of quail without stirring a wing. But he never bothered them, except for what he needed and I know they understood.”

“Granma said I would come to know that the old sweet gum tree in my secret place had a spirit too. Not a spirit of humans, but a tree spirit. She said her Pa had taught her all about it.”

“We listened to the birds while we worked. If the birds fly off and the tree crickets stop singing – look out.”

“I bent low to ol’ Ringers face and told him I ‘preciated him looking for me in the mountains, and I was sorry. Ol’ Ringer didn’t mind, he licked my face, letting me know he’d just as soon do it all over again.”

“Everything growing wild is a hundred times stronger than tame things. We pulled the wild onions from the ground and just a handful would carry more flavor than a bushel of tame onions.”

“If a tree has been hanging on, having weathered all the winter winds, She [Mother Earth] figures it needs cleaning out, She whips it up out of the ground and flings it down the mountain. She goes over the branches of every bush and tree, and after She feels around a little with Her wind fingers, then She whips them clean and proper of anything that is weak.”

“Any berries you see the birds don’t eat, you had better not eat.”

“Every bird that comes around your cabin in the mountains is a sign of something. That’s what the mountain folks believe, and if you want to believe you can, for it’s so. I believed. So did Granpa.”

“Birds, just like everything else, know if you like them. If you do, they will come all around you. Our mountains and hollows was filled with birds: mockingbirds and flickers, red-winged blackbirds and indian hens, meadowlarks and chip-wills, robins and bluebirds, hummingbirds and martins – so many that there is no way to tell of them all.”

“Far back in the mountains, we heard two wildcats mating. They sounded like they were screaming mad, but Granpa said mating feels so good that cats can’t help but scream about it.”

“Once you start planting, you have to be careful. There are times when you can’t plant. You must begin by remembering that anything growing below the ground, such as turnips or ‘taters won’t be any bigger than a pencil.”

“Anything that grows above ground, such as corn, beans, peas and such, must be planted in the light of the moon. If it isn’t, you’ll not make much of a crop of it.”

About the Way of Life

“Don’t feel sad, Little Tree. It is The Way. Tal-con caught the slow and so the slow will raise no children who are also slow. Tal-con eats a thousand ground rats who eat the eggs of the quail – both the quick and the slow eggs – and so Tal-con lives by The Way. He helps the quail.”

“It is The Way. Take only what ye need. When ye take the deer, do not take the best. Take the smaller and the slower and then the deer will grow stronger and always give you the meat. Pa-koh, the panther, knows and so must ye.”

“Only Ti-bi, the bee, stores more than he can use…and so he is robbed by the bear, and the ‘coon…and the Cherokee. It is so with people who store and fat themselves with more than their share. They will have it taken from them. And there will be wars over it…and they will make long talks, trying to hold more than their share. They will say a flag stands for their right to do this…and men will die because of the words and the flag…but they will not change the rules of The Way.”

“Granma said I had done right, for when you come on something that is good, first thing to do is share it with whoever you can find; that way, the good spreads out to where no telling it will go. Which is right.”

“Granma said everybody has two minds. One of the minds has to do with the necessaries for body living. You had to use it to figure how to get shelter and eating and such like for the body. She said you had to use it to mate and have young’uns and such. She said we had to have that mind so as we could carry on. But she said we had another mind that had nothing atall to do with such. She said it was the spirit mind.”

“Granma said if you used the body-living mind to think greedy or mean; if you was always cuttin’ at folks with it and figuring how to material profit off’n them…then you would shrink up your spirit mind to a size no bigger’n a hickor’nut.”

“Granma said that the spirit mind was like any other muscle. If you used it it got bigger and stronger. She said the only way it could get that way was using it to understand, but you couldn’t open the door to it until you quit being greedy and such with your body mind. Then understanding commenced to take up, and the more you tried to understand, the bigger it got.”

“Then there was the summer – our growed-up lives – and autumn when we got older and had that peculiar feeling in our spirits of being back in time. Some folks call it nostalgia and sadness. The winter with everything dead or seeming to be, like our bodies when they die, but born again just like the spring. Granma said the Cherokees knew, and had learned it long ago.”

“Granma’s Pa was called Brown Hawk. She said his understanding was deep. He could feel the tree-thought. Once, she said, when she was a little girl, her Pa was troubled and said the white oaks on the mountain near them was excited and scared. He spend much time on the mountain, walking among the oaks. They were of much beauty, tall and straight. They wasn’t selfish, allowing ground for sumach and persimmon, and hickory and chestnuts to feed the wild things. Not being selfish gave them much spirit and the spirit was strong.”

“I said I didn’t care a thing in the world about being ahead. It would suit me might near total if I could just catch up. It was kind of lonesome, always being left behind.”

“The last butterfly flew up the hollow. He rested on a cornstalk where me and Granpa had stripped the corn. He didn’t flex his wings, just set, and waited. He had no purpose in storing food. He was going to die, and he knew it. Granpa said he is wiser than a lot of people. He didn’t fret about it. He knew he had served his purpose, and now his purpose was to die. So he waited there in the last warm of the sun.”


  1. I hope that you have figured this out by now, but this book is completely fiction. Forrest Carter is an Alabama Klansmen who revealed that this book is fake drunk at a book signing in the 70s. Just wanted you to know that.

    William B. Buttlicker, PhD

  2. Still they are beautiful quotes. Hard to believe a klansmen wrote them. I'm still searching for the quote that grandma said to little tree. The quote begins..."the only way to make your spirit big is to work on it." And ... the closer to the understanding you get.


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