This drama is set in 1935 when an orphaned eight-year-old Cherokee boy in Tennessee goes to live with his grandparents in the Smoky Mountains. Little Tree's Granma (Tantoo Cardinal) is determined to teach him "the way" the Cherokee understanding of Spirit, nature, and family. "To learn anything, you've got to feel the ground under you," she says giving him his new moccasins. His Granpa (James Cromwell) is a mountain man who savors his freedom and delights in his trade of whiskey making. He teaches Little Tree about the importance of having a secret place. A third elder is Willow John (Graham Greene), a shaman who explains the history of the Cherokee nation and Little Tree's place in it.
Writer and director Richard Friedenberg has adapted Forest Carter's bestselling 1986 novel for the screen with a keen attention to its affirmation of Native American spirituality. There is fluidity and tenderness in Joseph Ashton's performance as Little Tree, an eager learner whose spirit is stifled when state authorities force him to attend Notched Gap Indian School. However, when the time is right, he makes his way home. The Education of Little Tree pays homage to the wisdom of spiritual elders who help us find our place in the world.