In Danielle Smith’s fantasy Alberta, Indigenous struggle is twisted to suit settlers

What do a notorious Ku Klux Klan writer, right-wing libertarianism, the Cherokee Trail of Tears and the “lost cause” of the American Confederacy have to do with Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s recent controversial statements on Indigenous matters?

More than we might imagine.

Smith was recently forced to backpedal on comments conflating the ugly history of the Indian Act with Alberta’s treatment by Ottawa.

Just a month earlier, her office had to publicly address her solidly debunked claims of distant Cherokee heritage. She also compared the deadly ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee Trail of Tears with Alberta’s anti-Ottawa conflict as though they shared a similar moral significance.

These incidents are more than exasperating examples of studied ignorance or false equivalency. Smith’s grasp on Indigenous issues is untethered from actual history. It seems rooted not in genuine allyship and justice but in the appropriation of Indigenous experiences to advance white grievance politics in Alberta and beyond.

Justifying false fantasies

Right-wing white extremists have long tried to hijack Indigenous rights struggles to justify their own fantasies of being oppressed by overreaching globalist governments and displaced by people of colour.

These attempts graft cleanly onto more popular frontier mythology about the “conquest” of North America, the “savages” who vanish into the sunset and the heroic white settlers, voyageurs, and pioneers who wrested modern Canada from the unspoiled wilderness.

In this self-justifying settler fantasy, Indigenous people become historical symbols of a false past of inevitable disappearance, not the vibrant cultural and political Nations still here today. When reduced entirely to the symbolic — and thus disconnected from actual Indigenous lives and realities — these stereotypes can be put to dangerous ideological uses.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald says she supports treaty chiefs who are opposing Danielle Smith’s proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act.
(Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Rewriting Cherokee history

By way of illustration, look to a once bestselling book, The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter.

First published in 1976, the book was initially presented as the charming autobiographical reflection of a mixed-race orphan raised by his wise Cherokee grandparents in the Tennessee mountains during the 1920s.

Yet Little Tree, his grandparents and family friend Willow John are seemingly the only Indigenous people in the whole of the southeastern United States. There’s no mention of the Eastern Band of Cherokees in North Carolina or other Nations in the east, and the Cherokees forced west on the Trail of Tears are referenced only as a pitiful remnant of a nobler past.

The main antagonists in the book aren’t the local whites and their descendants who profited the most from the policy of Indian Removal, but rather the faraway but intrusive “guv’mint” and its hated northern politicians.

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Carter misrepresents history to highlight the violent overreach of the government and arrogant city folk whose economic and social interests it represents. He repeatedly frames white Confederates and their descendants as being equally sympathetic and unfairly oppressed as Little Tree’s Cherokee family and ancestors.

In Little Tree, both white Confederates and Cherokees seek to protect their mutual mountain home from intruders, government agents and cynical politicians. The anger of white Confederate sympathizers and the anguish of dispossessed Cherokees become one, and their identities are wholly united by a single common enemy: guv’mint.

In so doing, Carter ignores the fact that the Cherokee Nation itself was violently divided by the Civil War and that many Cherokees supported the Union or neutrality over alliance with the Confederacy.

He also erases the inconvenient reality that it was the South’s white citizens, not the federal government, who most enthusiastically supported the Indian Removal Act and who benefited the most when Cherokees and other Indigenous nations were driven from the region.

Cars travel along a highway. A sign in the foreground reads Trail of Tears Auto Tour Route.
Cars travel along an Illinois highway on the Trail of Tears Auto Tour Route. Cherokee were forced westward to Oklahoma along the infamous trail, where many died and are buried.
(AP Photo/James A. Finley)

Insidious rhetoric

As might already be expected, Forrest Carter was neither Little Tree nor Cherokee. His real name was Asa Earl Carter, a violent segregationist, white supremacist and Ku Klux Klan leader who wrote the notorious 1963 “segregation now, segregation forever” speech for Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

In the 1970s, he refashioned himself as “Forrest,” a genial, half-Cherokee fiction writer with a big moustache and folksy southern charm. Although he was more subtly libertarian in his fiction, his commitment to anti-Blackness and pro-Confederacy propaganda never wavered.

There’s nothing remotely Cherokee about the novel, but Carter was a masterful storyteller who exploited entrenched white stereotypes to lasting effect. Even though his true identity became widely known in 1991, The Education of Little Tree remains in print today.

It’s no great imaginative leap to see how Carter and Smith draw on similar ideas that, for all their differences, lead them in similar directions.

Smith, too, has cited mythical Cherokee heritage as a reason for her distrust of government. She too has misrepresented Cherokee history to conflate the Trail of Tears and its thousands of deaths with Alberta outrage against an increasingly intrusive federal government. She too has tried to link the horrors of Indigenous genocide with entitled grievance narratives long tied to far-right white nationalism.

A dark-haired woman in profile.
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith in November.

This doesn’t mean that Smith has read Carter’s book, knows his story or supports the Confederacy or white nationalism. She may be sincerely invested in her unsubstantiated family story and her belief that Alberta and Indigenous Nations share the same struggles and the same singular oppressor in Ottawa.

The appropriation of Indigenous struggles has a long history in libertarian circles on both the left and right.

The rhetoric that informed Carter’s work and energizes white resentment in the United States and Canada is an unmistakable undercurrent in Smith’s own political vision. Regardless of stated intent, both distort and weaponize Cherokee history to ugly ends.

Smith’s heritage claims are core to this problem. She’s invoked her supposed Cherokee ancestor and the Trail of Tears on multiple occasions to link Indigenous oppression with her Alberta-first libertarianism.

She draws on this dodgy connection to assert insight and shared struggle while pushing a provincial sovereignty bill that’s on a direct collision course with First Nations’ treaty rights.

Dangerous by design

The disconnect is inevitable. And as this year’s so-called freedom convoy protests demonstrated, language around Indigenous rights is increasingly being appropriated by the same people who are quick to condemn Indigenous land and water protectors.

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It’s happening elsewhere in Canada, too. Some of the more controversial “eastern Métis” groups in Canada were founded by explicitly anti-Indigenous white people who now use bogus Indigenous heritage claims to access the treaty rights they long railed against.

In Carter’s fantasy Appalachia — as in Smith’s fantasy Alberta — centuries of righteous Indigenous struggle are twisted into self-serving settler stereotypes that ignore actual Indigenous history, kinship and basic reality.

Reactionary white populism is hostile to Indigenous rights by design, as it’s ultimately about unilateral settler control of land and resources. But this remains unspoken in these circles. To speak of it would be to firmly dispel the false but convenient illusion of common struggle.

Whether intentional or not, Smith’s rhetoric is fundamentally anti-Indigenous. She’s distorting Indigenous histories and issues to dangerous ends and Canadians would do well to pay attention.

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