Set in the 1930s, 8-year-old Little Tree, who has lost both his father and mother, is resisting his aunts efforts to raise him. He chooses, instead, to go to his Cherokee grandparents who live in the Smokey Mountains. While there he meets Willow John, an Indian healer who teaches Little Tree about the Cherokee Nation. Reported to the state welfare department, Granma and Granpa are forced to send the boy to the Notched Gap Indian School. At the school, Little Tree is stripped of his Indian name and forced to endure the prejudice of the school's adminstrators. Ultimately, Little Tree comes to understand the value of familial love and tradition during this rite-of-passage journey toward manhood.