There are no tremulous, wasp-waisted heroines or wisecracking sidekicks in the family film The Education of Little Tree, and frankly, that's refreshing. Forrest Carter's Depression-era tale, filmed in some of North America's most stunningly beautiful wilderness, concerns a half-Cherokee orphan (Joseph Ashton) whose Cherokee grandmother (Tantoo Cardinal) teaches him tribal history and customs, and white grandfather (James Cromwell, of Babe and L.A. Confidential) shows him how to brew moonshine. Cardinal, Cromwell, and supporting actor Graham Greene (Dances With Wolves) turn in finely nuanced performances, and young Ashton pleasantly surprises in this sometimes comic, often heart-rending film, which has struggled for national distribution. Little Tree is one of the highlights at the 23rd annual American Indian Film Festival, which also screens Naturally Native, a modern story of three sisters balancing cultural identity, home life, and a new business venture. The festival opens at 7 p.m. Thursday with Naturally Native and Making a Noise: A Native American Musical Journey With Robbie Robertson, a documentary on the Mohawk musician's return to Canada's Six Nations Indian Reserve, at the Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon (at Bay), S.F. It continues at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Palace with a double feature, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday with music videos, awards, a screening of Loretta Todd's documentary Today Is a Good Day: Remembering Chief Dan George, and performances by South Dakota blues rockers Indigenous and Ojibway rapper Wayquay. Little Tree screens at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at the AMC Kabuki Theater, 1881 Post (at Fillmore), S.F. Indigenous and Wayquay perform at an American Indian Film Institute (AIFI) benefit concert 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Cafe Cocomo, 650 Indiana, S.F. Festival admission ranges from $6-10; for a full schedule of screenings and events, and to reserve tickets, call the AIFI offices at 554-0525.