The Cherokee Kid
Will Rogers, Tribal Identity, and the Making of an American Icon
Amy M. Ware
Winner: Outstanding Book on Oklahoma History
Early in the twentieth century, the political humorist Will Rogers was arguably the most famous cowboy in America. And though most in his vast audience didn't know it, he was also the most famous Indian of his time. Those who know of Rogers’s Cherokee heritage and upbringing tend to minimize its importance, or to imagine that Rogers himself did so—notwithstanding his avowal in interviews: “I’m a Cherokee and they’re the finest Indians in the World.” The truth is, throughout his adult life and his work the Oklahoma cowboy made much of his American Indian background. And in doing so, as Amy Ware suggests in this book, he made Cherokee artistry a fundamental part of American popular culture.
“The Cherokee Kid is a well-informed, thoroughly researched, eminently readable, and engaging study. Amy M. Ware has undertaken the important and timely task of showing how Cherokee tribal culture has helped shape U.S. culture.”
—Journal of American History
“Ware challenges common assumptions of Native American identity in popular culture as she reminds us that Rogers was and always will be a Cherokee Indian.”
—American Historical ReviewSee all reviews...
“Ware synthesizes evidence mined from previously published works by and about Rogers with the newest standards of scholarship in Native American studies, offering her own deep reading of Rogers’s choices and words. The result is a multilayered elucidation of Rogers’s Indianness, Cherokeeness, and transnational citizenship in the Cherokee Nation and the United States.”
—Western Historical Quarterly
“Recommended to Will Rogers enthusiasts as well as those interested in American Indian history, the history of the American West, and the history of popular culture in the United States.”
—Montana The Magazine of Western History
“Ware’s persuasive argument for the study of American and American Indian cultural histories may alter scholarly examination of US Indian history at large.”
“A rich exploration of Rogers’s work in film, newspapers, and radio, which allows the reader to apprehend the complexity and the subversiveness of Rogers’s work, and indicates the possibilities for more tribally specific studies of the influence of Native peoples on U.S. history.”
“Amy Ware’s exciting new treatment of Will Rogers puts the ‘Cherokee’ back into the ‘Cherokee Kid,’ demonstrating the ways that Roger’s deep influence on American culture emerged from a tribal context that carried across his entire career. A stunning contribution to the rich body of new work examining American Indian engagements with modernity, internationalism, and celebrity.”
—Philip J. Deloria, author of Indians in Unexpected Places
“AmyWare plumbs Rogers’s extant materials, from radio shows to screenplays, from newspaper columns to family letters, to probe the meanings of Native American celebrity as well as elite Cherokee identity in the early twentieth century.”
—Tiya Miles, author of The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation StorySee fewer reviews...
Rogers, whose father was a prominent and wealthy Cherokee politician and former Confederate slaveholder, was born into the Paint Clan in the town of Oolagah in 1879 and raised in the Cooweescoowee District of the Cherokee Nation. Ware maps out this milieu, illuminating the familial and social networks, as well as the Cherokee ranching practices, educational institutions, popular publications and heated political debates that so firmly grounded Rogers in the culture of the Cherokee. Through his early career, from Wild West and vaudeville performer to Ziegfeld Follies headliner in the late 1910s, she reveals how Rogers embodied the seemingly conflicting roles of cowboy and Indian, in effect enacting the blending of these identities in his art. Rogers’s work in the film industry also reflected complex notions of American Indian identity and history, as Ware demonstrates in her reading of the clearest examples, including Laughing Billy Hyde, in which Rogers, an Indian, portrayed a white prospector married to an Indian woman—who was played by a white actress.
In his work as a columnist for the New York Times, and in his radio performances, Ware continues to trace the Cherokee influence on Rogers’s material—and in turn its impact on his audiences. It is in these largely uncensored performances that we see another side of Rogers’s Cherokee persona—a tribal elitism that elevated the Cherokee above other Indian nations. Ware's exploration of this distinction exposes still-common assumptions regarding Native authenticity in the history of American culture, even as her in-depth look at Will Rogers’s heritage and legacy reshapes our perspective on the Native presence in that history, and in the life and work of a true American icon.