- Will Rogers's Indian Humor
By the time of his death in 1935, political humorist Will Rogers had become one of the most famous personalities in the United States. Through his syndicated weekly articles and daily telegrams, films, and radio broadcasts, Rogers reached an estimated audience of forty million. Because of his deft use of the venues of mass entertainment—from the vaudeville stage to Hollywood—and the consequent mainstreaming of his act, it may be easy to pass over the side of Rogers that was not so mainstream: born in 1879 in Indian Territory, Rogers was a member of the Cherokee Nation for the first twenty years of his life. He became a naturalized American citizen after the 1898 Curtis Act brought the disbanding of tribal government and the allotment of land in severalty to the Five Tribes. Billed as a cowboy from Oklahoma and as a self-made diplomat to the president, nominated for the presidency because of the broad appeal of his home-spun humor and common sense, Rogers's commercially crafted all-American public identity is a simplification of a complex personal and national history.
Rogers's humor has been discussed as the American-grown cracker-barrel humor originating with Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard. "Horse sense," as Walter Blair wrote in 1942, is that "good, sound, practical sense" that Will Rogers shares with Franklin, Josh Billings, Davy Crockett, and an assortment of other American humorists (vi). While Blair sees horse sense as peculiar to North America, he does not attribute any part of Rogers's humor to the part-Cherokee identity Rogers claimed as his own. This failure to [End Page 83] acknowledge the tribal specificity of Rogers's humor is probably due to the stereotype of the stoic Indian—the "granite-faced grunting redskin," as Vine Deloria Jr. puts it in his study of Indian humor Custer Died for Your Sins (148). A biography of Rogers, written immediately after his death in 1935, exemplifies the influence of this stereotype. The biographer, P. J. O'Brien, parcels out Rogers's talents among his three lines of descent: his humor is Irish; his business sense, Scotch; his "dignity and reserve," Indian (24). It may be that because no one looked for an Indian sense of humor in Rogers, his audiences missed the sting of his jokes. This obliviousness to Indian humor may have actually contributed to Rogers's mainstream appeal as well.
In a larger sense, Rogers has been appropriated not only as an American humorist but as a mythic American figure. William R. Brown has posited Rogers as an embodiment of four basic cultural myths—the innocent "American Adam" (37), the egalitarian "American democrat" (91), the resourceful "self-made man" (161), and the technologically savvy "American Prometheus" (209). Although Rogers's Cherokee ancestry is featured in Brown's study, Brown mainly wants to incorporate Rogers in a broad American framework, similar to Blair's framework of general American humor, denying Rogers any kind of cultural or political specificity that may endanger this abstract all-American representativeness.
Furthermore, because Rogers was an acculturated mixed-blood, his Native side has not been taken seriously. One biographer, Richard Ketchum, quotes Rogers's son as saying that his father and grand-father were "upwardly mobile" and chose to accommodate white ways rather than traditional Cherokee culture (58). Will Rogers was connected to the Cherokees even less than his father because he married a white woman and lived away from the territory of the Cherokee Nation. But "he became too much of a showman not to realize the appeal an Indian background had for an audience" (Ketchum 58). The implication is that because Rogers was not traditional, he was not a real Indian; he used Indianness simply as a market ploy.
As a result of this mainstreaming, Rogers has long been denied a prominent place in Native American literary history. Recently, however, Native scholars have called for a reassessment of the proper [End Page 84] subject of Native American studies. Robert Warrior encourages a broader approach to Native American writing—open to a greater variety of genres, to issues other than essential identity and survival, and to...