- The Cherokee Kid: Will Rogers, Tribal Identity, and the Making of an American Icon by Amy M. Ware
Amy M. Ware’s The Cherokee Kid: Will Rogers, Tribal Identity, and the Making of an American Icon is a well-written and intriguing account of the career of actor Will Rogers. Ware’s book examines the Hollywood icon within a “tribal-national context” as a case study to “explore … a new method for interrogating American Indian celebrities in specific tribal terms” (p. 3). Rather than viewing Rogers through a “US-centric frame,” Ware’s approach examines “how this Cherokee artist so profoundly shaped the face of American popular culture by calling on Cherokee traditions” and “considers Rogers as a man with persistent and complex social and cultural connections to his tribe, ties that had a rippling effect on his multimedia contributions to the United States” (p. 3). By mining primary sources such as family letters, screenplays, newspaper columns, and radio commentary, Ware pieces together the illustrious and unique career of a beloved American icon who made his way into America’s heart as “The Cherokee Kid.”
Will Rogers (1879–1935) was born in the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory during the close of Reconstruction. His parents were members of the elite, former slave-owning class of mixed Cherokees who maintained considerable political power in the ever-changing social and political landscape of the Cherokee Nation. Rogers grew up with a strong sense of identity and place within elite Cherokee society. When he left Indian Territory to pursue his acting career, Rogers embodied, as historian Devon Mihesuah has written, “a ‘new Cherokee identity, that of a person knowledgeable about the white world, possessing Cherokee and white blood, and often looking Caucasian’” (p. 51). Hence, throughout his illustrious career Rogers, who was best known for his trick-ropin’ cowboy comedy routine, put America on notice not to judge a book by its cover. In other words, Ware argues, despite his outward [End Page 708] phenotypical whiteness, inwardly Rogers was all Indian. From the vaudeville circuit to screen acting, from radio personality to newspaper commentator, Rogers achieved superstardom and used his prestige as a bully pulpit to remind the nation of the continued reality of Native peoples and its indebtedness to them.
Despite his forceful articulations of Indianness, Rogers maintained throughout his career a liminal space between Indian country and American society, wherein he was a member of Indian country but not of it. This aspect of Rogers proves to be an unfortunate blind spot in Ware’s analysis. Rogers maintained his iconic cowboy persona throughout his career, a persona Americans viewed as antithetical to Indianness. He was estranged from the Hollywood Indian community and never joined the Indian Actors Association. Perhaps the most salient demonstration of the contradiction of Rogers’s claim to Cherokee identity came in 1934 when his use of the n-word during a radio broadcast aroused the ire of the NAACP. In a written response to the controversy, Rogers stated, “you [African Americans] must also use tolerance toward millions of fine white people, who use the word, but who at heart are … real friends to your people” (pp. 199–200). This statement makes it clear that though he was Cherokee, Rogers was able to assert a white privilege that allowed him to shift between Cherokee and white identity. Ware’s book would have benefited from an exploration of this duality. Notwithstanding, Ware has written a well-researched, engaging account of a beloved icon. Her work brings added value to the literature on Native American studies and popular culture.