American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Rogers, Will

Title: Will Rogers performs with children
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Born in 1879 to a Cherokee ranching family in Oologah, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), Will Rogers, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, became an internationally known vaudevillian, actor, writer, orator, and humanitarian before his death in an airplane crash in 1935. He was extraordinarily well-known during the 1920s and 1930s—some suggest the most well-known celebrity of his day—because of his multifaceted career and keen wit.

During his youth, Rogers became an adept trick roper, a line of work that would affect his life's work. He left the Territory in 1897 to work as a cowboy but came across a better opportunity, especially considering the declining role of cowboys at the turn of the century: He joined Texas Jack's Wild West Show and later the Wirth Brothers Circus as a livestock handler and trick roper, taking the stage name the Cherokee Kid. Rogers moved to vaudeville in 1904, where he added humorous, usually political, commentary to his stage performances. Rogers' act eventually offered as much (if not more) personal commentary as trick roping. In 1918, Rogers joined the Ziegfeld Follies, where he was one of its few male performers. He became such a popular performer that President Woodrow Wilson attended his performances. Other presidents maintained close ties to Rogers. Calvin Coolidge invited him to stay at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and Franklin Roosevelt communicated with Rogers often.

In 1922, Rogers began writing a weekly column for McNaught Syndicate. These were the most widely read columns in the country in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Rogers' column, which discussed current politics in a palatable way, was published in 600 newspapers across the country, from the New York Times to the Tulsa Daily World, and read by 40 million people. Rogers consistently defined himself as an American Indian in his writings and occasionally offered biting commentary about the sordid ties between his tribe and the U.S. government. His fans became so enthusiastic that he was considered a possible Democratic candidate for president of the United States in 1924, 1928, and 1932.

In addition to his stage and journalistic careers, Rogers spent the late 1920s mastering two new technologies that ignited a technological revolution: radio and film. His film celebrity—he starred or appeared in seventy-one films—exceeded that of Clark Gable, Shirley Temple, and Mae West by 1934. And his radio shows were listened to by millions.

Rogers traveled extensively from the latter part of the 1920s until the end of his life. In 1926, he traveled Europe on an assignment to write a series of articles entitled "Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President" for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1927 he visited Russia and Mexico; in 1931 he toured Central America for the benefit of Managua's earthquake victims (he donated $5,000 of his own money to the relief effort); and in 1932 he explored Asia, dining with the emperor of Manchuria and sipping tea with Japan's minister of war. Finally, in 1934 Rogers and his family—comprised of his wife Betty and his three children, Bill, Mary, and Jim—toured the world.

These trips were all made with the assistance of emerging air technology, which Rogers supported wholeheartedly. Rogers befriended many early aviators, including Charles Lindbergh and Wiley Post. During 1935, Post and Rogers died in an airplane crash in Alaska. A tremendous outpouring of grief followed Rogers' death, and many memorials were erected in his honor, including the Shrine of the Sun in Colorado. A statue of Rogers stands in National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C., a testament to his influence on American politics, as well as on U.S. popular culture and humor.

Amy M. Ware


Further Reading
Justice, Daniel Heath. 2002. "Our Fires Survive the Storm: Removal and Defiance in the Cherokee Literary Tradition." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Nebraska.; Rogers, Will. 1973–1983. The Writings of Will Rogers. 21 volumes. Stillwater, OK: Oklahoma State University Press.; Yagoda, Ben. 1993. Will Rogers: A Biography. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
 

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