The Cherokee Kid: Will Rogers, Tribal Identity, and the Making of an American Icon

By Coleman, Arica L. | The Journal of Southern History, August 2016 | Go to article overview

The Cherokee Kid: Will Rogers, Tribal Identity, and the Making of an American Icon


Coleman, Arica L., The Journal of Southern History


The Cherokee Kid: Will Rogers, Tribal Identity, and the Making of an American Icon. By Amy M. Ware. CultureAmerica. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2015. Pp. x, 317. $37.50, ISBN 978-0-7006-2100-2.)

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. …

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