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Ware: Will Rogers' overlooked Cherokee roots


In February 1928, The New York Times reported that, ''Owing to the power of Will Rogers's name, Claremore, Okla., the humorist's old home, seems likely to have a $50,000 Government hospital.'' In large part because of Rogers - in addition to the passage of the 1924 Snyder Act - the first Indian hospital in the country was built near Rogers' hometown of Oolagah in the Cherokee Nation.

After its establishment, Rogers donated radios and headsets for each bed in the facility. He also joked about the hospital in a 1930 radio show: ''You know Columbus discovered this country about 400 years ago or something, and it took 400 years for the government to build a hospital for Indians. Look what the Indians have got to look forward to in the next 400 years. They are liable to build us a cemetery or something, I guess.'' Such references to the history of American colonialism often found their way into Rogers' contributions to journalism, radio, film and stage.

While Rogers is now touted as the Favorite Son of Oklahoma, he never lived there. Born in the Cherokee Nation in 1879, Rogers grew up among his people. He left home to travel the world in 1902, five years before Indian Territory - renamed Oklahoma - was subsumed into the United States. ''We spoiled the best Territory in the World to make a State,'' Rogers wrote. Only later would he master the lariat and become one of the most popular men in the country. He would return home throughout his life and always hoped to reside there after his stint in popular culture. Unfortunately, he died in a 1935 plane crash before he was able to retire.

Although this story is known to many Cherokees, Rogers' tribal ties are not recognized by most Americans. At the time, the public was troubled at the prospect of accepting an Indian who did not fit their expectations. He led a life that seemed non-Indian to his white fan base: he was a cowboy; he was wealthy; he ran largely in non-Indian political circles; and, according to his blood quantum, he was more Scotch and Irish than Cherokee.

Most scholarly and popular discussions of Rogers focus on this blood quantum, a measurement suggesting that his physical mixture of blood tied him to various artistic and historical traditions, though he was raised solely in the Cherokee Nation. When considered in this light, Rogers seems a victim of what might be called ''Cherokee grandmother syndrome,'' a vague genetic connection some white American citizens call upon to show a largely meaningless connection to Native America. The effect pulls him into a non-Native world, ultimately erasing his connection to Cherokee traditions.

That Rogers is so often assumed to be mostly non-Native, based on interpretations of his genetic makeup, shows the ways specific tribal histories are overlooked in lieu of a broader examination of an American Indian history centered on the federal government's relationship to Natives - not specific tribal reactions to that relationship. The Cherokees resisted colonial intrusions in ways specific to their cultural traditions, as did each tribe across North America. Rogers is a result of a particular Cherokee history.

As the state of Oklahoma celebrates its centennial, it is crucial that the state's history be told accurately. This tale includes the truth, not only about Rogers' Cherokee roots, but also about the treatment of the Indian Territory's Native peoples whose lives were changed as a result of the state's creation. That these stories remain untold is another example of the American public's treatment of American Indians as peripheral to its history.

Amy Ware is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin; she received her master's degree in American Indian Studies in 1999 from University of California - Los Angeles. Her dissertation examines Will Rogers' artistic and cultural ties to the Cherokee Nation.