Father and Cherokee Tradition
Molded Will Rogers

Editor's Note: This is the second of newsfeature reviews
of the Will Rogers-related foci of the University of Chicago
Press book, The Big Tomorrow : Hollywood and the
Politics of the American Way
by Dr. Lary May.

By Joseph H. Carter


     Cherokee traditions and his father are credited in a recent scholarly book with molding Will Rogers into a major force that refashioned American thinking during the 1930s.
      The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way by Dr. Lary May of the University of Minnesota, was published in 2000 by the University of Chicago Press.
      While several movie producers and actors are examined, the book opens on the role of Will Rogers and digs deep into the mystery of the man who emerges as far more than a cowboy humorist. Instead, May showed him as a force that employed humor to lubricate tough views.
      Peering into the motion picture industry, May said Will Rogers used the technology of talking pictures to reshape nationalism and end isolationism.
      With a Cherokee mindset, Will Rogers' twenty-one hit movies, most of which have mysteriously not been re-released in more than fifty years, helped change the country from Anglo-Saxon values that "marginalized women, ethnic minorities, and people of color from public life," May wrote.
      In a lifestyle that influenced Will Rogers, his father, Clem, "led a multiracial coalition" composed of Indians, blacks and whites and became one of the most prominent leaders in the Cherokee Nation."
      Beyond service as a judge, senator and delegate to the Oklahoma Constitutional Convention, Clem Rogers "led Cherokee resistance to the invasion of railroads and white land hunters into the Indian Territory."
      Will Rogers' father lost extensive land-holdings with the break-up by the federal government of the Cherokee Nation, but Clem Rogers soon "emerged as a partner in an Indian bank and as a politician who supported the populist movement."
      While Clem failed to create a separate state named "Sequoyia," he was "a Cherokee public man whose honor lay in service and practicing the code of redistributive economics." To make his point May quoted from an obituary of Clem Rogers published in the Claremore Progress in 1911. From this frontier heritage and family tradition, May noted that "Will adjusted to a lifelong commitment to a hyphenated or dual citizenship."
      "Clem Rogers proved a model for young Will of how tragedy stimulated one to refashion beliefs," May wrote.
Recounting Clem Rogers' role as a cavalry scout for Confederate forces in the Civil War, May said Will Rogers' father set to recreate a "balance in the universe" that affirmed minorities' rights to land, public education and the right to vote.
      Although Will Rogers' father would become wealthy, May noted that he was a foremost philanthropist who gave away large sums. Clem Rogers also upheld the Cherokee tradition of women's rights, including suffrage and property ownership.
      In talking movies, May said that Will Rogers "did the impossible" by using the popular art to "stimulate instead of thwart" radical reform during the depth of the depression of the 1930s.
      May noted that during this dark period, the very rich--or one-tenth of 1 per cent of the population--earned as much as the bottom 42 per cent of American people, a condition that drew some of Will Rogers' sharpest criticism.
      Will Rogers championed a Cherokee belief that "balance must inform all part of life."
      In methodology, May said that Will Rogers used an ancient "Cherokee trickster" method of humor to change fixed beliefs and to "reshape the self and society."
      His views, portrayed in twenty-one hit movies, drew controversy, but Will Rogers did not change.
      May noted that the Cherokee Nation gave Will Rogers a view of the West as a place where "freedom and community merged" in the place of individualism which were exhibited in many of his movies now owned by Twentieth Century-Fox Corporation.
      "Americanism emerging from the bottom rather than the top of the social order" was made clear by the rise of Will Rogers from the urban world of vaudeville and the penny press to become the top male box-office star of the early 1930s.
      May claimed Rogers "yoked the comic to the dramatic hero," gaining "root cultural and political reform in a renewal of traditional values."

(see Part One)