The Legacy of Will Rogers

Chief Hoskin on the impact of Rogers' life

By Google Arts & Culture

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

84 years after Will Rogers' death, we look back at the impact of his life – as an Oklahoma-born Cherokee, performer, and commentator – with Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., leader of the Cherokee Nation...

Will Rogers (1926) by Charles M. RussellAmon Carter Museum of American Art

What is your personal connection to Will Rogers' family?

In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting and working with Will Rogers’ great-granddaughter, Jennifer Rogers Etcheverry. Jennifer lives in California and helps operate her family’s almond business. She has also been involved with our Cherokee Nation at-large community near Bakersfield and is involved with the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore, Oklahoma.

Many Cherokees migrated to California during the Dust Bowl or through the Indian Relocation Act. In the case of the Rogers family, it was Hollywood and aviation innovation that took them out west. Jennifer returns home to Oklahoma for the annual Oologah Fly In, a celebration of Rogers’ life every August near his birthplace in Rogers County.

By Edward ClarkLIFE Photo Collection

Do you have a favorite Will Rogers quote?

“I am a Cherokee and it's the proudest little possession I ever hope to have."

As Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, I couldn’t be prouder of the legacy Will Rogers left to the Cherokee Nation and the Cherokee people. He is an iconic statesman, and he still remains a beloved public figure across the Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma, and all of America.

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

What do you admire about Will Rogers?

In large part because of Will Rogers’ popularity, the first federal Indian hospital in the country was built in the 1930s in Claremore, Oklahoma, an area he grew up in and called home. He even donated radios and headsets for the rooms in the facility. I was born in that very hospital.  The hospital, an Indian Health Service facility, is still operational and seeing patients today.

Will Rogers Background, Oklahoma (1947-10) by Frank ScherschelLIFE Photo Collection

How has Will Rogers inspired you?

Will Rogers is perhaps the most famous Cherokee citizen ever. He is larger than life, even 140 years after his birth, but the real irony is that he was such an everyday kind of man. His common-but-insightful way of speaking, maybe even his “Okie” accent, is what endeared him to the world.

His humor and his unique ability to make complicated political and economic issues easy to understand made him a powerful social critic and commentator. He captivated audiences around the nation because his humor never insulted or belittled anyone – he was simply telling the truth. Even the people and systems he targeted could laugh along with him, because the spirit in which he said things was never negative.

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

What challenges faced by Will Rogers still exist today?

Will Rogers, who was called the “Cherokee Kid” in his early entertainment career, always embraced his culture and his tribe. No matter how popular he was, he was always a Cherokee -- and he talked about it. 

Although Cherokees know Will Rogers, most Americans didn’t necessarily recognize his tribal citizenship. He often referenced his perspective as being Indian. He reminded people every day that there are Native people of this land still alive and who remain a vibrant part of America’s tapestry. That is something we, as Indian nations, still struggle with throughout America.

Time Covers - The 20S (1926-07-19)LIFE Photo Collection

What have you learnt from Will Rogers?

Will Rogers was self-reliant, skilled, and smart. He also understood it takes kindness and generosity, all of us collaboratively working for a common good, to move forward as a society. Those are Cherokee values. He brought them to the masses and he was respected universally. To this day, his good-heartedness continues to shine through his words and his work. Will Rogers also had a good sense of humor, particularly about himself, a quality that I think any elected leader ought to have in good measure.

Will Rogers Background, Oklahoma (1947-10) by Frank ScherschelLIFE Photo Collection

How would you describe Will Rogers' legacy?

Rogers advocated for democratic ideals in America. He believed in truth and sought fairness for working folks. Decency and hard work made it possible for him to succeed in life. I think those are things we could use more of in the national dialogue today. Also, he never forgot who he was or where he came from. The Cherokee Nation was always close to his heart. His tribe – his roots – always remained important to him.

He started as a trick roper before Oklahoma was even a state, when it was still called Indian Territory. He conquered Vaudeville, Hollywood, radio, newspaper columns, and was likely the most quoted man of his era. On top of all that, he was one of America’s greatest champions and promoters of aviation exploration and development. The advances we made in that sector are due in large part to Will Rogers. He had a really remarkable life, a true American and a Cherokee hero.

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