The University Press of Florida is pleased to announce the publication of Mythic Frontiers: Remembering, Forgetting, and Profiting with Cultural Heritage Tourism by Daniel R. Maher. Exploring Wild West tourist sites in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Mythic Frontiers shows how aggrandized versions of the past, especially those of the “American frontier,” have been used to turn a profit. It reveals that popular tourist narratives at these imagined historical sites have silenced the violent, oppressive, colonizing forces of manifest destiny. Read this book and “you’ll never experience a ‘heritage site’ the same way again,” says Christine Bold, author of The Frontier Club.
Mythic Frontiers is available at a discount price until May 13, 2016 in honor of the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting. To order, click here and use code SAA16 at checkout.
The guest post below is written by author Daniel Maher. Read on to get Maher’s opinion on the stories that are often told to visitors at frontier tourist attractions like Fort Smith.
Peeking behind the alibi of each mythic ‘Wild West’ frontier story, we can see that whiteness is reinforced while the social history and complexity of social minorities is suppressed.
When I first moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1997 I was taken aback by the city’s use of a brothel and a gallows to brand itself for tourists. Frankly, my personal reaction was one of aversion. For many years after my initial visit I steered clear of “Miss Laura’s Social Club,” the official Fort Smith visitors center located in a historic brothel, and the Fort Smith National Historic Site, which features a full-size reconstructed gallows capable of hanging 12 individuals at once that used to sport nooses for “execution anniversary programs.” What kind of city embraces such imagery for its primary identity? I wondered.
I did not seriously pick up the question again for more than a decade. What drew me into studying frontier tourism was the portrayal of Bass Reeves, a nineteenth-century African American lawman, by Tokunboh Baridi Nkokheli. In 2005 Nkokheli was hired as Director of the Fort Smith Sanitation Department. Bearing what some in Fort Smith called an uncanny resemblance to Bass Reeves, Nkokheli was quickly approached and pressed into service by city officials and civic leaders to portray Reeves. Keeping a “Bass outfit” in his office, with Superman-like efficacy, Nkokheli would transform into a nineteenth-century lawman to give talks to local school children and civic groups. Within two years Nkokheli’s name became synonymous with Bass Reeves.
My question now became: how does the addition of an African American persona impact the white-dominated Fort Smith frontier storyline? Before I researched the nineteenth-century historical record, I had heard a set of phrases often repeated that I assumed to be historical fact. In reality, they turned out to be marketing tag lines to entice tourists to Fort Smith. The phrases declared that the 1817 military fort was located here to “keep the peace between the Indians,” that “the ‘Hanging’ Judge Parker was taking civilization to the Five Civilized Tribes,” that “Bass Reeves was the greatest lawman that ever lived,” and that “Miss Laura [Ziegler]’s girls had it pretty good.” While each of these is based in some aspect of historical truth, each one also conceals significant historical facts and context..
“Keeping the peace between the Indians” is a euphemism that draws attention away from the fact that whole tribes of Indians, including the Cherokee and the Choctaw, were removed from the Southeast in order to make way for white pioneers in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. The pioneers followed them westward in the wake of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, continually pressing Indian Nations onto smaller and smaller allotments of land. The military fort and federal court in Fort Smith were in fact keeping the peace between Indians and the encroaching white population, making the West safe for white pioneers, laying the groundwork for a territorial and eventually a state government.
Peeking behind the alibi of each mythic “Wild West” frontier story, we can see that whiteness is reinforced while the social history and complexity of social minorities is suppressed. This proves to be the case even in the most unlikely of places. The Bass Reeves story, which on the surface looks to be an important addition to African American history in the West, is one of these places. Reeves was a lawman from 1875–1907 and is said to have served over 3,000 writs despite being illiterate. He is also widely claimed to have been the basis for the story of the Lone Ranger. I have found no historical documentation to support any of these claims..
What is emphasized in the story of Reeves is that despite all odds—being born a slave, escaping to freedom, and serving as a lawman in a highly racialized society—he succeeded; by implication then, so too could all black people in his situation if they just tried hard enough. The complex life of prejudice and discrimination that Reeves led is swapped for a rags-to-riches narrative that covers up institutionalized racism. The story of Reeves has been coopted to reinforce colorblind racism. What this story conceals are the fierce inequalities Reeves encountered that existed for African Americans, and moreover, the still-existing fierceness of racial inequalities. The way the Reeves story is told today parallels the argument that “we have a black President, so we must live in a post-racial society.” The premise of this position is that if you are failing it is because of your personal shortcomings, not systemic, institutionalized racism. What I discovered was that instead of changing the frontier storyline in Fort Smith, the Reeves story was overpowered by it.
The complex life of prejudice and discrimination that Reeves led is swapped for a rags-to-riches narrative that covers up institutionalized racism.
Likewise, the popular stories told about Judge Parker and Laura Ziegler reinforce the mindset and the social institutions, in the past and in the present, of the dominant group in American history—white men. The 79 executions handed down by the Parker court make it difficult to argue with the myth that Parker was “taking law and order to Indian Territory.” However, closer examination of the record shows that 66% of those executed in Fort Smith were disproportionately Indian (44%) or African American (20%), and that when the Supreme Court reviewed the Parker court death sentences, 70% of them were overturned. These statistics create a portrait of injustice otherwise hidden by a frontier mythology that elevates Judge Parker as a stalwart of balanced justice..
Laura Ziegler is said to have purchased her hotel-turned-brothel for $3,000 in 1898 and then made a handsome profit by turning around to sell it twelve years later for $47,000. It is her entrepreneurial success that is emphasized, as well as the claim that her “girls” were paid three dollars for each “trick” as compared to the measly one dollar that women in the lesser brothels in town earned. The message this story sends tourists is that women could succeed, too, just like Bass Reeves did, if they just tried hard enough. The mythology of “Miss Laura” silences institutionalized sexism in the past and present at the same moment it pardons the “well-to-do” white male customers said to have frequented her brothel.
The mythic narrative of the Wild West is a fantasy land where white men have taken refuge for centuries, but is now fading. Fort Smith is banking on this frontier mystique to draw over 100,000 visitors a year to the future U.S. Marshals Museum, despite a halfhearted response from today’s tourists. Nine years into the project and a year and half since the “ground-breaking,” construction has yet to begin. It is my contention that the mythic frontier that Frederick Jackson Turner declared “closed” in 1893 is now in its final twilight. Historic sites and museums are struggling to survive as generations raised on 1950s and 60s television westerns pass away, and as the post-industrial economy changes how tourists spend money. The myths and the money that fueled an exclusively white male mythic Wild West are drying up, and along with it, the frontier of Wild West cultural heritage tourism. When museums and historic sites recognize and accept this sea change, and shift to presenting the messy, complex, and inclusive history of the frontier to an engaged citizenry, they will bring in new visitors and usher in a new—and perhaps more profitable—history of the American frontier.
Daniel R. Maher is the author of Mythic Frontiers: Remembering, Forgetting, and Profiting with Cultural Heritage Tourism. He has taught cultural anthropology and sociology since 1990 and is associate professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith. Since arriving in Fort Smith he has received the Mayor’s Multicultural Award and the Lucille Speakman Excellence in Teaching Award. In addition to teaching for UAFS, he has also been the director of the Fort Smith Multicultural Center.