Date of Graduation

8-2013

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology (PhD)

Degree Level

Graduate

Department

Anthropology

Advisor

Kirstin C. Erickson

Committee Member

JoAnn D'Alisera

Second Committee Member

Ted Swedenburg

Third Committee Member

Patrick Williams

Abstract

This dissertation analyzes how "frontier" discourses in Fort Smith, Arkansas simultaneously constitute mythological narratives that elide the deleterious effects of imperialism, racism, and sexism, while they operate as marketing schemes in the wager that they will attract cultural heritage tourists. It examines material exhibits and interpretive history programs at locations including the Fort Smith National Historic Site, Fort Smith Museum of History, Miss Laura's Visitor's Center, and the Clayton House; in texts such as the 1898 book by Samuel Harman whose title forever branded Fort Smith as Hell on the Border; in the subsequent branding and marketing derived from the novel and film versions of True Grit; and in performances by local reenactment troupes such as Wild West Shooters, Quantrill's Raiders, Indian Territory Pistoliers, and Baridi Nkokheli's portrayal of Bass Reeves.

In this diverse assemblage of narratives and performances, the identity of Fort Smith as a "border town" teetering on the precarious edge between civilization and savagery, white and colored, rugged masculinity and domestic femininity, is constructed and celebrated. My thesis is that the frontier myths told in Fort Smith about the presence of the military fort and the principle figures of Judge Isaac Parker, Bass Reeves, Laura Zeigler, and Belle Starr, are mythologies that serve to legitimate and rationalize discourses that locate the role of Fort Smith as a doorway to the Southwest in the nation's campaign of manifest destiny. Locally, Fort Smith is veiled as a "noble protector of Indians" while Indian Territory is systematically and literally severed and railroaded into becoming a state.

This frontier discourse operates on several levels. For the Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitors Bureau it is the foundation for branding the city as a "frontier" town in order to grow the industry of cultural heritage tourism as the local manufacturing base shrinks. For many reenactors, the frontier resonates deeply, serving as a talisman for protecting narrow notions of race, gender, and justice, as it elides their complexity, ignores their ambiguity, and reinforces social inequalities. Still others find the frontier discourse as a way of transcending centuries of discrimination.

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