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Tombstone’s real epitaph

Even when it comes to history, the customer is always right

By Leigh E. Rich

The story is all too familiar. The characters are always the same—Wyatt and Virgil, Billy and Ike, Doc Holliday, Johnny Ringo, Sheriff Behan and Big Nose Kate. And the conflict expeditiously plays out at the O.K. Corral.

But the latest maverick to arrive in the town too tough to die is a Norwegian scholar with new views on the legendary Arizona gunfight.

Far from the cozy comforts of temperate Norway, Odd Are Berkaak isn’t the typical Tombstone-ologist. A mild-mannered anthropologist from the University of Oslo who’s well-versed in nebulous topics like post-modernism, he came to Tombstone in 1993 as a visiting professor with the UA’s Department of Comparative Cultural and Literary Studies.

He admits his five-year study of Arizona’s once-lawless territory is a boyhood fantasy come true.

“As far back as I can remember,” Berkaak says, “I knew about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the Clantons. My buddies and I, even before we started school, were re-enacting the O.K. Corral. This is not American culture—this is global culture. I knew about these heroes even before I knew about Norwegian heroes, like Vikings.”

It’s not all daydreams of the Old West, however. Berkaak’s research is also firmly rooted in anthropological principles.

“What I’m doing is studying Tombstone. Not the ordinary 1880s history everybody else is doing: ‘Who shot first? Who are the crooks and who are the heroes—really?’ What I’m interested in is history making. How people create for themselves an image of the past.”

And that, he’s found, apparently depends on whom you ask.

“Writing history is difficult. With Tombstone and the American West, it’s next to impossible. Because there are so many hoaxes. Grown men—men in their 50s and 60s—are making up stories and making up sources. It’s going on all the time,” he says.

To circumvent such “Piltdown Man” obstacles, Berkaak has instead analyzed Tombstone sources, from George Whitwell Parson’s diaries to modern-day film adaptations, placing each narrative in its particular context.

His conclusion?

“The O.K. Corral was like a 30-second rerun of the Civil War: northern Republicans shooting at southern Democrats.”

Tombstone in the late 1800s, Berkaak explains, was a miniature reproduction of what had been happening in America. The two factions in the nation at that time—agricultural, southern Democrats and industrial, northern Republicans—were very much at the bottom of the O.K. Corral and the so-called vendetta that continued through March, 1882.

Southern Arizona’s local farmers were mainly Democrats, demobilized Confederate soldiers, who’d drifted over from Texas.

“They all hated the U.S. government, because it was still the Union—the Yankee state. They were good at handling weapons, because they’d been in the war. So, they didn’t look upon themselves as bandits at all. They were ranchers, not rustlers.”

Concurrently, the Republicans dominated the town of Tombstone. Republican industrial capital—mining and banks—were heavily invested in the town itself. “And that was on a pretty large scale in the early 1880s. There was a lot of modernization capital in Tombstone owned by northern, Republican Yankees,” Berkaak says.

And the O.K. Corral conflict and ensuing vendetta threatened the security of these northern investments. Fortunately for the Republican faction, however, martial law was declared in Cochise County, enabling the U.S. Calvary to run interference for the state.

“This outraged the local people. The U.S. marshal is federal. He represents the state, the Yankee state. He was, per definition, hated by the ranchers. “It was a conflict of modernization,” Berkaak maintains, “a classic conflict of modernization, where the agricultural, traditional economy is trying to defend itself against being exploited by industrial capital. It was a question of big government or not.”

Berkaak believes this feud between local self-determination and federal intervention can be traced through Arizona—and American—history to the present. It exists in all the narratives, from memoirs and newspaper articles to books and movies, based around the O.K. Corral shoot-out.

“The feuding between the Clantons and the Earps is still going on,” he says. “It’s still there. But it’s a literary feud. These (Tombstone historians) are killing each other verbally.”

And, of course, the heroes change, depending on the source. (There is a pattern of partisanship even in the books written today: Most male authors want either Wyatt Earp or Billy Clanton to be the idealized, Western man. A clear bias pervades their works, which either reconstruct the hero or debunk him. For the most neutral account, Berkaak suggests Paula Mitchell Marks’ And Die in the West.)

“Local voices see the Earps as the bad guys. But in memoirs and all kinds of accounts by local voices, the cowboys are the heroes. Or they’re innocent victims. In the more distant voices, like Hollywood’s, the Earps are the good guys and the Clantons are the bad guys. This thing, it was there during the shoot-out, it was there during the vendetta. It’s there in the real history, and it’s there in the constructed history.”

And so Berkaak wades through the interminable re-tellings of the O.K. Corral. And there have been plenty of them: countless films (the most recent of which include Tombstone and Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp) and several hundred books. But why such repetition?

“I think it’s ballad making,” Berkaak says. “All the balladeers are out, because it still has an emotional relevance to people. Wyatt Earp is very relevant for American men. You stand your ground; you exert physical courage; you don’t ask the state to enforce the law. You are the maverick marshal. All this still figures into American individualism, political sentiments and the relationship between the local community, the individual and the state.”

And like these American ideals, our fascination with the Earps and the Clantons endures. The Tombstone legend itself is circular: It has no clear climax, no real solution. When viewed politically, as Berkaak’s done, the O.K. Corral isn’t really an heroic tale or a tragedy.

“It’s just a lot of episodes and characters who come together and go away and reunite again. And it keeps going on—because the Earps didn’t solve anything. The O.K. Corral shoot-out was not a climax. The violence was there when the Earps came. And the violence was there when the Earps left.”

While it seems sort of pointless, then, to circulate within the Tombstone-legend quagmire, Berkaak is very clear about the part he plays.

“My time in Tombstone reveals how the marketplace is the context within which any historical narrative has to emerge—that this market context is structuring your narrative. Which means, if it’s true or not, that doesn’t matter at all. As long as it’s new. If it’s different from other versions, it will catch the attention of the visiting customer.

“I was discussing this recently in Tombstone with a guy who owns a shop. I tried to explain to him that Tombstone wouldn’t look like this if it’d been in Norway: The 1880s structures would be meticulously restored, and there would be hordes of professionals—ethnologists, anthropologists, historians, folklorists, architects, whatever—working there. No amateurs would be allowed half near it.

“In Tombstone … how is it in Tombstone? Like this guy said, ‘Here anybody can do whatever they want. And shouldn’t they?’ It’s a very good question. This is interesting to me as an anthropologist, in comparing the European and the American tribes when it comes to constructing their own history. In America, it’s kind of up for grabs. If you have a heart for it, who can stop you? You write your story.”

BERKAAK HASN’T ALWAYS tooled around the dusty towns of the American West. In fact, he’s spent much of his adult life studying music—from the Rasta yards of Kingston, Jamaica, to the Zambezi flood plain in southern Africa. However, common themes weave together each of his adventures: history construction and identity formation.

During the 1994 Winter Olympics, for example, Berkaak and colleagues from the University of Oslo carefully observed as Norway hosted the world games.

“That was the first time Norway had a chance to stand up to the world and say, ‘This is us. This is who we are.’ And what happened almostimmediately was that (Norway’s Olympic organizers) didn’t ask themselves those questions. Instead, they asked, ‘What does the world want to see when they come here?’ In other words, ‘Who do they believe we are?’

“See, it’s that external voice: The gaze from the outside. Which basically means ‘the customers.’ They stopped talking about identity at the games. There was no talk about identity at all. They never used the word. The word they used instead was ‘profile.’

“Now, the classic profile is a featureless, black portrait. An outline. It’s how you’re received from a distance. It’s the alien gaze from the outside.”

Berkaak can’t help but compare this with the Southwest: “This is very much how I see Tombstone constructed, on this imagined perception of the stranger who comes there—the customer. It’s there in the structure of the town.”

So it’s no surprise today that most of Tombstone’s a tourist trap. Even Boothill Cemetery and its unfortunate inhabitants have been on display since the 1930s. The town itself is very much a profile: the exteriors dressed 1880s style, the interiors gutted and converted into “curio shops.”

Not exactly what Berkaak expected—both as cultural anthropologist and as boy reared on Westerns in the ‘50s. “The identity would be inside somewhere. But what’s in there doesn’t match at all. It’s a discontinuity. Is the building authentic? Is it the real house? Uh-huh. The gaze of the customer is taking over in the writing of history. It’s the customers who are actually giving the conditions for how this history’s formed and which narrative’s going to be told.” He sighs.

“It’s very much the same in Europe and, I guess, all around the world.” 

Rich, L. E. (1998, April 2). Tombstone’s real epitaph: Even when it comes to history, the customer is always right. Tucson Weekly, cover story.

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