ON BEING BROWN … ON PIONEER DAY
By Gina Colvin
In 1997 Mormons all over the world were invited to celebrate the sesquicenntial of the arrival of the Saints into the Great Basin. Notwithstanding that most Mormons in Christchurch, New Zealand have never been to Utah nor to the United States, the opportunity was given us to don bonnets and pinafores, or braces and breeches and drag handcarts around the beaches of Banks Peninsula in commemoration of this singular event. Handcarts were assembled, bonnets were sewed and period costume was acquired with many locals throwing themselves into the undertaking with huge enthusiasm. My husband Nathan was as keen as mustard, but was unsurprised by the large bucket of cold water I threw on the idea. He’s white and has the privilege of inoculating himself from many of the complexities of life that I can’t help but notice cause I’m brown.
‘It’s just weird’ I tried to explain to him. ‘I’m NOT American (nor am I an aspiring one) and I’m NOT dressing up like one just because I share a religion with a bunch of Utahns. I’m brown, and my sympathies are with the Native Americans on this one. Fancy having your noses rubbed in it every year –“Gee look how fabulous we are – we moved into your homelands, shoved aside your ancestors and took their stuff. Now let’s have a parade!”
Throughout my life my religion has asked me to identify with Native Americans as my literal brothers and sisters. While these days I’m not so sure about our genetic ties, the political and cultural camaraderie between Native Americans and Pacific people is pretty robust. I appreciate many aspects of the church and I’m not so churlish that I don’t accept the role the church has played in my own social mobility. I don’t believe that this would have been possible without the church settling somewhere. But I still find aspects of the Pioneer narratives simply teeming with contradictions and nonsense, not the least that I as a New Zealand Maori should be asked as an expression of my faith to mark it annually as a reason to rejoice and remember. Out of loyalty to my Native brothers and sisters I’ll remember, but forgive me for not rejoicing!
While a Pioneer is someone who settles a place, it must be understood that these activities have not been innocent. To be a pioneer has also meant the acquisition and appropriation of Native homelands and resources. It has involved the building of fences and fortresses, the making of laws that have rendered the original inhabitants strangers and villains in their own lands. And while a Pioneer is also someone who has suffered some deprivation and hardship as they’ve journeyed to new climes, they have done so largely by their own volition – they didn’t have to, they simply wanted more. Their agency has been characteristically exercised at the expense of others who were content in their own spaces, whose relationship with the land that they had inhabited for generations has been reciprocal and secure. But Pioneers have inevitably used their sense of deprivation and their quest for ‘more’ as a justification for taking that which, by natural and customary law, was not their own. Pioneers of the 19th century were largely white folk who, having been constituted in a social system replete with theories of scientific racism, understood brown folk as expendable, and their lands and resources as available.
The frustration for LDS Native Americans must be the overwhelming privilege afforded to white stories and myths of religious heroics at this time of the year at the expense of their own truth. Yes, I know – its not just a Mormon thing, to remove Natives from their own geographies, to efface their histories and languages, and then render them ciphers in their homelands. But there is an appalling irony in holding a celebration for a settlement that did to the Shoshone, the Goshute, the Paiute and the Utes in part what the Mormons experienced in Missouri and Illinois; a forced removal, political, economic and cultural marginalization, violence and the appropriation of their property and resources. You would have thought that their hardships, so much a part of our religious narrative might have bred a consciousness and sympathy for the condition of others. Or has our religion simply produced generations of religious narcissists who are so embroiled and convinced of the efficacy of their own narratives that they are beyond ‘feeling’?
Don’t get me wrong, the Pioneer treks Westward were harsh, and brutal and in a way they were heroic. But they were also foolhardy and reckless. Any Mid-West Native American watching the scene unfold would have probably been in a state of high confusion, shaking and scratching their heads in wonder at these bumbling white folk with pitiable wilderness survival skills, who in the dead of winter dressed in unsuitable attire and dragged and hauled impractical handcarts laden with bulky provisions, leaving behind them a trail of dead women and children.
Enjoy your public holiday Utah!