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!
Gina, I have seen you around the bloggernacle for a while now and feel terrible that I was never able to meet you. I was in Papanui as a missionary in 2003 and went to the Riccarton ward. Of course, I was a lot different then, but I’m pretty sure we would still have been friends. Keep up the good work!
Well well. Riccarton Ward was my home ward! Unfortunately while you were there we were living in Taiwan so missed you by a year. No doubt you would have had dinner with my in-laws the vanBallegooies? Who do you remember?
But of course! What a great couple they were. What are they up to these days? I seem to recall them moving either while I was there or shortly after. The CHCH stake may be my favorite stake in the world! My mind would have been blown hearing Gospel Doctrine lessons from you. Too bad I missed you by a year.
I just realized I was thinking of the wrong family. But yes, I do remember the vanBallegooies (such a fun name to say).
An excellent article. Covers some of the roots of racism spread throughout the world during the early 1800’s and still still exists in the hearts and minds of a lot of people today.
I have never identified with Pioneer Day and all the Trek recreations either. To me it seems contrived. I work hard six days a week, and I challenge myself physically at least three days a week. I don’t need to participate in a superficial challenge to find my spiritual core, I’m living it! However, for the rising generation, many of whom have done little to physically and mentally challenge themselves, or to test their adolescent testimonies, it seems to produce a cathartic experience. Even if you are miles away from the actual location the youth seem to benefit from it. It was a cool idea on the sesquicentennial to see real teams of horses, cattle men, and handcarts making to multi-state voyage. However, I wish we could come up with more original ideas than re-hashing that one to death every summer.
That last paragraph is powerful–
The idea that it was all very heroic is even questionable–
it happened, yes, but it has been very much over-glorified.
Word! Ever since I read “Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee” and several other fiction and non-fiction accounts of how we treated the American natives, I appreciate the voices such as yours in so perfectly articulating some proportionality as well as showing us gentiles another one of our major blind spots.
I was on an LDS youth trek four years ago with my youngest son and our pioneer history is so very overblown and what an overdeveloped persecution complex we still have, and to a degree we brought it upon ourselves–at least in Missouri when we also became the aggressor in the wars of 1838–unlike the Trail of Tears which truly was brutal and unjust. thanks again for a heavy dose of reality.
My husband told me something that surprised me… he read somewhere that the reason many of the saints were persecuted wasn’t because of their beliefs. Rather, they would move into a community, establish themselves into positions of power, starting businesses, getting involved in local politics, etc. then apply pressure on the community to adhere to their beliefs and practices. The people would become so fed up and angry, they would chase them out of town. I thought about it and you know, that would explain a lot of things. Your statement “we brought it upon ourselves” might be truer than you think.
As for Gina — Right on sister! AMEN!
I’d just like to offer you a big over the internet handshake. Thank you for bringing such an important POV to light. I have often felt the same and it really hurts to celebrate the needless trials of naive saints following the promise of Brigham Young. Not to mention the treatment of the native americans who were inhabiting that area at the time.
Kudos on a well worded breakdown of the positive and often-overlooked negative aspects of the annual Pioneer Day and general celebration of Mormon pioneer history. Ever since moving to Utah I’ve never really understood the general fascination and fervor that surrounds July 24th. I get the historical elements, what happened and when, but I don’t get the zeal, excitement, and worship. I figured it was just a product of being raised outside of Utah. Since moving to Utah, every year around this day all I can think is how irrelevant most of the specifics are to Mormons outside of Utah, Idaho, and Arizona.
As to the merits of youth pioneer trek activities? As a general rule I don’t think they are very fair to the youth. They exist and thrive by constructing a play for the youth to act in and be acted upon. They are contrived and overbearing. There is a nugget of potential benefit at the core, as Jon pointed out. But there is so much scaffolding put around it of reality-constructing and playing on and trumping up emotions that makes me sick.
Hey I served in ChCh back in 2001, I think I was in that ward too… Short memory 🙂
but being a islander myself, I’ve always thought it a little ridiculous that we would do those things.mas a teaching tool I guess it kindda works, but it oversimplifies what really happened. Thank you for your honest opinion and insight into “the other side”.
I’m now in Arizona, and I find it even more ridiculous that they go on those treks and then go on about how hard it must have been for the pioneers because they had had to sleep without beds… Blah blah blah…. Now for the pioneers being illed prepared, I think some of them didn’t have much of a choice. That said, I am grateful for pioneers…all over the world…
Thank you so much for the article.
As someone from the former Communist Block in Europe I’ve got a bone to pick with this too. First of all calling people Pioneer of their country when to be honest it has a bad connotation reminding us of the communist era. The communist pioneers were like the BSA, from pioneer all the way up to eagle. So a bunch of Americans come to my country and call us pioneers… uh no thanks I’d rather not be. I’ve also see American missionaries coming to my country then complaining ALL THE TIME about the culture, the cigarette smoke, why people didn’t dress like them because they were so immodest, why people drink alcohol and gamble so on and so forth. I understand the church disagrees with that but when members from the congregation hear hear that it makes then sound childish and whiny. So I understand what you mean by them coming to your country and then starting to reorder things because they think they have a right to. I don’t go to another country and expect people to act and behave like in mine.
Then, how many people actually had a handcart? Not that many. Only one company but for some reason it became a hallmark of the entire Western Exodus. People actually had wagons and stuff.
Maybe they should celebrate more what brings us together. Faith and hope. Realising we’re flawed human beings and we need to trust God in every moment of our lives, the good ones and the bad.
My feelings exactly, even if I am white. It’s one thing to say: “Our ancestors victimized the natives. We are embarrassed and sorry, but we find it impossible to make complete and proper reparations!” and another one to actually celebrate our ancestors doing the deed. I do appreciate you writing this.
As an LDS/Aztec/Lamanite, I can see both sides of the fence. I also understand what Jacob prophecied (in the book of Genesis) and also Ezekiel and Isaiah and Jesus Christ concerning the tribes of Israel and what prophecies concern Ephraim (tribe of Joseph) and the promise given to the Lamanites (remnant of Jacob) in 3 Nephi 21. People are flawed and fallible. The Nephites proved it and the Gentiles are proving it. Truly it is man’s work that is frustrated and not God’s. All things will come to pass as they should.
A broad, long view, Marc. History clearly tells us that no empire lasts forever. Remarkably, the scriptures you refer to include prophecy suggesting that includes the American empire. Fortunately for the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, other peoples are being prepared to finish the job. Do not fail us! To the extent that we turn to the savior, we’ll be allowed to assist you.
You make me consider things I hadn’t before, but — as an LDS celebration, I feel like you miss the point.
My ancestors were among the pioneers who crossed the plains. My husbands ancestors were pioneers who came later, on ships and after WWII. I celebrate them both — not for how they moved into the SLC valley, but for the sacrifices they made to do what they believed was right at the time, and what would allow their progeny to reap the blessings of the gospel. (ie: temple blessings, and the ability to make and keep covenants with the Lord.) Those are the things that highlight the histories of our ancestors, and that is where my focus is on Pioneer Day. As to the relationship with Native Americans — I know that my Great Grand Father had a very good relationship with those who lived where he settled. I don’t believe it was all as bad as you paint. The tribe used to come regularly to hunt on the land he settled, and then trade with my ggf. His children loved the “Indians” and in the history I read, one of his children made reference to how great it was to be able to wear the clothing the “Indians” gave them in trades. Apparently, they were the hottest styles of the day. Stories such as those give me a much different picture than the one you give. She looked forward to the times when they would come and – at least from her perspective, it was a productive and appreciated time in the lives of the “Indians” as well.
Maybe, there’s yet another way to look at things?
Regarding moving in and establishing businesses, running for offices, and trying to establish their lifestyle in the community —- That’s what we all do in America still! SLC is not the place it was in my youth because many non-LDS have moved in, established businesses – some of which are not consistent with LDS value. They have run for office and changed our laws to agree with their lifestyle. I don’t see much difference. America runs on “majority rules.”
Just another side of the coin.
There’s an important difference in how laws or politics are affected by ‘the majority’.
One option allows for differences in belief to be applied by the individual; i.e., establishing that businesses can or should operate on Sunday, which is not an idea favored by the LDS community which would choose to not engage in commerce on that day. But the option remains theirs to do so, or not, and freedom is preserved.
Another option would be to decree that businesses cannot operate on Sunday, which would then prevent any business from freely making the choice to do so, and would prevent sales to anyone on that day regardless of the belief system that they’ve chosen to honor.
This is a simple example, but illustrates that a very big difference can be seen to exist for what you are casually suggesting is no difference at all. In other words, the ‘other side of the coin’ does not present the same picture, does it?
I’m sorry, but the argument doesn’t strike me the same as it does you. By what you say — we could substitute another law – How about the religious law “Thou shalt not kill.” It has been accepted as a good law among the majority, and so has been enacted as law, generally. But it holds the same restrictions — By enacting the law of the majority, that person who thinks it’s okay (think of muslim honor killings or gangster revenge killings) has their freedom to do what they think they should, restricted. That’s an extreme picture — but, it is essentially the same. We make laws based on the majority rule, and the rest of us live by them or work to change them – or sadly, in some cases, people simply disregard them.
The Pioneer Day celebrations have nothing to do with the Indians. Conflicts between Indians and Mormon settlers didn’t happen because the Mormons settled in Salt Lake. Salt Lake was a no man’s land at the time the Mormon pioneers settled there. Pioneer Day celebrations are specifically celebrating the brave men and women who trekked across the country – after having been driven out of the many towns they had settled in (where I do not doubt that SOME over zealous and naive Mormons brought it on themselves, there were many towns that Mormons built themselves and were later driven out of because OUTSIDERS didn’t like their practices) – to finally find peace in Salt Lake.
The area originally was almost uninhabitable, which is what made it ideal for the Saints, because nobody else wanted to live there. It was their hard work and determination that built Salt Lake City and made it a liveable area. It is the bravery of those original settlers and their hard work and determination that is being celebrated on Pioneer Day. Conflicts with the Indians came much later and really have nothing to do with the Pioneers that the Mormon Pioneer Day celebrates.
For the record, my ancestors are Cherokee Indians, and no, I do not live in Utah. I am not a fan of Pioneer Day, because it over-glorifies and yet over-simplifies the actual plight of the pioneers.
Many comments here criticize the pioneers for making the trek unprepared, or for wanting more, or whatever, and I have to wonder at your spiritual maturity? The Pioneers didn’t risk the lives of their families and leave a trail of dead bodies in their wake because of some simplistic greed. They went because The Lord told them to. I marvel at their faith and wonder if I could be as faithful. I dare say from the comments posted here, and from what others have said in various other conversations I have had on the subject, very few people in this day would have what it takes to do what the pioneers did.
Sorry Mari…..you seem to know very little about the SLC valley and Native inhabitants at the time of the Pioneer settlement. It was the beginning of the end for the tribes who called the lush valleys full of game their home. Truth is Brigham Young while stating paternal love for the Lamanite used and yes abused their trust. Interesting reading would be accounts of the Blackhawk war and the true accounts of the Bear River Massacre. My children are decendants of both Mormon Pioneers and grandparents who walked the Trail of Tears. We attend the Native American Ward in Provo and it is always an interesting Sunday before the 24th of July. It is acknowledged with great dignity but without the hoopla.
I just recently moved from Takapuna, New Zealand to Bountiful, Utah. We were asked to introduce our family and speak about America and The Book of Mormon on the week before 4th of July. To talk about patriotism I quoted the New Zealand national anthem. God Defend New Zealand!
Right on Linda and Mari. Well said. I am a Samoan that grew up in Washington state where such re-creations and holiday doesn’t happen. I now live is Utah and have been to a couple treks in Wyoming. My great grand parents were pioneers of the church in various villages in Samoa. Yes, a particular incident that tested their faith with the possibility of losing their lives is recorded in the church history books. The point in both of these stories is more about the faith, endurance, obedience, trust and love of the people involved in the Lord. I know that was the reason my ggp were willing to put their lives and lives of my grandmother and her siblings at such a
I really liked your article. I would disagree with you a bit though on one point… the Mormons faced an extermination order in the state they resided similarly to Native Americans of the time period. I feel terrible for the displacement of the Utes in Salt Lake. But to say the pioneers left Navoo of their own volition is simply not as black and white as you make it out to be.
Russ, the extermination order was in effect only in Missouri (it was an executive order issued by Missouri’s governor). Nauvoo is in Illinois.
Thank you for whitespanning that for us benighted Lamanites.
“others who were content in their own spaces, whose relationship with the land that they had inhabited for generations has been reciprocal and secure.”
You do realize that this is simplistic and romanticized.
I am so grateful for the hardships the pioneers were willing to endure so that I could have the gospel over a hundred years later. My missionary comes from Utah. With my understanding of the Plan of Salvation all those who suffered to establish Zion, will receive a reward.
Whether the White settlers bumbled about as you say, they still tamed the land and created a base from which the gospel spread.
I live in Arizona and we do nothing for Pioneer day. It went and passed without anything happening. It is just a Utah thing. Before this article, I hated pioneer anything.
When the church did its big to-do about it for some anniversary or what some years ago, I gagged on all of the history and dressing and news and stories. I only cared about the gospel.
Recently changes in my life caused me to have warmer feelings about the pioneers, all pioneers–in America and abroad who faught to eek out a new life for themselves in Africa and Australia.
The pioneers who killed my ancestors and enslaved some of them. My ancestors who were forced into Oklahoma by racist because the Whites did not want to live near the Cheerokee. The Whites who used my ancestors a cattle on farms in the Southern US.
These White pioneers who exposed my ancestors to the Christ-God. My people of both African and Native American heritage would never have known about this Jesus Christ if it wasn't for their superior attitudes. These Europeans fulfilled the prophesies in The Book of Mormon by driving my ancestors West. My ancestors mingled with each other because of this push so that my Black and Native American roots came to be.
I am glad that my ancestors suffered and died so that I can be. I am glad that White people tamed my nation so that there was stability enough for the gospel to take root and spread.
I am glad that now people can sit around and despise it, but still benefit from it happening. God bless the pioneers.
Well said, miss brown lady!
You are truly delusional Rodric. Please forgive I don't come on social media to attack people but to truly learn from a different experience then the one I have. But your comment involved a response from me that I can only sum up as delusional. I am not mormon nor was I raised mormon but I live in utah and I have mormon friends but more importantly I know from my Mormon friends (most ex mormons) who are not white what that meant to them. The feeling of exclusion and being less then. The fact that many believed that their ancestors were savages and needed to be tamed. You don't tame humans you tame animals. I don't profess to know the true history of my ancestoral tree but perhaps you and I share an ancestor and I can guarantee you that they were not savages who needed to be tamed. What we don't know of and are unwilling to learn from we label as animals, savages, things we need tame but that is pure laziness and it is wrong. Pioneer day to a lot of people means oppression the day that those who thought they were superior came and claimed land by rights that would surely laughable today. There were people here, people who established homes and buildings, people who were forced to leave when Brigham Young received some sort of Revelation that Utah will be the promised land and forced the Utes and the other nations to leave. I'm not glad my ancestors suffered. I'm proud they existed and fought to survive so I can be. Your comment made me sad. I think in 2015 as the Confederate flag is being taken down for it is a true sign of oppression and various cities in this country are not paying tribute to Columbus but to the people who were already here it is time Utah stop pretending it doesn't have blood on its hand and stop celebration it's oppression of people. Jesus Christ was peace. The pioneers were not peaceful and they destroyed lives. That is nothing to celebrate.
Well said, Ben Harvell. I could not have said it better.
It seems that you really hate Americans and it seems that you really hate the pioneers. Why, exactly, are you a Mormon?
Contrary to popular UT, and arguably US, Mormon belief, the gospel of Jesus Christ has absolutely nothing to do with Pioneers or America. They were elements of the history, but they are not part of the doctrine.
I missed this is in past years, but am glad I found it now. I love your reasoning, your brown POV, your ability to call BS where there is BS. Thanks Gina for publishing your POV and feelings as a brown person.
I am following a current series on AMC, The American West. It is produced by Robert Redford, and chronicles the settling of the american west by opportunist white business and society in a refreshingly candid and honest way. (also, my stepson is an extra in the Billy the Kid episode). This series dispels the myths that pioneers in general were good. It exposes them as opportunistic and greedy. It details the planned effort to exterminate the native americans by killing off the buffalo, their main source of substance. Sadly, it worked, forcing the american natives to reservations to survive.
I love this post, so much truth is here!
Certainly a point of view worth considering. However, your broad brush of what the American west was like before pioneers “invaded” is pretty idealistic. See “End of the Summer Moon” by SC Gwynne for a more realistic view of what life was like in the American West. Indian tribes were not all peaceful, slavery was rampant, respect for human life very different from what we now take as common place (except for certain cultures in the Middle East).
The question is this: Is the world a better place overall because of the Mormon Pioneers?
A refreshing, insightful perspective, Gina. Your reputation as a stroppy, thinking woman is only enhanced by your questioning the perceived supremacy of whiteness and Americaness.
One of the most provocative ideas I’ve heard recently may lie buried under the theme of your essay. What if the Mormon pioneers thrown out of Illinois were indeed victims, but victims of their own willfulness and refusal to obey the Lord?
On January 9, 1841 Joseph Smith received a revelation that is preserved as D&C 124. Among other things the Lord commands the saints to build a house unto him. He generously offers to accept their baptisms for their dead during the allotted time while the temple is under construction. Beyond that all bets are off. If the saints choose not to obey his word all bets are off. Rejection of the church and the baptisms for their dead, the Lord breaking his oath and promises to them, cursings, wrath, indignation and judgments on their heads await. Their own works will bring not blessings but suffering as the reward for their follies and their abominations which they practiced before the Lord.
Sooo, what happened once Joseph and Hyrum were killed? Did cursings, wrath, indignation and judgments find the saints in Nauvoo? I never explored this perspective when I was a Gospel Doctrine teacher but I’d like to. Pioneer Day may be more a misplaced mythologizing of folks who somehow survived the results of their own follies and abominations practiced before the Lord. That their descendants would feel inclined to export the myths to everyone else in the tent is folly compounded.
31 But I command you, all ye my saints, to build a house unto me; and I grant unto you a sufficient time to build a house unto me; and during this time your baptisms shall be acceptable unto me.
32 But behold, at the end of this appointment your baptisms for your dead shall not be acceptable unto me; and if you do not these things at the end of the appointment ye shall be rejected as a church, with your dead, saith the Lord your God.
45 And if my people will hearken unto my voice, and unto the voice of my servants whom I have appointed to lead my people, behold, verily I say unto you, they shall not be moved out of their place.
46 But if they will not hearken to my voice, nor unto the voice of these men whom I have appointed, they shall not be blest, because they pollute mine holy grounds, and mine holy ordinances, and charters, and my holy words which I give unto them.
47 And it shall come to pass that if you build a house unto my name, and do not do the things that I say, I will not perform the oath which I make unto you, neither fulfil the promises which ye expect at my hands, saith the Lord.
48 For instead of blessings, ye, by your own works, bring cursings, wrath, indignation, and judgments upon your own heads, by your follies, and by all your abominations, which you practice before me, saith the Lord.