Opinion: We can be more inclusive on Pioneer Day
Pioneer Day is a celebration of Utah’s pioneer heritage and founding — but we can do more to be inclusive of Utah’s Native Americans and those who have immigrated here since
Recently, on the foothill trails directly overlooking Ensign Peak, I listened to my good friend express resentment about the Pioneer Day holiday. Not a member of the state’s majority religion, he grew up in Utah feeling excluded from the celebration. His feelings are not unique. The alienation many feel on Pioneer Day is best represented by the alternative and purposefully provocative Pie-and-Beer Day.
Why is it that so many Utahns seem to feel this way about our state’s very own holiday?
This week’s Pioneer Day marks 175 years since members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first settled in the Salt Lake Valley. The year 1847 occupies a place of singular significance in Utah history and culture, so much so that the state celebrates July 24 as an official holiday.
Public commemorations are often by necessity simplistic renditions of complex history. They offer symbols and narratives stitching the public to common values, often forming the foundation upon which we understand the past. And yet, for many people the current rendering of 1847 offers little foundation on which to lean. The problem stems from assumptions, ideologies and prejudices embedded in the narrative.
Almost since first arriving in the Great Basin, Latter-day Saint settlers fashioned a story of transforming the desert into a productive homeland. Believing they were doing God’s work, they looked to the West as a blank canvas upon which they could script a new story. Knowing next to nothing about the region’s Indigenous inhabitants, in many ways they believed they were coming to a place without a past.
This make-the-desert-bloom narrative appealed to those founding settlers and their descendants. Early histories of Utah validated these popular folktales. The founding of Utah’s official history institution, the Utah State Historical Society, on the pioneer arrival day 50 years later further institutionalized this narrative as the hook upon which all other Utah history rests.
As founding narratives are wont to be, this one is entangled in heavy doses of myth and folklore that often misrepresent and polarize. It presents the civilizing work as divinely ordained and reduces Native Americans to foils in an unfolding drama. Although scholarship and the stories of the state’s diverse communities are more nuanced, the most visible narrative tends to imply that Utah became fit for habitation only through the industry of a certain privileged people and that Indigenous lives prior to 1847 were prelude to “Utah” history.
Pioneer Day celebrations statewide, with some exception, do little to correct this traditional narrative.
Every cultural group creates rituals and commemorations. For many Utahns, Pioneer Day holds religious and historical significance. I experience the stories and commemorations of ’47 as both familiar and personal. At Salt Lake City’s First Encampment Park, large granite boulders bear the names of the first settlers. An ancestor of mine, William Henrie, is among them. My grandfather spearheaded the park’s creation on the occasion of the sesquicentennial celebration in 1997.
While I honor my family’s pioneer past, I acknowledge that the founding narrative of Utah no longer serves a common good. As a state holiday, Pioneer Day should speak to all Utahns — not just to some. What could we do as a state and as individuals to bridge the religious and cultural divides perpetuated by this holiday?
We can move gradually toward refashioning a long-established commemoration in a more inclusive way.
Salt Lake City’s Days of ’47 Parade gives religious groups, including the dozens of floats from Latter-Day Saint church stakes, free entry. Military floats and antique vehicles are also free. All others pay a fee, meaning that a “civic” float for such groups as Centro Hispano or the Asian Association of Utah pay $225. Making parade involvement equally accessible to all groups is a small but simple change that could make an impact.
We can also begin shifting our language about the founding of Utah. Mormon pioneers encountered many diverse Indigenous communities, and generations before that, many other peoples made their home here. While we can acknowledge the pioneer legacy of sacrifice and hard work, numerous ethnic and cultural groups have contributed to the fabric of Utah, and these should all be celebrated and acknowledged.
Though its founding is tied to 1847, the Utah State Historical Society has long dedicated itself to expanding the Utah narrative. We can weave a broader, richer narrative into our state’s holiday, of which all Utahns should have a stake.
Jedediah Rogers is a senior state historian of the Utah Division of State History, and co-editor of Utah Historical Quarterly, a publication of the Utah State Historical Society.