Commentary: On Pioneer Day, don’t forget the people who were already here

Each 24th of July, residents of the state of Utah line up to watch parades, gather for picnics and end the evening enjoying fireworks displays that surpass celebrations in most other states on the Fourth of July. Even the youngest residents of the state of Utah are taught that Pioneer Day “commemorates the Mormon pioneers passage into the Salt Lake Valley from Emigration Canyon in 1847.”

Yet, Pioneer Day marks more than just the arrival of Latter-day Saints into the region. It also represents a key moment in the history of the colonization of the American West, when the aspirations of LDS settlers came at a great cost to local indigenous peoples. Utes, Paiutes, Shoshone, Goshute and Navajos lost their homes, lands and even, in some cases, their families.

Pioneer Day gives members of our community a chance to reflect on that complicated history. Early Utah pioneers ultimately disregarded indigenous claims to the land, and modern day politicians are repeating this erasure on the issue of Bears Ears National Monument.

It is time to respect the wishes of the Navajo Nation, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and indigenous-led organizations, who want a seat at the table as the state considers changes to policies that will affect them. Most pressing is the current petition to change the 2001 Roadless Rule in and around protected areas such as Bears Ears.

As the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers whether or not to allow the state of Utah to build more roads on public lands, both the state and federal government need to reckon with how much of the region was taken with little regard or without real consultation with indigenous tribes. This is not to say that problems such as forest fires and bark beetle infestations should not be addressed — but these problems alert us to the larger dangers of climate change which require more robust action by our state and federal government.

Road construction has long been a tool of used to dispossess Native Americans of their land. Historically, roads have facilitated, even defined, Manifest Destiny. In the early part of the 19th century, both Thomas Jefferson and Henry Clay made road building a key aspect of their presidential agendas. While land was opened up to development and settlement, the results, for many indigenous nations in North America, were disastrous leading to the spread of diseases, wars, famine and the dispossession of land.

Roads, in other words, are tools that a society uses to convey its values. In the 19th century, Native American values around land stewardship practices were flagrantly disregarded they were driven from their homes. From making roads, trails and an early grid-like Salt Lake City formations by early pioneers, these decisions were imposed upon lands and indigenous communities who were eventually removed, sometimes through violent means.

In the 21st century, infrastructure decisions should be made in consultation with the indigenous peoples who will be deeply impacted by their construction. New roads in pristine areas like Bears Ears pose potentially serious risks to people and lands. Once such roads are built, the temptation to use them for more than removing diseased trees will become great and the impacts from environmental degradation will be permanent.

It’s important to remember Utah’s history did not start with the arrival of Mormon settlers — and the voices of the state’s original inhabitants should be heard in decisions that will shape its future. Proposed changes to the Roadless Rule may be designed for the state of Utah to seize power from the federal government, and this has been done without consideration of Native American histories on these lands.

It’s time for the state of Utah to listen to the Utah Tribal Leaders Association which states the “Utah Tribal Leaders Association opposes the State of Utah’s petition for exemption from US Forest Service Roadless Rule protections. Native Americans in Utah hold identities, histories, cultures and futures that are inextricably tied to U.S. Forest Service lands.”

As Utahns plan to celebrate Pioneer Day, it’s worth considering that while Brigham Young may have declared “This is the Place!” in 1847, indigenous Utahns have always known these lands and their places as their homelands where the Creator placed them.

Erika Bsumek

Erika Bsumek, Ph.D. is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin where she teaches Native American history and the history of the U.S. West. She was born and raised in Utah.

Angelo Baca

Angelo Baca is cultural resources coordinator with Utah Diné Bikéyah and a Ph.D. candidate in culture and media documentary studies at New York University.