In Utah, July 24 is a state holiday, officially named “Pioneer Day.” We hold parades, have big firework displays, rodeos and, most years, we barbecue with family and friends.
July 24, 1847, however, also marks the day our state was colonized. Pioneer Day is the anniversary of when that Mormon exiles from east of the Mississippi invaded Native American homelands. To some, this public holiday commemorates the occupation of stolen lands, the diversion of waters, the extirpation of wildlife and marks the beginning of a series of Mormon-indigenous conflicts that lasted 76 years.
Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Native Americans were killed at the hands of pioneers and survivors were displaced. Our violent history in Utah wounded everyone, yet we do not speak of the genocide that occurred here, nor question the role of our “pioneer” ancestors in this bloody conquest. It is time to rename “Pioneer Day” to be inclusive of Utah’s First People and everyone in our state’s great history.
Violence perpetuates itself, and to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latte-day Saints, July 24, 1847, also marks the wrongful persecution of Mormons by American citizens and the murder of LDS leader Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Strong prejudices against polygamy led to this violence, and even today members of the LDS faith sometimes feel the sting of anti-religious bias that targets their faith. We do need to combat religious prejudices against the LDS faith at the same time we combat racism and prejudice in all its forms.
Renaming Pioneer Day must be an act of unification aimed at raising awareness and acknowledging our state’s complex history. Just like the pageants, racist mascots and the re-enactments of Indian wars which are fading away, this holiday, too, should stop glorifying and elevating colonizer-world views.
Today, we should begin a dialogue around reconciliation. We should finally acknowledge the treaty rights of tribes around water, land and wildlife. Importantly we must also talk about racism and whiteness in Utah.
After fleeing the United States, Brigham Young invaded Mexico on a mid-summer day in 1847, and famously declared, “This is the place.” To him and his LDS followers, this was the fulfillment of a kind of manifest destiny and marked arrival into a new Jerusalem of sorts. They named it the “Land of Zion.” Local indigenous names, knowledges, cultures, and people were physically and ideologically wiped off the map.
This year, let us pause and listen to the history of non-pioneers. It is time we recount the bloody role of our pioneer ancestors such as at the Battle at Fort Utah which killed more than 100 Ute People in 1850, the Swamp Cedars massacre of Goshute People in 1859, the Bear River Massacre of Shoshone People in 1863, the Long Walk of Diné People in 1863, the Circleville Massacre of the Paiute People in 1866 and the murder of Ute leader, Posey, along with the imprisonment of Ute People in 1923. These incidents rank among the most violent of any Native American conflict in the United States, and caused as much pain to families and tribes as was felt by Mormons in Nauvoo.
Fortunately, Indigenous people, languages, lands, wildlife and stories are still here. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the challenges faced by communities of color in Utah and many of the reasons for high infection and death rates are directly linked to the dominant cultural priorities and racist structures that persist in Utah today. It is time to tone down the pomp and pageantry around Pioneer Day and learn about everyone’s ancestors in our shared human lineage.
So, let’s stop glorifying pioneer culture above the cultures and histories of other Utahns and rename this holiday. Let Utah’s one-sided history erode, and let us commit to the massive work ahead of creating a more fair, just and equal society across Utah.
If we do this right, we may even be able to add a little collective jiggle to our world famous Jell-O recipes during next year’s celebration.
Gavin Noyes is executive director of Utah Diné Bikéyah.