Only in Utah do we have a Pioneer Day — or, as some call it, Pie & Beer Day. Both are testaments to Utah’s unique heritage and diversity.
As a Utahn of Mormon ancestry, this past weekend I remembered how I was raised with deep appreciation my pioneer ancestors — their struggles, sacrifice and tight-knit community as they journeyed to these beautiful desert valleys. It is a heritage-defining legacy told time and again.
My pioneer ancestors faced persecution, bigotry and the degrading hatred of 19th century America. As they trekked from New York, across the Midwest, and into Mexican territory, they stood strong in the face of withering discrimination.
Pulling handcarts across the plains and over the Rocky Mountains, they arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. From there, they homesteaded in the Cache and Beaver valleys, where they raised generation after generation in remembrance of this remarkable heritage.
But living today in this booming, ever-diversifying Salt Lake City, I wonder how we should honor these pioneers from the past — as mythologized characters in an oft-told morality play? Or as real human beings who struggled and worked to survive in a world ready to reject them? Should we even broaden our pioneer honors to include today’s modern immigrants so that we can collectively tell the story of today beyond just that of yesterday?
To do this in the present requires us to be honest about the past. My ancestors settled in the already settled lands of indigenous people — Ute, Paiute, Navajo, Shoshone and Goshute tribes thriving already in these valleys. Utah has always been diverse, and it is becoming ever more so as we welcome modern-day pioneers from Africa, Central and South America, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere.
But our growing diversity goes beyond immigration to include American transplants from every state and of every race. Yes, this confluence of culture, race, language and ethnicity presents a challenge to accommodate difference, but it also holds the promise of weaving together a beautiful tapestry that reflects and honors all of us, not just my pioneer ancestors.
Next year, as we celebrate 175 years since Brigham Young’s arrival, we can choose to move forward united across our diversities rather than wither in the face of political division. This begins with acknowledging difference — recognizing that we all have our own unique lived experiences. To succeed in a pluralistic society requires us to validate each other’s values and background as equal to our own.
As a white father of two beautiful Black children, I have personally witnessed that their growing up Black in America is different than my growing up white. I learned how to stand for my beliefs just as my ancestors stood up against religious persecution. My kids are empowered when they see Utahns challenge racism and bigotry just as their ancestors rose above this country’s 400-year legacy of slavery and oppression.
We live in divisive times — our diversity will either unite or separate us. A courageous conversation about race and it’s role in America has begun in our legislature, school boards, and the media. Critical race theory is an academic and legal framework to analyze racism in government and society, not a curriculum taught in the classroom nor a covert attempt at reverse-racism. Parents deserve a voice in what is taught and how our schools are run, but this politically driven debate is an emotional and fear-based argument meant to divide and confuse.
Parents, educators and policy makers are now rallying to assure that the unique needs of all students are equitably served. When our teachers courageously teach an honest version of history, our students discover the remarkable founding stories of our state and nation — both its struggles and triumphs.
By honoring diversity in the classroom, students learn how to handle challenging truths, they stand in defense of freedom, fight for equality and are better prepared to succeed in our ever-diversifying world. If we choose to honor modern-day pioneers just as we honor our ancestors, we value not only who we have been but who we can become: brothers and sisters united to build real freedom and true equality for all. That makes a modern Pioneer Day well worth celebrating!
A member of the Utah Educational Equity Coalition, Curtis Linton works nationally to achieve educational equity for all students. He lives with his beloved wife and kids in Salt Lake City, where they run the Domino Foundation to support transracial adoption families.