LDS Native American teacher envisions a Pioneer Day that celebrates all Utahns

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The 24th Annual NACIP Powwow and festival at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, Tuesday July 24, 2018.

As Utahns observe a paradeless Pioneer Day this year, James Singer is thinking about origins and identities — his own, his people, his church.

Every year on July 24, Salt Lake City stages a big show that commemorates — and reveres — the arrival of a beleaguered band of Mormon pioneers, who made an arduous journey from their homes in Illinois to build a Zion in the West for themselves and their posterity.

Singer is both a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a Navajo, though, so he finds the heroic settler narrative a little, well, unsettling.

“The pioneers came here led by God in 1847,” he says. “But the Natives came here over tens of thousands of years ago across the Bering Strait.”

These views of history seem “incompatible,” Singer says, “coming from such different perspectives.” But he maintains they can find a place together in a more expansive celebration of all Utahns.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) James Singer speaks at the Utah Capitol in January 2020.

When Latter-day Saints came to Utah in 1847, “a substantial [American] Indian civilization and culture already existed here,” former LDS Church historian Marlin K. Jensen said at a July 24, 2010, sunrise service to the Sons of Utah Pioneers in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

About 20,000 Native Americans inhabited land within what would become the state of Utah, Jensen said. “To the north were the Shoshone, to the west the Goshute, in the central and eastern regions the Ute, in the southwest the Paiute, and in the southeast the Navajo.”

And because “productive and useful land was scarce” in the Great Basin, the historian explained, “‘settlement’ for [the pioneers] would mean ‘displacement’ for Indians.”

In subsequent years, the Latter-day Saints and the Native Americans enjoyed some peaceful relations, he said, and, at other times, hostilities broke out and blood was shed.

“In the settlers’ view, the land was now theirs and the Indians needed permission to go on it and enjoy its fruit,” Jensen said. “The Indian view was that the land had been and still was theirs; and having given the settlers permission to plant crops, Indians should now rightfully share in the harvest.”

As more and more white immigrants arrived, pushing “ever deeper on to Indian lands, sustaining the traditional Indian way of life became difficult,” he said. “Resources the Indians had relied on for generations diminished, and in time they felt forced to resist and fight for their own survival.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Marlin K. Jensen, former historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at his home in Huntsville in 2012.

The result, Jensen said, was that “the land and cultural birthright Indians once possessed in the Great Basin were largely taken from them.”

As Latter-day Saints remember their ancestors, he emphasized, “it is important to acknowledge and appreciate the monumental loss this represents on the part of Utah’s Indians — that loss and its [173-year] aftermath are the rest of the [Pioneer Day] story.”

‘Miracle of the gulls'

Singer, who teaches ethnic studies at Salt Lake Community College, says Natives have a different view of some pioneer myths — like the so-called miracle of the gulls.

Shortly after arriving in Utah, the newcomers began planting crops to harvest the following year. But in the spring of 1848, swarms of crickets attacked their fields of grains and vegetables. The pioneers battled the pests as best they could but feared they might run short of food and perish.

At one point, so the story goes, flocks of gulls swooped down and devoured the crickets, saving the fields.

Natives hear that story and laugh, Singer says. “Why were they worried? They could have eaten the crickets or the sea gulls and been fine.”

After all, Native peoples had been living in the Great Basin for much, much longer, he says, and didn’t starve.

Differences between white immigrants and Native Americans go beyond land use and community building to the question of origins.

Latter-day Saint theology, based on the Book of Mormon, tells the Natives that they are among the descendants of some figures in that sacred text — namely the Lamanites — and that they originally sprang from the Holy Land.

In the beginning

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) The 24th Annual NACIP Powwow and festival at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, Tuesday July 24, 2018.

But Navajo teachings hold that they passed through three worlds, each filled with various animals, insects and other creatures until they crawled through a reed to escape the flood and arrive in a fourth, or “glittering world.”

The Holy Ones told the Navajos they could live between sacred mountains stretching across the Four Corners region, Singer says, “walking in harmony with the universe.”

The Native worldview, he says, “is not a Judeo-Christian one.”

For his part, Singer tries to find truth in both stories.

The Mormon scripture “holds spiritual wisdom,” he says, “and the Navajo creation story is full of metaphor and spirituality.”

Neither one is “any less real,” Singer says, for not being literal.

He would like to see the stories of the Mormon pioneers and their Native counterparts be heralded on this state holiday.

There could be more influence of Indigenous peoples, Singer says, in the commemoration of Utah’s establishment. He notes that the traditional Native powwow in Liberty Park — postponed this year due to the coronavirus — has long been a part of Pioneer Day and makes a significant contribution.

It offers “a real display of Natives’ resilience,” Singer says. “It’s another attempt to say, ‘We are still here, we are not forgotten, we are growing.’”

There is room to enlarge the holiday’s “identity,” to forge a new way of looking back that would include all Utahns, he says, and “to take the spirit of the past and move into the future in a more equal way.”