What Does Pioneer Day Mean in 2020?

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Back when I lived in Utah, I found it obnoxious when other out-of-staters would dismiss Pioneer Day out of hand as uncool and irrelevant (as most Utah things are, according to most other Americans). As a student of culture, the idea of belittling a tradition like Pioneer Day for easy “cool points” seemed unproductive and counter to my training to take history and community seriously. However, this doesn’t remove the need for critique and engagement, especially with one’s own cultural inheritance. For anyone who wasn’t on this train before, 2020 has given us a host of opportunities to critically engage with the act of memorializing: who gets remembered and celebrated? Whose stories are left untold? What political consequences do these choices have?

For one thing, even though Pioneer Day is a state holiday and ostensibly not about religion, not everyone in Utah feels like the celebration is meant for them. In order to claim the day for themselves, some Salt Lakers started celebrating the countercultural “Pie and Beer Day” in the early 2000s, and the tradition is still going strong—a signal that the mainstream celebration is taken to be for just Mormons, not all Utahns. Everyone else—you know, the beer-drinkers—needed to forge something of their own.

This, of course, doesn’t even touch on why the entire premise of Pioneer Day is somewhat troubled. It’s the same reason Indigenous activists have called for renaming Columbus Day, or why more and more Americans are starting to question the kind of patriotism on display on the 4th of July. Is it appropriate to celebrate “our” arrival to a new place when there were people already here? Especially when these settler forebears violently displaced Native communities?

These are questions that could occupy an entire series of posts (and they really should, hint hint to anyone who wants to take that up). My purpose here is to share a few thoughts and start the dialogue about what Pioneer Day means to our community, and if that is changing in any way because of America’s great racial awakening and renewed public interest in our collective relationship to history, memory, and tradition.

And it wouldn’t be a post about 2020 if I didn’t mention the pandemic. Another observation I made while living in Utah was that Pioneer Day seemed to be an extension of the 4th of July celebrations. A lot of the parades, floats, musical entertainment, and firework displays around July 24 seemed like a rerun of Independence Day. This is a point of complaint among several of my Utah friends this year, who tire of hearing fireworks go off in their neighborhood every night. This summer, personal firework use is up in a lot of states, probably in lieu of city- and county-sponsored displays as budgets run dry and local officials don’t want to encourage large gatherings during a public health crisis. I suspect a lot of Utah families are staying home from celebrations this year or finding creative ways to observe the holiday. A quiet Pioneer Day with minimal pomp and circumstance might be just the occasion to reexamine what it is we’re celebrating, and why. 

I say “we” here, but I’m not someone who has traditionally observed Pioneer Day. I grew up in Michigan, currently live in Wisconsin, and have spent two summers of my adult life in Europe, so I’ve seen how several different LDS congregations outside Utah deal with Pioneer Day. And mostly, they just don’t. Occasionally you’ll have a family in the ward with deep roots in Utah who is eager to celebrate. Creative Primary leaders might think of it as a good excuse to have an activity day in mid-July. But, in my experience, there isn’t major awareness of Pioneer Day outside the state. Of course, holidays, celebrations, and other cultural observances can be an important way for ex-pats to stay connected to their home culture and traditions. But using this as a reason to celebrate Pioneer Day everywhere in the Church assumes that there are Utah ex-pats in every congregation—and/or reveals a stranger notion unconsciously held by many that all Mormons are a kind of Utah ex-pat, owing many elements of their religious history to this geographic region.

This calls to mind a sacrament meeting I attended in Paris about ten years ago, when several American tourists bounded for the pulpit to bear their testimony. This was something of a headache for the locals because it required someone to translate and made the entire ordeal take twice as long, leaving less time for actual members of the congregation to participate. On this particular Sunday, a blonde-haired woman took the mic to express her deep, deep gratitude for the sacrifices of her pioneer ancestors, belaboring the point that she was a direct descendent of the original Mormon settlers who crossed the plains. The bishopric member tasked with translating paused a moment, then said, in French, something to the tune of, “I’m grateful for all the pioneers who came before me, including all members of the Church around the world who sacrifice for their faith.”

It was a funny moment, at least for anyone who spoke both languages and understood the cultural valence of claiming pioneer ancestry in a Mormon setting. For anyone trying to make Pioneer Day a Mormon thing instead of a Utah thing, this can be an easy strategy: we’re all pioneers! And yet I can’t help but feel that calling every Mormon a pioneer on Pioneer Day is a bit like calling every woman a mother on Mother’s Day. Though the move toward inclusion is well-meaning, the strategy often falls flat. If Pioneer Day were meant to honor all members’ unique sacrifices, why have it coincide with a state holiday only observed in Utah? Is there really a way for Pioneer Day to belong to everyone?

Your turn. Utahns, other Americans, readers outside the States: What are your thoughts on Pioneer Day? Do we give it too much air time in the Church outside of Utah? (Or not enough?) What does this holiday mean to you? Is that meaning shifting in 2020, a year that has insistently asked us to reevaluate our relationship with history and tradition?

Cover photo by Danil Aksenov on Unsplash

 

Comments

  1. Carolyn says:

    It’s funny because I both like the idea of using pioneer as a metaphor for anyone who uses faith to overcome adversity, and I HATE Trek and “I’m pioneer stock” bragging in Mormonism. I wonder if there’s a way to use the metaphor but ditch the literalism?

  2. nobody, really says:

    Reporting from an area in the South – we had people insist on Pioneer Day madness up until a couple of years ago – handcart in the parking lot, Dutch-oven cooked dinner (detestable when said parking lot is 105°F), and talks from the one couple with enough Utah lineage to brag about their rich and sturdy stock. Last year, it went unobserved because that one couple was out of town. This year, completely and utterly ignored.

  3. Jack Hughes says:

    Pioneer Day is totally a Utah thing. With the rise of alternative celebrations in Utah like “Pie & Beer Day”, traditional Pioneer Day is becoming a strictly Utah Mormon thing–something that is only important to an ever-narrowing segment of the population. For someone like me who has lived my entire life in places outside the Mountain Time Zone, it’s another one of those eye-rolling things that Utah expats sometimes try to make happen in our local area but never quite gains enough traction to be repeated the following year.

    In a lot of areas, though, youth pioneer treks are the predominant activity to celebrate the historic migrations of early Saints more so than any particular day of the year. And I’m perfectly happy to do away with treks as well. The idea of “pioneer heritage” is becoming less and less relevant all the time, as a growing proportion of Church members have no Mormon Pioneer ancestry, and younger generations are coming to terms with the unsavory bits of early Mormon history. And this year, with many celebrations and pioneer treks being cancelled, we have a unique opportunity to put more distance between us and these ridiculous manifestations of a quirky regional culture.

    Let’s keep Utah in Utah.

  4. I think what troubles me is the Native erasure inherent in the term pioneer – it implies being the first person to an area. Invader Day might be more accurate, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  5. white mormon here that grew up in Provo and went to almost 100% white wards growing up. My parents were both converts so we didn’t have the capital P pioneer heritage thing. My parents (neither from Utah) were kind of ambivalent about it, we’d go the ward Pioneer Day barbecues, but that was about it, they didn’t make us do trek or dress up or anything like that.

    Now I almost take is as a point of pride that I’m NOT a mormon pioneer descendant. Who wants to be descended from a bunch of (possibly inbred) polygamists anyways?

    I remember as a kid that in Church they’d always talk about the pioneers as if their migration was the most unjust difficult thing that anybody ever had to go through. Wasn’t the Trail of Tears just a couple decades before that? Honestly makes what the pioneers experienced look like small potatoes.

  6. Prediction, made without any kind of supporting evidence but which seems to me entirely in sync with the times: Pioneer Day, as a quasi-official church and cultural holiday, will not recover from the one-two punch of the Nelson presidency (de-emphasizing the name Mormon, shrinking the church block to two hours with commensurate de-emphasis on social rituals and interaction, etc.) and the covid pandemic. There could be civic organizations throughout Utah and parts of Idaho that, depending on time and circumstance and volunteers willing to do the work, could bring about various localized re-emphases on July 24th in the years to come, but as something that regularly haunts the average Mormon ward calendar, and makes ward leaders guiltily think about what they should do to honor the day during ward council? That, I wager, is every bit as dead as the ward roadshow.

  7. Dave F. says:

    The pioneer narrative that I was raised on has turned out to be at best an embellishment and at worst a deception. It should be retired and replaced with something that’s forward-looking and also meaningful to members who live outside of Utah. If it goes well then maybe that process can become a template to correct a few other “alternate facts” about Church history that are smelling up the room.

  8. Aussie Mormon says:

    They may have been “Mormon Pioneers”, but it’s not it was the first time church members had to move somewhere different.
    As a Utah celebration? Sure I guess. Plenty of places celebrate the date that relates to when the current inhabitants arrived/settled/federated/etc.
    Being outside of the US though, the only time I ever see references to Pioneer day is reading the SLTrib and BCC in July. So it’s ultimately not really something that I’m fussed with.

  9. I feel like the holiday has potential for a broader meaning, cultural rememberance, and celibration unique to our people. Don’t feel like the broader tradition has gelled yet thought. We don’t get the liturgical days so we deserve something that will be constructed by our descendants to remember us and those before. Maybe it will connect to the Temple, vicarious work, family history, etc.

  10. Growing up in NJ, we had a ward picnic for Pioneer Day. BBQ, softball, water fight, etc. It is a good memory, but it wasn’t overly pioneerish – no dressing up in bonnets and flannel. RL is onto something. I always had some holy envy for the Jewish kids who got extra religious holidays off of school. I secretly wished that Pioneer Day was during the school year so I could take it as a religious holiday. I considered it that until moving to Utah and finding it was a state holiday.

  11. It is a holiday celebrating the Mormons failure to do what GOD asked them to do back east and so He sent them to a desert, like the Israelites. The difference is the Israelites got out of detention after 40 years, and the Mormons are still being cursed.

  12. SisterStacey says:

    What many here fail to realize is that it’s an official Utah holiday, not an official Church holiday (though employees of the Church get it off). Where I work now I get a floating vacation day because my company is based in Utah, but we can’t take Pioneer Day off because our employees in other states can’t either.
    Growing up in Idaho, I remember one of the local towns having a Pioneer Day parade that we would all attend, no fireworks, though. Here in Utah, the fireworks last from June until August and I hate them.
    I loved Pioneer Day, but it’s hard for me now, much like this last Fourth of July was this year because I found out a few things.
    1) A slave drove Brigham Young into the valley. Some say this is Green Flake, but either way, it wasn’t his choice or “an honor” as the Murray Journal put.
    2) There were already people here and the pioneers kicked them out and some of the conflicts led to their deaths, like the Bear River Massacre.
    3) We were fleeing for our lives and escaped to a foreign country, but most members in the Jello Belt hate immigrants and want to close the borders.
    It’s too complicated to enjoy anymore. Plus, I had to work. :)

  13. Pioneer Day and its uses and meaning has a lot in common with Christmas: It was originally more of a religious-themed holiday than a state one (you don’t think the Federal Ring in 19th century Utah celebrated it, do you?) but early on elements of a more jubilant and festive nature were joined to the original thanksgiving to God for bringing the Mormons to a place “where none shall come to hurt or make afraid.” It has continued to evolve to the point where it is little more than an excuse to take the day off work and where those who have no reason to commemorate the Pioneers complain that the day isn’t all about them; hence the pie-and-beer nonsense, and the almost equal nonsense of defending “the true spirit of Pioneer Day” from the store sales and rodeos and fireworks and other accretions to commemorations of the Pioneers.

    IMO it should never have crossed from a religious (if festive) commemoration to a civic one, any more than Christmas should have — both should have remained what the Jewish holidays are, at least in the US: observed by those of a given faith, and tolerated/respected by others as a cultural expression to be enjoyed by adherents but not mimicked or distorted by others.

    I think — I *hope* — that the non-Utah LDS disdain for Pioneer Day stems from deserved disdain for the Ugly Utah Mormon who thinks that coming from Utah makes him superior to the benighted convert from, say, Michigan, and not for any real disdain for religious refugees seeking a place of safety, although some comments in this thread make me wonder if that’s true anymore. I don’t have any historically known ancestry from the Middle East, either, but that would hardly justify my shunning Christian commemorations because Jesus and his disciples were natives of the Middle East.

    The effects of the Mormons’ late arrival in the Great Basin on the indigenous population and cultures still needs to be reckoned with, but as yet I am unconvinced that such a reckoning means that Pioneer Day, especially in its religious aspects, should be abolished. The Mormon coming was not in the same league as the coming of the Conquistadors: We were looking for homes and refuge, not wealth to strip and ship home to the place of our origin; and unlike Columbus Day which was a purely constructed holiday with deliberate racist purpose, Pioneer Day was a spontaneous commemoration begun by those who actually lived the experience of seeking and finding refuge. Whatever the reparations due to Native people, in whatever form, beginning with the recognition that they were wronged and the admission that Mormon settlers were responsible for that, does not require the obliteration of Pioneer Day which serves worthy purposes of its own. The discussion of Pioneer Day has much in common with the debate over statues of Confederate soldiers vs. statues of Brigham Young: Statues of Confederates were erected with explicit racial animus and nothing but that, while statues of Brigham Young generally have no explicit racist intent (although I’m coming to recognize an exception to that, in statues celebrating him as Conqueror of the West, when that conquest explicitly includes the mistreatment/removal of Native Americans) whereas I am unaware of any statue of Brigham Young raised with the explicit purpose of celebrating his racist attitudes toward and treatment of Blacks.

    All this subject to further enlightenment and thought, of course.

    Apologies for the length of this comment. I should perhaps transfer this to a Keepa post, but will leave it here because your post sparked these reflections. Thanks for that.

  14. See also the Wagon Box post at Times and Seasons – I do think we need to tone down the rhetoric. I am looking forward to a new hymnal and what might be signaled therein. I need to read recent Church News articles by Sis Jones and Elder Ballard re: pioneers.

    My late mother ADORED the pioneers but now I think she just adored her ancestors because they were her ancestors.

    Off-topic -I have lived 3/4 of my life in Utah and I disagree with the fact that locally, Memorial Day shoves aside the military and it has become a day to visit ALL the dead (including Mom RIP) at cemeteries.

  15. I’m a bit surprised by the cynicism and eye-rolling by all of the commenters here. It’s a corny holiday that doesn’t apply to everyone. It’s an excuse to take some time off work if you can, spend the day with food, family, and friends, and shoot off more fireworks if you are so inclined. Thanksgiving is also problematic but I still enjoy turkey and pie.

    Also – I get that the pioneer adulation can be grating, and we should engage with all aspects of our history. That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the strength and sacrifice of pioneers. They endured immense hardship to practice their faith, like other religious refugees across history. We should remember their sacrifice precisely because it is not required of us today.

    I’m glad to read your comment Ardis, and I’ll keep an eye out for a Keepapitchin post on this subject.

  16. Stephen Hardy says:

    I left Utah about 35 years ago but I grew up there. I remember the 4th and 24th In the same way that I observed Christmas and New Years Day. They both represented a season as much as holidays. At Christmas I got out of school, went to lots of parties, and got scads of gifts and thought about everything from the birth of Jesus to the winter solstice to new starts.

    In July we also had a holiday season: no school. Parades and fireworks. Cookouts. Reunions. And I thought about my country, my religion, and my heritage.

    I liked the two yearly holiday seasons

  17. Jessica says:

    Kind of an aside here, but I just moved back to Wisconsin after many years gone. Which stake boundaries do you live in? I am in Appleton.

  18. anonymous says:

    As a native and current Utahan my thoughts are similar to Stephen Hardy’s. Many towns across America have local celebrations and I’ve always viewed Pioneer Day the same way. Time for family and community. Maybe that is because I have also lived in small towns so the celebrations I enjoy have that feel. 5k runs, food, kids bike parades, bingo, etc. My current residence has held a community dance instead of fireworks. Except for maybe a parade theme, it doesn’t feel too pioneer focused to me.

    That being said, I’ve often told my family I am willing to celebrate almost anything that gets me a day off of work. I don’t drink but I would happily have the pie part of Pie and Beer Day. (I think the counter culture here stems a lot from the church’s influence in Utah politics. That would be a whole other post.)

  19. The statement that the conquistadores were interested in “wealth to strip and ship home to the place of our origin” while Mormons were “homes and refuge” is culturally myopic. By 1598, Juan de Onate had brought 500 settler to the Rio Grande Valley. I believe that the common understanding of settler is one who moves from one place to reside in another place. So Spanish settlement of the region predates Mormon settlement by 249 years. Without a doubt, Onate was a conqueror, and so vicious in his treatment of indigenous people that he was subsequently condemned and punished by the Spanish throne. But one of the purposes of his “conquest” was settlement, just as one of the purposes of the Mormon “conquest” was settlement.

  20. A commenter wrote above, “Who wants to be descended from a bunch of (possibly inbred) polygamists anyways?“

    That’s a scurrilous attack with no genetic basis. The church did not practice plural marriage long enough and the population was too large for that to be the case. This is the language of eugenics and racialization and the kind of aspersion against the church that Paul Reeve discusses in his book about race and the church. If a similar comment was made about a Jewish or African American population, I would hope the blog would immediately remove it, and I can’t imagine why it’s been left without comment here. If inbreeding is the case with certain smaller offshoot Mormon groups more than a century later, that should be discussed with sensitivity and hopefully with the input of experts and not used as an insult.

  21. Geoff-Aus says:

    I had thought pioneer day was a Utah thing, though I vaguely remember something at church in Australia, perhaps in primary, or youth.
    I just got a message from my brother, who lives in melbourne Australia, asking for names of people in a photo from 1960, because he is doing something on our parents, for his wards, “pioneer day celebration”
    So wards in Australia have pioneer day celebrations. More utah than utah.

  22. Growing up in Nevada we had Halloween off school… at least that is how we viewed it as kids when we wished we could have the day after instead! It was actually a celebration of “Nevada Day” recognizing statehood. No one outside of Nevada is likely to know or care about it.

    In Utah it becomes complicated by the mixture of (a worldwide) church and state. Add the church members celebrating it in various forms around the country/parts of the world and it makes “Utah Day” a strange one! My DC ward used to hold a kids parade in the parking lot along with a ward brunch each year. Thatnk goodness no one tried o do Dutch oven in the hot humidity!

  23. In the interest of diversity and tolerance we should support a religious minority celebrating their culture.

  24. Bob Lloyd says:

    I guess I’m in the minority here, but I have always enjoyed pioneer day. I have pioneer ancestors and it’s nice to remember their sacrifice to help create a wonderful set of communities in Utah. I’ve always enjoyed the bbqs, parades, and family get togethers. It seems it’s becoming more and more politically incorrect to say this from reading the comments, but I have always enjoyed it and hope to continue enjoying it in the years to come.

  25. As a kid in Colorado I remember we did a pioneer parade for Primary. We all had to dress up as pioneers and they’d tell us a story and then we’d march around the neighborhood. I have no idea what the people thought of it all since most of them weren’t LDS. :-) In California we seemed to always have some sort of picnic or something similar until a few years ago when ward activities committees were disbanded. My parents stake in CA did a large event and the community was invited. To me it was just a church thing.

    What I never cared for were the sacrament meeting talks. People would get so braggy about having pioneer ancestors. It was like they were a better class of Mormons because of what their ancestors did. I haven’t been in a ward that had speakers for pioneer day in a long time though. My last ward they’d just be sure to sing a pioneer hymn.

  26. In the Book of Mormon Moses was honored. We still honor him. The Pioneers ought to be honored in the same light.

    No one in France should feel shame or annoyance for honoring the pioneers. Most Pioneer disdain is just a mix of anti-Americanism or anti-Utahism.

    Very odd, considering how many Pioneers weren’t from America in the first place

  27. Aussie Mormon says:

    “In the Book of Mormon Moses was honored. We still honor him.”

    And we do so without celebrating the passover or Yom HaAliyah. (essentially each end of the exodus)

  28. Many years ago one of my teenage kids was in a Sunday school class far from Utah in late July. The teacher, fresh out of BYU, asked if any of the kids had inspiring stories about their pioneer ancestors. Of the ~dozen kids in the class, only mine and one other had any Utah roots. Well, one of them piped up and gave a 14 year old’s version of how their ancestors on 2 lines executed and were the brains behind the Mountain Meadows massacre of hundreds of innocent people from Arkansas, after President Harold B. Lee’s relative botched it up.The teacher was astonished and didn’t believe the story. Another one of the kids with an Aussie accent replied, I hope you’re not from Arkansas or you’d better watch your backside. I will leave it to you to guess which descendant form Utah pioneers told the story, considering that I was the parent who heard about it.

    Look at it another way. Pioneer day is yet another opportunity to white- wash our colorful and disturbing history and make it the servant of contemporary devotion to an organization that little resembles its roots, for better and worse.

  29. nobody, really says:

    I have to modify Comment #2 above. Our main speaker for Sacrament Meeting ignored the assigned topic and elected to read from The Church News instead to make it a Pioneer Day talk. Our first speaker, with a three-minute talk, covered one of Christ’s parables. If not for that, it would have been a Jesus Free Meeting (JFM).

  30. bronzsonw says:

    I served my mission in Cambodia and observed the saints there celebrating pioneer day by dressing up in pioneer cloths, square dancing, talking about the trek west and having a generally great time. I loved the way that they claimed this heritage as their own regardless of any genealogical heritage.

  31. Just today I read an obituary of a woman who (or the obit writer) was proud to have married a descendant of Parley P. Pratt…

  32. I have no more problem with Pioneer Day than I do with Nevada Day or Cinco De Mayo. My complaint is with “Trek.” I’ve participated in one and sat through too many post trek Sacrament Meetings, where weepy teens and sometimes adults testify of what a sacred experience it was, and how they now understand the hardships the pioneers suffered. They’ve got to be kidding!!! They seem to forget that they drove to the trek site in air conditioned cars packed with coolers containing fresh meat, fruits, vegetables, and bottled water. They pushed or pulled well constructed handcarts containing their backpacks full of modern hygienic supplies, insect repellant, sunscreen, the previously mentioned bottled water, sandwiches and chips for lunch, as well as cookies made by volunteers throughout the Stake. At night most of them slept in sleeping bags inside tents. No one went hungry, had to forage for food, suffered from dysentery or other disease, or buried loved ones in shallow graves that were later ravaged by wild animals. No trek I participated in or have heard about comes close to duplicating the conditions the pioneer endured. And it’s difficult to accept other participants new found appreciation for the pioneers’ sacrifices, when the greatest sacrifice the teens made was having to leave their phones and other electronics at home.