Settling versus Colonizing: When our Ancestors Unintentionally Caused Harm
Today I have mixed feelings about Utah’s state holiday, Pioneer Day—a day to celebrate the arrival of Mormon pioneers in 1847. On one hand, I have much love and respect for my many Mormon pioneer ancestors who came to the Intermountain West to be with the Mormon people and to establish homes and futures for their faith and families. On the other hand, though, I sit with realized grief about the harms that the colonization of the west brought to the land and Indigenous peoples who were already in the region. This latter awareness is something I was not raised with. The traditional Mormon narrative about Pioneer Day is very absent of other voices and perspectives, and paints the pioneers in a single, romanticized, heroic framework. But there are many other pieces to the picture that I see more clearly now.
I do not wish to condemn individual pioneers, nor do I wish to directly criticize the Mormon faith here. I very much respect and acknowledge that the Mormon pioneers came west on good intentions, and, my own ancestors included, I hold love and respect for them and the difficulties they faced in that journey. It’s a real and significant part of my own heritage and ancestral story.
An important concept I wish to draw attention to today, however, is that there is a difference between being a “settler” and a “colonizer”, and the pioneers filled the role of the latter in the Intermountain West.
With regard to Pioneer Day, the dominant "White Mormon" culture has never acknowledged the harms the pioneers rendered to the land and the Indigenous peoples here in the Intermountain West. In that narrative, the pioneers were elevated to a strange type of super-human status where doing wrong was not in their abilities. However, to correct the harms, we have to tell the truth, which is that the Mormon pioneers came to the Great Salt Lake Basin falsely believing they had been given the land by God (they hadn’t), and that Native Americans were inferior peoples, descended from a cursed group called the Lamanites (also untrue). As a result, they severely disrupted the lands’ ecosystems, established agricultural and development practices that overextended the lands’ resources, and helped to destroy the Indigenous people that were already thriving and who tended to the lands with deep, beautiful symbiotic relationships.
No, we can’t change history, and no, Mormon pioneer descendants are not just going to up and leave the region. But 175 years later, here in the Intermountain West, we face the ecological legacy of degraded lands, depleted resources, and amends have never been properly been made to the descendants of the Native peoples (and a lot of White folks freak out and mock them when they speak out about it).
So, while we can respect the dedication and devotion of the pioneers in what they THOUGHT they were doing, it’s not a day for much celebration because the reality of their colonization resulted in a lot of harm and residual damage. They could have come and “settled” in a way that was respectful to the land and the Indigenous peoples, but they didn’t. Instead, they came with a zealous spirit to conquer a land they saw as a dead, wild and untamed wilderness and to make the “Lamanites” “white and delightsome” (like their perceived selves). They came with the goal to “make the desert blossom as the rose,” when the truth is the desert was already blossoming in its own beautiful and unique way! It was never meant to be or look like New England or Nauvoo, Illinois (the Mormon headquarters before Salt Lake City), but they tried to make it so (and they certainly made the mountain the valleys much, much greener for a time). Now, however, we’re dealing with the ecological fallout their practices caused and arguing about protecting sacred Native lands (like Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears Monument in Utah). Sadly, few want to admit harms caused by our pioneer ancestors, let alone change the behaviors that perpetuate the harms. These things are not unique to Utah or the Western U.S., by any means, but Pioneer Day certainly highlights the harms that are specifically part of the region's history.
The harms I have briefly invoked were not solely the pioneers’ fault, per se. They were just part of the larger cultural framework of what I call “American Whiteness”—a cultural framework that still needs further dismantling. So, while we must be very slow to condemn well-intentioned people who thought they were doing right, it IS our duty from a hindsight perspective to recognize when actions cause/caused harm to others (both land, people, and non-humans)—especially those of our own ancestors—condemn those actions, and understand the psychology that underpinned them. Then, it’s our duty to rectify harm, dismantle and unteach the originating beliefs, and make needed reparations that bring about healing.
I hope I can be apart of those reparations and healing, and will continue to learn and seek guidance on how I can best use my gifts, perspective, and privilege to do that.