Let’s skip straight to the point: Since the founding of Salt Lake City in 1847, Pioneer Day celebrations have slowly atrophied into a mockery of the pioneer ideology the holiday is intended to commemorate. The opportunity to give local families something to do (which is, by itself, a respectable practice) has become an obfuscation of public focus.
The history and triumphs of Utahan settlers should be celebrated, but not in a way so extravagant and convoluted that it ignores the manual labor, independence, inclusion, acceptance and thrift that brought pioneers to Utah.
Take for example the Days of ‘47 parade. The original celebrations of Pioneer Day, which did include a parade, were an earned celebration of the success of those pioneers. After facing persecution in the East, a long emigration and tremendous difficulty settling in Salt Lake City, those pioneers deserved their share of fanfare.
The parade today is unrecognizable from its respectable ancestor – the immoderate apple, to employ an overused metaphor, has rolled far from the tree.
Instead of creating over-the-top floats out of mostly non-recyclable materials that will fill the landfills that freckle this land pioneers fought so hard to inhabit, why not ask parade attendees to leave their cars at home and commit the day to respecting that land?
Fireworks, though beautiful and inspiring, are a logistically idiotic way to celebrate anything other than the history of pyrotechnics. By intentionally lighting fires in the sky, we put the land of our beautiful state in danger – I dare say Brother Brigham would implore that we be more practical and celebrate in a less flammable fashion.
Unfortunately, traditional pioneer arts and crafts can’t alight the sky for thousands to see at once. But a farm tour, a quilt show or a walking perusal of the brilliantly designed street system of Salt Lake City is not as flashy or superficially exciting.
Instead of creating a shallow spectacle, celebrants should focus on the real achievements of the pioneers: the magnificent organization of new communities including roads, city placement and irrigation systems; the respect pioneers had for the land they could finally call home; the rare goodwill between settlers and Indian tribes; freedom of religion without fear of persecution or ostracism; and the ability of a now-native people to welcome new pioneers that are trying to escape oppression.
The rodeo is an almost ridiculous example of the sort of thing expressed in the parade. Another respectable, practical pioneer practice has decayed into an unnecessary and unbeneficial mockery of its progenitor. Riding horses and roping cattle is still important on a farm, but by making that old income-earning practice into a spectator sport we have once again lost sight of the pioneer value of the importance of manual labor.
In addition, rodeos have attracted criticism from animal rights activists for more than a century. Though practices have become more humane since then, the majority of animal rights groups maintain a position of opposition towards all rodeo events. The proper treatment of farm animals was an instrumental trait for the pioneers. Like most of those traits, it has become a farce.
Possibly the most ethically aggravating aspect of the celebration is the exclusivist tendency to label only those with a Mormon genealogy as “pioneers.” Though Mormons were among the first non-Native Americans to settle in Utah, Pioneer Day should be a celebration of all of those who can empathize with the plight of Mormon Pioneers – and yes, this does include illegal immigrants. Anyone who has felt persecuted in his or her homeland, who has yearned for religious freedom (usually against a religious hegemony much like the one in Utah now) or who has moved to escape tyranny or discrimination should be celebrated on July 24. Otherwise, the oppressed have become the oppressors.