In Defense of Trek & Pioneer Day

I am a part of the minority among progressive Mormons (or perhaps actually, a part of the silent majority?) that is pro-Trek and pro-Pioneer Day. Here I strive to make that case and share some thoughts on ways of honoring and celebrating both that more responsibly, thoughtfully, and inspiringly engage with our Mormon heritage. 

On TREK

Trek to me feels like a mix of ritual and pilgrimage, a potentially powerful way of creating an egalitarian, group ritual. Not all members have pioneer blood relatives, but all Mormons have a pioneer religious heritage, simply by being Mormons. The pioneer ethic and mythos is embedded in how much of Mormonism manifests and I think that we can all honor that, whether our own particular ancestors crossed the plains or not. 

Trek, at its best, makes physical the sacrifices and toil and work and sweat of true religion in a way that I find powerful. Does a few days hiking compare to the true trek across the plains? Of course not. But trek doesn’t need to be the same experience as the literal pioneers to have value.

Caution and safety should be practiced at all times. Trek should probably be arduous, but not life-threatening. Everyone should be well-watered and cared for, with injuries receiving the best care modern medicine has to offer. Suffering for suffering’s sake is not the goal. 

Wearing “traditional” clothing feels to me like a valuable part of the ritual element of the experience, though the standards should definitely be enforced more equally across genders, since in my experience women and girls that participate have much more expected of them than men and boys, who look more or less like they always do. Creating or finding the clothing could be incorporated into the group preparations for the process, which could equalize this and add meaning. Also, all should be allowed to wear any period clothing, regardless of their gender. Period cross-dressing allowed. And again, be smart and responsible with this. Don’t force people to wear so many layers that they overheat. 

Trek should help us remember the sacrifice that our early Saints were willing to make, to realize what true persecution is and that we don’t face it anymore, to think about what we are willing to do for God and each other. Trek should be a deeply communal experience. Helping us reconnect with one another. A ritual that reminds us that Zion is ALL of us, that we are saved together or not at all. That if I neglect my fellow comrades in Christ, that I too am damned. Most of our rituals are focused on our own individual efforts, which can blind us to our responsibility to each other. Trek ideally helps rectify that, forcing us to work together, some doing more work than others, from all according to their ability and to each according to their needs. 

On PIONEER DAY

Pioneer Day, for me, does something similar. Yet, I think has even more potential for honoring a wide, diverse array of Saints and ways of being Mormon. Pioneer Day is a piece of a possible Mormon Liturgical Calendar. We don’t really *have* a Liturgical calendar within Mormonism and it’s something that I envy about other Christian traditions and making a peculiarly Mormon one seems to require the inclusion of Pioneer Day.

Much of the rational for celebrating and honoring Pioneer Day is tied to the reasons I feel that we should participate in the ritual of Trek. 

I also think that Pioneer Day allows for a uniquely honest and frank engagement with elements of Mormon history that are often neglected–colonial and racist elements relating to the demonization and displacement of indigenous people throughout Utah and the West.

A true and valuable celebration of Pioneer Day must reckon with the fact that the grit and commitment and dedication of our Mormon ancestors happened alongside and simultaneously with atrocities, perpetuated in the name of those same good attributes. 

I’m not interested in the Pioneer Day celebrations that function as sequels to the Fourth of July, with full-throated Americanism (particularly since such celebrations seem to ignore that the pioneers were literally fleeing America, but whatever). 

This sort of honoring of the day should also come with a decrease in the tendency to revere individuals that have “pioneer stock”, as we recognize the messiness and troublesome realities of that stock. 

I also envision a way of honoring Pioneer Day that incorporates the many other ways that people can be and are pioneers. Converts, first to receive degrees, the still fraught and pioneer-grit-filled experiences of people of color, the difficult and complicated lives of queer Mormons, and others. Stories like that of my great-grandma who was one of the first women to earn a Physics degree from BYU. Like that of Jane Manning James and Elijah Able. Like that of Chieko Okazaki. 

Pioneer Day should honor the past, while doing our part to heal the wounds that our ancestors caused and to reckon with the violence that is at the heart of the reality of Deseret. Pioneer Day should also look throughout our history and into the present to find and tell the stories of those that continue to embody the best of that pioneer spirit. 

The day doesn’t need to be all doom and gloom. Celebrations of the particular quirkiness of Mormon culture also strike me as valuable. I think there are things about Mormonism and our pioneer heritage that are worth celebrating and Pioneer Day feels like a great time to do that. 

Perhaps also because I think we can weave in the experiences of pioneers like Levi Savage that strongly resonate with me and serve to highlight the complexity of faith that some of these individuals had. That being a pioneer wasn’t always about obedience or knowing with every fiber of your being, but was about a recognition of the beauty of community and the value that each and every one of us can bring to that community. 

I long for ways to bring Mormonism out of the chapel and the temple and into my day-to-day life, ways that I can create communal and individual and familial rituals that allow me to connect with God in peculiarly Mormon ways out in the world. Pioneer Day and Trek are the beginnings of creating such a practice for me. May we work together to honor the grit and sacrifice of our pioneer heritage and to remember and reckon with the complexity of that legacy and the violence and harm that was done. 

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