112: Imagining New Ways to Think and Teach about Mormon Pioneers

July 18, 2012
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On the verge of another Pioneer Day (July 24th), this one marking the 165th anniversary of the first Mormon pioneer wagon train reaching the Salt Lake Valley, Mormon Matters takes this opportunity to examine the current state of discourse and cultural practices (in the U.S. and abroad) surrounding those who sacrificed so much to cross plains, mountains, and seas in the quest to find a place where they could establish Zion. In this episode, panelists Joanna Brooks, Gina Colvin, and Joseph and Shalisse Johnstun join Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon in discussing the ways they draw strength and a sense of identity from U.S. pioneer or other ancestors, examine the mixed blessing contained in the mythologizing of the pioneers—faithful, never wavering, can do it all, bear all burdens with gladness—that so often dominates discourse about them, riff a bit on the practice in many stakes of every few years organizing handcart “trek” experiences for their youth, and discuss other possible (or better!) ways Latter-day Saints might still teach coming generations to value and honor the pioneers and their many gifts still alive in the church today without relying so heavily on idealized portrayals or forced, extreme measures.

We invite you to listen and comment below! We welcome reflections on all subjects, but especially hope to hear from international voices or perspectives on LDS pioneer messaging that are informed by experiences outside the U.S., as well as about your experiences with and views on youth handcart treks.

(Forgot in the podcast to give a shout out to Scott Holley for suggesting this topic. Thanks, Scott!)

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Link to essay mentioned in podcast:

Linda Sillitoe, “The Ghost of the Pioneer Woman,” in The Wilderness of Faith: Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought, ed. John Sillito (Signature Books, 1991)

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  • Marie

    Festive mid-July topic!  I appreciated everyone’s contribution, so thanks.  I particularly appreciated the comments about emphasizing a movement forward, instead of always pointing backwards.  That’s certainly what the original Mormon pioneers did.  I’ve since moved away, but I was raised in Utah and have always appreciated my Mormon pioneer heritage and enjoy the July 24th observances.  However, as I’ve had experiences with friends being the first in their family to convert to Mormonism and change their lives in fundamental ways, I’ve realized that these modern-day pioneers have far more in common with my early Mormon ancestors than I do, and I think their story is just as compelling, and at times in similar ways.

    And as a Utah Mormon, I somehow missed the “trek” experience and have always felt gipped!  Thanks for making me feel better about missing out!:)

  • Hugo

    Hey Dan: I just listed to the interview and I loved it. As
    someone who grew up outside the U.S., and experienced the displaced
    celebrations of “Pioneerism” in which Mormons sometimes indulge in even when
    living in distant lands (as a deacon, I too danced the Virginia reel!), I
    especially enjoyed the comments by Gina.

    I remember that sometimes for Pioneer Day our bishop would
    invite as a speaker Maria Biebersdorf de Parraga, who was a little girl when
    her parents received the first missionaries who arrived to Argentina in 1925.
    It was very clear from those speeches that we Argentines had our Pioneers
    too—that we all were, in a sense, Pioneers.

    I was also intrigued by the relation that Joanna Brooks
    establishes between her reconnecting with her Pioneer heritage and the Passover
    Seder. Here’s a wild hypothesis: Is it possible that part of the problem with
    Mormonism is the triumphalism and dogmatism associated with having arrived to
    “The Place” and claimed it, instead of focusing on the more uncertain beginning
    of the pilgrimage? What could a change of focus, from SLC to Nauvoo, entail? I
    see potential for Mormon Seders in which we Mormons of all kinds reflect on the
    exoduses initiated by our spiritual heroes and commit to begin new journeys
    just like those who came before us.

    Anyone interested in modern-day Pioneers (both Dan and
    Joanna are in my list of Pioneers!), please read not only Joanna Brook’s terrific memoirs, but also her outstanding poem, “Pilgrimage” https://dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V27N03_12.pdf
    and also her Kirtland Temple speech, “Voices of an Inclusive Faith” http://affirmation.org/stories/visions_of_an_inclusive_lds_faith.shtml
    . Carol Lynn Pearson and Robert Rees are also examples of Mormons who have
    reflected about what it means to be a pioneer.

  • Bill

    I certainly use my pioneer heritage to establish credibility as I walk the uncorrelated-Mormon path.  After all, 15 of my 16 2nd great-grandparents on my mothers side walked across the plains, so NOBODY can question MY dedication to the faith of my fathers!  So when I question, confront, or otherwise agitate, I do it knowing that nobody has more skin in this game than I do and nobody can question my motives or devotion. 

    Thanks for a great discussion! 

  • Larrin

    I was interested in the discussion of the youth trek re-creations. My younger siblings have been going on them and they worry me. I’ve heard about the EFY fake walks through outer darkness and the kingdoms of glory after “dying.” And I have experienced blindfolded “iron rod” activities, both participating and setting up. It’s scary sometimes what leaders are willing to do to provide “spiritual experiences.” Why aren’t real spiritual experiences good enough? Why do they have to be fabricated?

  • Fletch

    Great podcast!! I particularly enjoyed the last segment on youth treks. They are so contrived, unimaginative and superficial. The manufactured “spiritual experience” seems shallow and unlikely to endure. Why not reframe what it means to be a pioneer? The pioneers moved to a vast wilderness and were focused on surviving and colonizing the harsh, inhospitable region we call the Great Basin. Well, we’ve succeeded admirably, maybe too well, in establishing ourselves in this vast desert with mountainous ribbons. How about educating our youth on issues relating to our survival and quality of life going forward?? Are we using our resources wisely? How are the native plants and animals doing? Is our air going to support life in the future? Are there too many of us in such a fragile ecosystem? What about our vast irreplaceable public lands? Sell them? Honor and respect them and keep them available for all citizens of the world to enjoy? Reaching out and including non and inactive Mormons. These are a just few issues our young pioneers should know something about. Obviously, a broader approach like this can be adapted to all of the places the saints find themselves. Let’s hope that treks may morph into something more relevant and interesting. My rucksack is packed and ready to go.

  • Allan Davis

    Regarding the trek reenactments, my former mentor at BYU
    wrote a fantastic article about the performative aspects of treks about 6 years
    ago. For anyone interested, here’s the reference:

    Jones, Megan Sanborn. “(Re)living the Pioneer Past: Mormon
    Youth Handcart Trek Re-enactments. Theatre Topics. Vol 16, No. 2. Sept 2006. Pg
    113—130.

    I found the sentiments regarding treks expressed in this
    podcast somewhat surprising. For some reason, I was not quite expecting that
    the treks would be read as so manufactured, or rather that they were read as
    particularly more manufactured than any other type of performative practice
    within a religious community. I think about rituals, storytelling, or any
    variety of traditional acts of doing and I don’t know that I see the treks any
    more or less manufactured or structured to script those who are participants within
    the performance. I did not disagree with where the conversation seemed to
    focus, namely an interrogation of the ethics of the practice or to question
    what type of history and what type of Mormonism are created in any religious
    performance;  however, I was intrigued
    about how the reservations of treks were framed. Particularly, I found it
    intriguing that living out a physical pain—be it hunger, sickness, or fatigue—was
    discussed as problematic because some of the “trials” were “inauthentic.” I
    know that Victor Turner’s ideas about communitas have been mentioned before in
    previous podcasts. I’ll confess to ignorance regarding Turner’s greater ideas,
    but from what I understand communitas is a feeling of social togetherness and
    equality often born out of a shared experience. How exactly is the communitas
    born out of treks any more or less scripted, any more or less authentic than
    other religious experiences?

    What I find compelling about Jones’ article is that she
    argues that the Mormon treks make complete sense because of other cultural
    performances regarding the dead we enact as a community. The same kids going on
    treks are the ones who go on trips to the temple to take on the identities of
    other dead individuals. Mormonism has a rich tradition of performing the past
    by embodying the memory of lives and souls who have passed through this earth.
    So while glorification of the Mormon Pioneers is a wonderful way to understand
    the presence of the trek, so are our more general practices.

    But I’ll admit treks fascinate me because I really interested
    in how performance is a form of historiography. As individuals and communities,
    we know, learn, record, and convey history in a number of ways. One of those
    mediums is performance.  And I think one
    of the compelling arguments made by scholars, like Diana Taylor or Robin
    Bernstein, who explore how repertoires of performance are archives of
    historical knowledge is that historical archives like academic libraries or
    collections of documents which seem to record or house the past actually do
    much to create the past. Both the archives and the repertoires script our
    understanding of the histories we generate by interacting with them.  Anyway, I might also not have too much of a problem with treks in general because I wrote my masters thesis on Hell Houses–Evangelical Christian haunted houses that are meant to scare the Hell out of people so they’ll accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Mormon kids are not playing girls getting abortions, teens committing suicide, or homosexuals dying of AIDS, so you know . . . comparatively . . .

  • Jason Farnsworth

    When I participated as a youth in a Pioneer Trek back in 1994 my experience was very similar to the way it was described in this podcast (very little food provided on purpose, killing and cooking a chicken for dinner, unnecessarily difficult trail, long days (8-10 hours) of pulling the cart, etc…).

    When I found out a few years ago that my Stake in Utah was planning to take the youth to Martin’s Cove I was beyond apprehensive given my experience as a youth. I ended up participating as a “Trek Historian” for our Ward (meaning I was there just to take pictures and document the experience). It seemed to me that there was an outline the Stake Trek Committee was following. I’m not sure where the format came from but when we arrived at Martin’s Cove there was definitely significant oversight/guidance provided by the missionaries at Martin’s Cove and of course a specified trail for use. On the whole I felt like it was a much improved activity compared to what I had experienced as a youth (no killing of live chickens, adequate food & water, reasonable handcart trails, relatively short time pulling the cart each day [2-4 hours], significant support vehicles & staff).

    However, having said that there was still some very contrived emotional/spiritual aspects that raised my hackles a bit but I couldn’t well articulate all of the reasons. They did a women’s pull that started at the bottom of a significant hill with all the men standing along the trail in silence at the top of the hill – ostensibly to honor their effort (so contrived!). Randomly selecting individuals from each “family” at the very end to “die” and not be allowed to go with them for the last 1/2 mile of the trek. A quiet time of reflection in the actual Martin’s Cove grove area (good), but an overall over-emphasis on the faith to follow the prophet by the Martin & Willy Handcart companies even though the more they told their stories it became increasing obvious that they knowingly made a bad decision to depart so late in the year. In preparation for the trek they asked each person to do research on a pioneer individual that crossed the plains (not necessarily an ancestor) and bring that name and story with them. Some emphatic testimonies (mainly by the youth) that were heavily influenced by the heroic pioneer stories that had been saturating the entire experience.

    Having said all that, the youth that participated definitely created or strengthened friendships with each other through the experience and that holds a lot of weight in my mind when I evaluate whether it is a worthwhile experience. If I had any say (which I currently don’t) as to whether to hold another similar activity, I would strongly recommend against it in the way that we did it. If nothing else, I know it was very expensive (primarily for the buses to take us from Utah to Wyoming).

  • Maggie Olsson

    In regards to Joseph’s comment about the number of successful relationships that came out of the reenactment – I can just picture what my bishop (it’s a mid-singles ward) would do with this information and I can’t stop laughing. We all talk about that hypothetical day when our leaders tell us to go home and pack because we’re going to Zion, I wouldn’t put it past this bishop to send us all on the road if he thought a few of us might get engaged along the way. Let’s keep this under wraps!

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  • KC

    Great discussion. I highly recommend the book “Devils Gate” by David Roberts. It really helped me get beyond the idealizing and myths surrounding the pioneer crossing to Utah.  I gained an appreciation for their sacrifices and feel a debt of gratitude to them much more after reading that book.  

    Regarding youth pioneer treks. My wife and I went last year as a Ma and Pa and it was fantastic. But our stake trek was well prepared. Plenty of food, 5 gal. jugs of fresh water and Gatorade on every handcart, medical staff, we camped in tents, no killing chickens,  we had mobile porta potties all along the way.  If treks were done this way I would definitely recommend them. They didn’t try to duplicate the original pioneer experience but allowed for a fun experience that still offered a little hardship. We had to wear period clothing, walk 10 miles/day and it was dusty.  

  • Jim Manning

    I grew up next door to my grandmother,, a life-long faithful member, who was born in 1906, the daughter of Norwegian-speaking (railroad) emigrants to Northern Utah.  I vividly remember her expressing that she was made to feel less by her peers (and fellow members of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers) who had ‘wagon and handcart’ ancestors.  Her comments always sounded to me like she was saying they let her join as a personal favor, even though she wasn’t fully-qualified, somehow.

    Probably as emotional compensation for that, she would often tell me the story of her Father coming to Utah earlier than her mother to earn money (then later ‘sending for mother’ and the couple of kids still in Norway), and her mother and two small children being terrified as they rode across the continent in a passenger-converted cattle car that kept catching fire because of a defective braking system on the train.  She felt the need to further ‘sanctify’ their sacrifice, by telling how they ‘nearly starved to death’ in a remote mountain valley before moving to a more populated town where her father could better work his trade as a blacksmith.  I find it interesting to what degree she felt she needed to go to demonstrate their sacrifice; I always felt this was a cultural pressure.

    Conversely, she NEVER told me about, but did confide to my older sister, that the local church authorities tried (unsuccessfully) to confiscate her parents’ home after her Father’s death by having her mother committed to an asylum.  I’ve tried to work out in my head why or how this would be necessary for the local ward to do this, when there was supposedly plenty of family nearby to help out. Telling this story would have been disrespectful to the church and leaders, in her eyes.

    I try to be FAR more open and liberal in my storytelling with my (now teenage) kids when it comes to family history.  We even tend to discuss some of the more negative traits of their LIVING grandparents, in hopes of letting their mistakes be a living legacy to them, as much as a dead pioneer ancestor might be.

  • apriles

    I do think many modern Mormons have too little respect for the sacrifices the pioneers made in order that we might worship the Lord rather than follow in vain traditions of men. My own ward made its Pioneer Day into a water slide activity instead of a day to remember and respect the pioneers. Not even one hymn was sung. Who can call that a Pioneer Day? The disrespect is not isolated to one day a year, either. On more than one Sunday I’ve heard members get up and say that we have it more tough than the pioneers did. One egregious example was we have television. Really? So you can’t get up and turn off the TV? And this is to be compared to walking hundreds of miles on bloody feet, or being tarred and feathered, or watching your family slaughtered because they chose to obey the Lord? Another example of modern sufferings was all the “busy” activities of today’s life. Give me a break. Did the pioneers have washing machines and dryers? Electric ovens? Vacuums? No! Some people need to get a little humility. No, correction. Some people need to get humility, period.

  • Mjthomas

    My stake put on what I thought was a great pioneer celebration (although it was not as well attended as it should have been). Our stake is very diverse with multiple different language wards. Members of the Chinese branch dressed up with the women in bonnets and long skirts, the men in jeans and western shirts. They sang Come, Come Ye Saints in Chinese. The Cambodian branch performed a native Cambodian dance. The Spanish ward performed a beautiful Latin dance. A black member spoke on Martin Luther King, a favorite pioneer of his. A Chinese woman spoke about her family’s pioneer experience joining the Church in Hong Kong. A Tongan man spoke of the Church coming to Tonga.
    So altogether it was a good mixture of celebrating the distant Utah past and the more recent pioneer heritage.

    But I have to tell you, I wanted a few handcarts, wagons, horses and cowboy hats. Maybe next year.