In these days when the Pioneer nickname is being questioned in a DU brand study as well as around a few leadership circles for its perceived insensitivity to diversity, we should take this time to explore the deeper emotional attachments of how that nickname binds so many of us to our school. Why is the Pioneer nickname so deeply ingrained in the minds and hearts of westerners and, specifically, DU alumni? And were the original ‘Pioneers’ actually much more diverse than some want us to believe?
For some of us, all we need is the first level of the ‘Pioneer’ nickname – as a sports moniker for our school, pure and simple. It has branded our DU teams since 1925, and for that reason alone, it is worth keeping for the legacy and pure tradition of all those 95 years of DU teams who have represented DU since before almost all of us were even born.
For others, there is a second level to the Pioneer nickname that serves as an authentic reference to those actual Pioneers who founded the school, city, and state in the 19th century that still resonates today, especially among their descendants, who are still all around us. Those Pioneers built up Colorado at a time when there was little evidence to suggest that the school or city of Denver would ever become the thriving and dynamic communities that they are today. For that good deed alone, it’s seen as an appropriate nickname that is far more authentic for DU than being a Blue Devil is to a Duke alumnus, or a Buckeye – you know, a poisonous nut – is for an Ohio State alumnus, as those nicknames have nothing intrinsically to do with their schools. DU may not be as well known as the Blue Devils or Buckeyes, but at least our Pioneer nickname is an authentic, clear connection to our school’s history and how the school and city came to be.
But for many more people, Pioneer goes still another level deeper than sports, western connection or authenticity — to a more emotional third level. For those at this level of bonding, it’s a name that reminds us who we are as people — a core part of our personal identity that we acquired the moment we chose to come to DU for college. For us, the verb ‘pioneer’ truly resonates deeply with us as a driving personal force of reinvention.
The word “Pioneer” as a noun, derives from the 16th-century French word paonier, which itself descends from the Latin root words paon and pedo, meaning “on foot”. But the verb ‘to pioneer’ dates to the 1780s, and means “to lead or prepare the way to or for, go before and open (a way).”
Many of us – even those who appear to oppose the nickname – clearly identify with those concepts of discovery and opening new ways – as a personal reinvention of ourselves for a better life. For many, our identity as Pioneers helped to drive our own personal transformations here at DU. Some students chose DU as their first venture west as young adults, seeking a less constrictive environment than the one they left behind. Many Colorado locals, as well as transplants, are awestruck by the Rocky Mountains, which frame a vital sense of opportunity offered by the American West. For others, their time at DU was centered on personal growth, academic challenge, and exploration of the new frontiers of thoughts, ideas, and new identity formation, which also fits the Pioneer moniker very well.
That sense of personal reinvention isn’t just a modern invention, though. It was also one of the driving forces behind the development of the American West, as 19th-century Pioneers were a very diverse group, not known for their money, influence, nor privilege. In fact, most 19th century pioneers were already operating on the edges of the societies where they lived and set out for the Colorado territory for a better life.
When we look back at Denver’s birth as a city, Denver was founded as a mining camp in 1858, but after the first gold strike, it quickly ballooned in population. Early Denver was a story of claim jumpers, swindlers, war deserters, speculators, and those inflicted with a disease that writer Mark Twain coined “Sudden Riches Disease.” Denver’s cannabis shops today could barely compete with the 17 opium shops that existed in Denver at that time. In such a hellish place, a complex multiplicity of roles defined Pioneers well beyond the simplistic, narrow definition of Pioneers as white western settlers.
For example, the 1860 U.S. Census shows there were nearly 40 freed Black slaves out of the 2,100 surveyed Denver residents. These freed former slaves were some of the very first pioneers to make the trek to Denver. You can be sure reinvention was very important to them after living lives under the punishing thumb of oppression in the American South. The Five Points historic neighborhood in Denver was one of the largest Black communities in the western United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Pioneer women were some of America’s earliest feminists, liberated by the possibilities in the American West. They often took on untraditional roles when the traditional assignment of roles/tasks based on sex was impractical. Raising families, performing manual labor, hunting, managing finances, starting businesses, and improving literacy in a tough environment were just a few of their critical accomplishments.
Native Americans also were part of pioneering. One of the best-known women of the American West, the native-born Sacagawea, gained renown for her crucial role in paving the way for Lewis & Clark’s early 1800s expedition to successfully reach the Pacific Coast, a role so important that it landed her face on the U.S. dollar coin in the year 2000.
Other oppressed and marginalized groups were also a big part of the Pioneer western migration. Jews, Mormons, and Irish Catholics were just a few of the oppressed groups escaping often-poor treatment from the WASP establishment the American East. They too used western migration to reinvent themselves, contribute to a new society and practice their beliefs in peace.
Indeed, ‘Pioneers’ as a term can represent all individuals and families who were willing to go outside traditional boundaries and experience what seemed to be a land of nearly limitless opportunity. But this opportunity also came with risks – natural disasters, disease, resource shortages, and unforeseen challenges. It took grit and resilience to survive, and today, we have good reasons to take pride in both their survival and their accomplishments.
Denver Pioneers are also leaders, explorers, and risk-takers. There are DU Pioneers like Condoleezza Rice, who broke major barriers and became arguably the most powerful woman in the world as U.S. Secretary of State. Or Abraham Klausner, a US Army Rabbi who became a father figure to the 30,000 emaciated survivors of the Nazi Dachau concentration camp at the end of WWII. Or Trevor Baptiste, who today shows us all how becoming a young Black icon in the diversity-challenged sport of lacrosse can open the game to new players and audiences. Each of these figures fully embodies and truly represents the University of Denver’s stated vision: “A great private university dedicated to the public good,” which encourages today’s Pioneers to continue to dedicate themselves to “opening the way” to a stronger and better society.
At the same time, few reasonable people take school nicknames too literally. Few Nebraska Cornhuskers have ridden on a farm combine. Not many University Wyoming Cowboys have ever directed a herd of cattle on horseback. And few Kansas students are the literal Jayhawks who battled against the advancement of the confederacy and slavery from the south and east.
But all constituencies take from their nicknames a kernel of truth. For Cornhuskers, it’s a nod to their hearty agrarian past. For Cowboys, it’s accepting the rough-and-tumble outdoor life that is often Wyoming. For Kansans, it’s about holding the line. And for we Pioneers, it is really about boldly stepping out on one’s own in the hope of creating a better life and a better world.
Pioneers is a genuine reflection of who we are and what we want to be. And orchestrated efforts to create narrow, inaccurate definitions of early pioneers distort the actual truth.
It is time to take a bold stand to embrace Pioneers for its core values that we can all celebrate — innovation, daring and reinvention.
Top Photo: Oldest known photo of Denver’s Larimer Street, circa 1858