Politics, Historic

Smithsonian distorts Sikh American history

in Indian American exhibition
By Anju Kaur | April 08, 2014
The American newspaper, Bellingham, Washington, Sept. 5, 1907: "This is the type of man driven from this city as the result of last night's demonstration by a mob of 500 men and boys."

The American newspaper, Bellingham, Washington, Sept. 5, 1907: "This is the type of man driven from this city as the result of last night's demonstration by a mob of 500 men and boys."

Reporting from Washington – The Smithsonian Institution has distorted Sikh history in the United States in its new Indian American exhibition.

The exhibition, "Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape a Nation," opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on Feb. 27, and will continue there for more than a year, until Aug. 16, 2015, when it will travel to other museums around the country.

“Historians do not try to explore the religious, social, cultural and political beliefs, and political activism of the new migrants to North America in the years 1904-14,” writes Jasbir Singh Mann, in his article, “Reevaluating the Origin and Inspiration of ‘Sikh Gadar 1907-1918’,” presented at the Stockton Gurdwara Centennial, in September 2012. 

About 95 percent of these immigrants were male Sikhs who formed the backbone of the Gadar lehar, a revolutionary movement for India’s independence, inspired by the teachings of Guru Granth Sahib, and launched from Sikh gurdwaras on the West Coast of the United States and Canada. 

“…This movement, in fact, was an International Anglo Sikh War that started in 1907,” Jasbir Singh says. 

And early immigration to the United States and the Bellingham Riots, in Washington state, were part of its beginnings.  

The Smithsonian’s exhibition does not give Sikhs credit for their historical sacrifices and contributions to the United States and India during this period, and lumps them and their unique history under the label of “Punjabi” or “Indian.” Credit is shifted to non-Sikhs, and the narratives are either factually incorrect or insufficient, experts in this report said.

The first waves of Immigrants: The Sikhs

The exhibition is separated into a variety of sections such as immigration, citizenship and religion. Each section includes artifacts, such as photographs and newspaper articles, and labels that present the narrative of that section.

Near the entrance to the exhibition, in a section called, “The First Immigrants,” is a large photograph of Sikhs working on the construction of the Pacific and Eastern Railroad, in Oregon. The Sikhs are labeled as “Indian immigrants.” 

The label description says: “In the late 1800s and early 1900s, farmers from Punjab, oppressed by British taxation and restrictions on land ownership, settled along the American West Coast. They worked alongside Chinese immigrants in lumber mills and iron factories and on railroads to support the nation’s industrial boom.” 

The early immigrants from the Indian subcontinent were about 95 percent Sikh.

“It is accurate but it does not really tell the whole story,” said Bruce LaBrack, author of ‪the book, “The Sikhs of Northern California‬: ‪A Socio-historical Study‬.” 

“If you’re talking about who was it specifically who came from India, it was very narrow, it wasn’t representative of all of India, it was basically Punjab,” said LaBrack, also professor emeritus of cultural anthropology at the University of the Pacific, in Stockton, California. 

“They talk about Indians, but do they understand that these were not Hindus?” he said. “The story is that it was largely Punjabi, as you know, it was the Sikhs. It was largely a Sikh migration.”

Punjab, at that time, included West Punjab, now in Pakistan. It had an overwhelmingly Sikh population. Immigration records from 1900 to the end of World War II show that 85 to 90 percent of the names on the lists ended with “Singh,” LaBrack told SikhNN. 

“But that is a conservative number,” he said. “The actual number of Sikh immigrants is closer to 95 percent.” The rest were Punjabi Muslims, and fewer were Punjabi Hindus.

The Sikhs were male peasant farmers, but also soldiers retired from the British army. Concentrated on the West Coast, there were only 6,000 to 7,000 legal immigrants. The majority (6,100) arrived between 1904-1911, he writes in his article, “Social and Political Lives of Early Sikh Settlers in California: 1897-1946,” presented at the Stockton Gurdwara Centennial. More than half of them could not read or write, records from the immigration commission show.

“I always like to see Sikh history more widely displayed, and certainly if it’s part of Indian American history,” LaBrack said. “It doesn’t sound like they (Smithsonian) did a very credible job in terms of accuracy.”

Masum Momaya, the curator of the exhibition, is an expert in women’s rights. She also is the researcher for the exhibition, and declined to name any other persons on her research team. Momaya was made aware of all the issues concerning Sikhs in her exhibition, but she will not consider reviewing any of those labels or artifacts.

“The curatorial team, led by Masum Momaya, stands behind its research,” said Emily Grebenstein, spokeswoman for the Smithsonian and Momaya. “At this time, the Smithsonian has no intention of making changes to the exhibition’s labels and artifacts.” 

Neither Momaya nor Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program, granted SikhNN’s repeated requests for an interview. 

The Bellingham riots

On the same wall as the “First Immigrants” section of the exhibition is another section called, “Driven Out,” about the Bellingham Riots in Washington state.

“It doesn’t (show) much history,” said Paul Englesberg, education professor at Walden University, in Minnesota, who lives and works in the Bellingham area. He has delivered lectures and written academic papers on the Bellingham Riots, including one presented at the Stockton Gurdwara Centennial. 

“I appreciate the attention that the exhibition gives to this event and the use of historical artifacts and photographs,” he told SikhNN.  “However, I regret that the exhibit was not researched in more depth and did not include more background, some of the local Bellingham sources, and better photographs.”

The early immigrants from the Indian subcontinent were about 95 percent Sikh.

A prominent issue with this section of the exhibition is that there is no explanation of the word “Hindu” used in its newspaper artifacts. The enlarged clippings show articles about the riots and images of Sikhs under titles using the word “Hindu.” 

Today, the word “Hindu” refers to the religion, but in the early 1900s, it referred to all people from Hindustan, the British colony, not the religion, Englesberg said.

“(The exhibition) should give enough information to have a complete picture of who these people were, who the rioters were, and what the motivations were,” Englesberg said. “It was not so simple… it was not completely a racial xenophobic attack.” The immigrants also were blamed for taking jobs away from American workers by accepting lower wages.

As British subjects, Sikhs and some other Punjabis first landed in Canada and then made their way into the U.S., which also accepted British subjects. According to the Sept. 16, 1906, edition of the Puget Sound American newspaper, Punjabi immigration to the U.S. began earlier that year, to Bellingham, just 20 miles south of the Canadian border. 

The exhibition presents only a one-paragraph narrative about the little-known but consequential history of what happened to the Sikhs in Bellingham. 

The section begins with the exhibition label, “Driven Out,” which says: “On September 4, 1907, not long after the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act restricting immigration from “Asiatic Nations,” a mob of nearly 500 men attacked Punjabi lumber mill workers in Bellingham, Washington. Their intention: to force them out. Many residents witnessed the incident, but none of the perpetrators were arrested, and city officials had no response.  The entire Indian population left the city within two weeks. Two months later, similar attacks occurred elsewhere in Washington, and later in California and British Columbia, Canada.”

Englesberg pointed to several factual errors, misstatements and inaccuracies in the label. 

First, “the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act restricting immigration from “Asiatic Nations,” is a factually incorrect statement. The Chinese Exclusion Act only restricted immigration from China.

Second, the mob was not a single group of “nearly 500 men.” Large, roving mobs scattered throughout Bellingham searching, beating and imprisoning the Punjabis throughout the evening of Sept. 4, Englesberg said. Bellingham had more than 30,000 citizens, with about 200 to 300 Sikhs, and some were other Punjabis. The mobs were mostly men, some were inebriated, some were youths, but most were white, according to newspaper accounts. 

Third, “many residents witnessed the incident,” is also an inaccurate statement. “We don’t know how many residents witnessed the incidents that weren’t participants themselves,” Englesberg said. 

Fourth, “none of the perpetrators were arrested,” is a factually incorrect statement. Two men were handcuffed but released immediately when a mob surrounded the police officers, Englesberg said. Bellingham had a very small police force, and only a few officers responded to the riots. Five were arrested and jailed, but not brought to trial allegedly because witnesses could not identify them, or were afraid to testify, or did not want to testify.

Fifth, the statement that “city officials had no response,” is factually incorrect. Although none opposed the resulting eviction of the Sikhs and other Punjabis, nearly all elected officials opposed the violent methods, Englesberg said. The mayor made strong statements against the violence, and authorized the deputation of 50 men to protect them. He also made strong statements against dropping the charges against those arrested. The city council conducted an investigation, and blamed the mill owners for hiring the immigrants at a lower rate and instigating a wage war. They said the Sikhs and other Punjabis were law abiding and peaceful workers, and should not have had to leave.

Sixth, “the entire Indian population left the city within two weeks” is an inaccurate statement. The word “Indian” is used interchangeably with “Punjabi.” And the newspaper artifacts use the word “Hindu.” 

The early immigrants largely were Punjabi Sikhs, but newspapers lumped them, and the small percentage of Muslims and Hindus, as “Hindu,” Englesberg said. “But I don’t want to call them Sikh because they were not 100-percent Sikh.” About 90 percent were Sikh.

“The Hindus who are in Bellingham are, on the whole, remarkably fine-looking men,” the Puget Sound American reported, on Sept. 16, 1906. “This is due to the fact that many are ex-soldiers of the Indian army.”

Only one group-photograph of the immigrants ever appeared in a local paper. The day after the riots, the Bellingham Herald showed a photograph of some of the men who were herded into the city hall for expulsion. While earlier photographs of Sikhs arriving on ships, of them working on farms and railroads, and in lumber mills in Canada, show nearly all of them with Kesh and dastaars, this photograph shows more than half without their Kesh. It is not certain whether they were representative of the entire population of Sikhs in Bellingham, or whether they were largely a group of Muslims. 

The early immigrants from the Indian subcontinent were about 95 percent Sikh

But one thing is certain. It was the Sikhs who got all the attention and bore the brunt of the attacks. 

The local newspapers always described the Punjabis as having turbans. And, in The American newspaper, it shows several caricatures of a Sikh, Sandhu Singh, with his Kesh and dastaar. The caption says: “This is the type of man driven from this city as the result of last night’s demonstration by a mob of 500 men and boys.” 

The Sikhs of Bellingham were farmers but also retirees from the British military or police, who served abroad in Hong Kong and other parts of the British Empire. 

“They were big and tough,” Englesberg said. “Some of them were wrestlers, and knew enough English to get into fights.” 

The Chinese and Japanese immigrants who had come to Bellingham earlier did not like to fight. “Why did they think the “Hindus” were worse? Perhaps because of how they looked, and that they were willing to fight. And their turbans made them stand out,” he said. 

Most left Bellingham within three days of the riots. The last one, Harvinder (Homer) Singh, left two weeks later, lamenting to The Herald newspaper that he could not take his kundee and sotaa (mortar and pestle for grinding wheat) with him. 

Seventh, the exhibition is incorrect in stating that “two months later, similar attacks occurred elsewhere in Washington, and later in California and British Columbia, Canada.” 

Only a few days after the Bellingham riots, a large race riot ensued in Vancouver against Chinese and Japanese immigrants, but not directly against the Punjabis, Englesberg said. And months after that, an anti-Punjabi riot occurred in Everett, also in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. And, in Aberdeen, on the West coast of the state, the Punjabis left after being threatened. The California riots began much later, the following year.

After the Bellingham riots, hundreds of residents attended a mass meeting called by the Seattle secretary, A. E. Fowler, of the Asiatic Exclusion League, asking for wider anti-immigration and anti-labor laws from Congress. With support from the discriminatory rhetoric of U.S. newspapers, the league was instrumental in the passage of laws that severely restricted all Asian immigration and excluded them from citizenship.

The Chinese and Japanese governments lobbied the U.S. government to protect their citizens and make reparations for damages and losses incurred in these riots. But the British Raj did not speak out for its citizens. Sikhs and other Punjabis began to realize that without a country of their own, they would be treated like slaves by the rest of the world, and would never have any civil rights or human rights anywhere. 

_________________________ From Sikh News Network archives.