When one refers to “Sikh history”, quite often we take that to mean the history of Sikhs from our inception with the birth of Guru Nanak (the founder of Sikhism) in 1469 through to the near-present, but of that which occured in India. The history of the Sikhs who began leaving India around the end of the 19th century for farther eastern and western lands is not as commonly known or acknowledged. The Sikh diaspora tends to be spoken of in broad terms, but the divergence of this population of Sikhs from the Indian population contains within much history as well. For those of us who are the products of the diaspora, it is a story that is all-the-more relevant.
As I’ve delved more into this lineage of Sikhs, I am learning about many of the Sikh pioneers – pioneers in the context of the Sikhs as well as of America – and their evolution after immigrating to the west (the U.S. in particular). The Sikh Foundation recently published the text of a speech by historian/anthropologist Bruce La Brack that was entitled “A Century of Sikhs in California“:
La Brack discusses the extraordinary transformation of Sikhs from the first 60 years where Sikh pioneers primary presence in the U.S. was in the Imperial Valley and Yuba City areas and how they have moved from a metaphorically “Peaches and Punjabis” phase of their U.S. history to a much more central, successful, privileged place as the “Silicon Sikhs”. Dr. La Brack outlines how this remarkable transformation has occurred and a portrait of contemporary Sikhs in California.
His speech is a very engaging encapsulation of American Sikh history – where we began and the path that led us to where we are today.
As chance would have it, I came across another article (posted by Twitter user @preetikaur) that reproduced an article from 1907 called “The Hindu in the Northwest” that documented an attack (described as the “Bellingham Riots“) by a mob (with complicity from the authorities) on the Indian laborers at the turn of the century in Washington State. Most of the earliest Indian immigrants to the United States were Sikhs (though at the time, Americans commonly miscategorized all immigrants from India as “Hindu”), and this article gives us a glimpse of what these men had to face when coming to this country:
“A mob of six hundred workmen in the lumber mills raided the quarters of the Orientals, completely terrorized them and forced them to leave the city. Many of the Hindus were injured, but none fatally. Their squalid homes in the most wretched parts of the city were invaded, their belongings thrown into the streets, and in some instances their valuables stolen.”
This article also includes pictures of Sikhs and Indians in America from that time – always a feast for curious eyes.
With Sikhs continuing to evolve and integrate into American society, one of La Brack’s concluding comments about the history of the American Sikh pioneers was especially very salient:
As contemporary Sikhs struggle to construct their identities, practice their religion, and transmit their traditions, they could do worse than emulate the spirit of those men. I would hope that all South Asian Americans, regardless of their personal religious traditions, would choose to encourage their children to take pride in, and lay claim to, the early history of those who preceded them. Those hardy sojourners made America their home against great odds and, frequently, with a quiet grace. I am thankful I had the privilege to meet and learn from some of that older generation three decades ago, because they are all gone now.
I would encourage all those interested in Sikh history to educate themselves on and to communicate to others this often under-appreciated aspect of Sikh history.