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Smithsonian distorts Sikh American history
in Indian American exhibition

By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Tuesday, April 08, 2014 | 02:14 pm

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."

Photo Source: Paul Englesberg

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

Left: Exhibition label of "The First Immigrants" section. Center: Photograph of Sikhs working on the Pacific and Eastern Railroad, in Oregon. The Sikhs are called "Indian," although India did not exist at that time. The photo is dated 1906 here but all other sources date the photograph 1909, including the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle.
Source: SikhNN

“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.

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