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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

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

Left: Exhibition label of the "Driven Out" section. Center: The San Francisco Call newspaper, Nov. 20, 1906, describes the immigrants coming to Bellingham. Although the caricatures are of Sikhs, the title says "Hindus and Mohammedans." At that time, "Hindu" referred to all people from Hindustan, the British colony, not the religion. "Mohammedan" refers to Muslims, who were about 5 percent of all immigrants. The New York Times, Sept. 6, 1907, had many factual errors about the Bellingham Riots. The wire service was new to the newspaper industry. Right: Workers wait for trains leaving Bellingham, after the riots. Crowds gathered and cheered as they left.
Source: SikhNN

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.

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