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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

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

The Bellingham Herald, Sept. 5, 1907, shows a group of Punjabi immigrants rounded up by the mobs and confined to a room at City Hall, to be expelled from Bellingham. Most left within three days of the riots.
Source: Paul Englesberg

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.

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