Sikh-ing Respect for Cultural Diversity

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• Topics: Law & Justice,

Editor's Note: We received this Letter to the Editor in response to Kamalla Rose Kaur's earlier story, "Welcome to the Land of the Lummis". I was pleased that Dr. Singh had read Kamalla's article and took the time to respond. He very simply shares some important and subtle insights into the challenge of cultivating cultural diversity amidst the dominant paradigm that continually emerges from America's great melting pot and insatiable economic engine. Paradoxically, while we admire diverse cultures, we also participate and rely on a system that is very effective at eliminating them. Dr. Singh prompts me to again wonder what individuals can do to nurture, sustain and celebrate cultural differences, how we can protect them from a system that values only that which can be reduced to a general quantitative equivalent?

Lummi Culture, highlighted by events like Stommish and the canoe rendezvous, has enjoyed a relatively recent and amazing resurgence, symbolically resembling salmon churning upstream, against the current of America's need for a common denominator. Whatever they are doing seems to be working. Maybe there is more we can learn from them - as Kamalla suggests in her earlier article.


Postscript: This post has been modified to reflect Dr. Singh's final draft letter. The original post was erroneously of his outline draft. The update is similar but several interesting details are included. Today we remember the sad night of September 7, 1907, when an angry mob of Bellingham citizens attacked Sikh lumber workers, pulled them from their beds, beat and robbed them, and chased them to the border. Two years ago, on the hundredth anniversary of this event, Bellingham leaders and the local paper officially apologized to Sikhs everywhere. Today, we again extend our kindest sentiments. - Tip Johnson
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To NW Citizens,

I applaud the residents of Bellingham area for showing the courage and providing the much needed healing touch. I have driven by your town many times when driving to Surrey from Seattle to see my family. I have also visited briefly and experienced the breathtaking view. The mountains, the greenery and lakes are simply great. The scenic drive of about 125 miles between Seattle and Surrey on HWY 5 is the main reason that I always have the urge to get off the airplane at Seattle and drive to Surrey.

It takes certain amount of courage to admit the wrongs done. The perpetrator of wrongs might forget those atrocities and simply shrug his shoulders, but the victim does not forget what happened to him or her. Those ugly events get etched into one's memory and stay there forever. The sad part is that the Sikh community did not want to settle in Whatcom County for decades after that bitter experience.in September 1907, when Sikhs were simply chased and driven out of the Bellingham! They suffered utmost humiliation. The times have changed. I am glad that Sikhs have settled there again. I am also happy that fellow Americans have a better understanding of the Sikh community than their forefathers.

The East Indians (as we were called) were barred from owning property in California. My granduncle Mihan Singh was one of the early Babas (Papas). He lived in California for about 50 years and died in Stockton, California in 1963.He bought a piece of land in Yuba City sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, but never got the title to the land! As a result he suffered immense loss and died a poor man. He lived off his meager social security. His last known address was the Stockton Gurdwara (Sikh temple). He lived there for many years.

All those Babas helped in building the original and the later buildings of that Gurdwara. Both Gurdwaras still stand and are on good shape. The oldest building has been almost totally renovated - that Gurdwara is one of the Historical Landmarks in California, with formal directional signs to that place of worship. Please visit. It is a beautiful and sturdy building made of bricks.

There were 202 East Indians in California in 1890. Their population slowly rose to 1873 in 1930. It dwindled to only 815 by 1950 due to discriminatory policies of the US government. On the other hand, the Chinese population rose from 39,556 in 1940 to 58,324 in 1950 after peaking at 75,132 in 1880. The Japanese population in California was 84,956 in 1950. All Asian communities had a population setback, but the East Indians/Sikhs suffered the most. (Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Seventeenth Census of the Unites States,: Population 1950.)

Out of the 815 East Indian population left in California, the Sikh population was probably no more than 500 or 600 in 1950. Most of them were growing old and dying. We almost reached a point of extinction. Our population declined more rapidly than any other minority community, more than the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Filipinos. The US government did not allow Sikhs to bring women or relatives from India. Many Punjabis/Sikhs bought land by marrying Hispanic, Anglo, Blacks and Native American women who were US citizens. Like my granduncle, many never married. When they died, their properties revered to state if they had no relatives or children! Thanks to President Harry Truman (1945-1953)! He changed the immigration policy that was discriminatory to the East Indians.

Before that, the British held sway over the US policy towards India until 1947 when India was finally free from the British yoke. Then the rapidly declining Sikh population started to grow again in the US in the late 1950s, and more significantly in the 1960 and 1970s. In 2009, according to unofficial counts, the Sikh population stands at roughly 500,000 in the US and growing. There are almost 70 places of Sikh worship in California today as compared to only 2 in the 1950s (in Stockton and El Centro). The Sikhs and Punjabis are known for their hard work, business skills, and persistence. Their per capita income in the US is among the highest among the minority communities.

The younger Sikh generation is well-educated and doing really well. A large number of them have degress in engineering, medicine, business, and other fields of learning. Visit the Silicon Valley or any local hospital all over the US and see how many East Indians/Sikh engineers and doctors are there who are, not only treating the patients and cranking out new products, but also contributing to the US economy and scientific knowledge. Or one can visit the Central Valley of California to see how thousands of Sikh farmers are producing the much needed food while generating a large number of jobs. About half the farms in Yuba City in California are owned by the Sikh farmers. They are among the major producers of peaches, raisins, and almonds..

The Punjabis and East Indians had to make ethnic choices in order to continue their biological lines and to buy and hold properties with their hard earned money. They married non-Indian women (mostly Mexican, Anglo, and Black). For example, out of 304 marriages of Asian Indians that took place in California from 1913-1949, 80% of the spouses were Hispanic, 12.7% Anglo, 4% Black, 2.4% East Indian, and .5% American Indian. (Source: Making Ethnic Choices - California's Punjabi Mexican Americans, by Karen Isaksen Leonard, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992, p. 67.)

Their offsprings and their children are living in California in Yuba City, Fresno, Imperial Valley, Los Angeles, and San Diego areas. They are enjoying the fruits of labor of their Sikh ancestors, especially those who have held on the properties bought by their Sikh forefathers.

I have an old Mexican-Sikh friend (Mohan Singh) who owns a farm next door to my small farm in the Fresno area. He also helps in managing my farm. He is a product of Mexican woman and a Sikh father. All his family members (children and grandchildren) use Singh as their last name! He has other siblings as well who just love the Sikh community. They all have families. Even though they are Christians, they have strong ties with the Sikh community. Mohan Singh still donates to the local Sikh Gurdwara and helps in arranging Nagar Kirtan (Sikh Parade) using his influence with the city officials. When he built his house on his farm in Selma, his family held an Akhand Patth ceremony (continuous reading of the Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib) to seek Guru's blessings.

Mohan Singh's Sikh father Moola Singh bought a piece of farm land in Selma in the Fresno County which is worth millions of dollars today. He himself served the US Army in Korea. His grandson is serving in the US Army. He speaks perfect Punjabi along with Spanish and English. I talk to him almost every week. He is a happy old man with a good sense of humor.


Dr. Tarlochan Singh
San Jose, California

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Comments by Readers

John Servais

Sep 23, 2009

I appreciate Dr. Tarlochan Singh writing us and letting Tip post his letter.  This story is very appropriate for us in Whatcom County to read.

We have a bad track record on our relations with and treatment of minorities and the original natives here.  We need to know the past in order to fairly deal with the present situations.  I hope we can present more about the past.

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John Lesow

Sep 24, 2009

I received my Canadian citizenship in 1992.  As an American, I am part of the “cultural mosaic” that is 21st century Canada.

Dr. Singh’s article is eloquent and rich in historical perspective.  Sikhs are among the world’s preeminent farmers.  They are, in large part, responsible for the “Green Revolution” in India that has lifted that country from recurrent threats of famine to modernity and industrialization.

Sikh farms predominate in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.  The farmer’s commitment to agriculture is complimented by a provincial government policy to preserve agricultural land as a local and international food source. A strong partnership exists between farmers of all nationalities and public policy.

In British Columbia, we experience continuing pressure by development interests to convert agricultural lands to housing and commercial uses. In this respect,  we are not much different than Whatcom County.

I work for a manufacturing company in Toronto.  Our workforce is remarkably diverse. 21 nationalities are represented in our workforce of just 71 people.

My boss is from India by way of Guyana. I am the only “Yank” in the organization.

It is worth mentioning that cultural diversity extends beyond agriculture.

And that North American industry has been very successful in assimilating a broad range of talent from all cultures into profit-making enterprises that engender mutual respect and cooperation across racial and cultural lines.

John Lesow

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Michael Chiavario

Oct 23, 2009

My respected conservationist colleague, John Lesow said that Sikh farmers in India helped bring in the ‘green revolution’ that helped stop periodic famine.
In fact, Sikh farmers amonh others were targeted for this iported program which depended heavily on chemical fertilizers and monocroping and has a few decades later resulted in depleted soils and small farm failure(helped by WTO policies) there is a movement to change to more organic and community based farming to avoid catastrophes of foreign dependence, continued soil and water depletion and more farmer suicides and comunity breakdown.
  Michael Chiavario

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