Bruce LaBrack, Cultural Anthropologist and South Asian Specialist, University of the Pacific

Bruce La Brack
Office recording by Michael Johnson
Interview by Deepa Raganathan
Date: April 15, 2005

0:00 getting set up

1:56 Sikhs are from Punjab province, involved in the wars against the British. Sikhs last people subjugated by British in mid 19th century. Sikhs regiments in the Army until recently. Part of British military, went all over the world to British colonies. Traveled widely, broad education. Built railway in E. Africa. Probably came to North America having heard of advertisement of rich, cheap land in Canada.

3:19 saw the land in summer, nobody there, water great In 1904-07 about 6500 people come to North America.

3:46 Punjab one of most densely populated. Land is finite, so after generations, youngest males would go outside and seek fortunes elsewhere—India, Asia or overseas.

4:28 a series of famines in late 1800s India
inflation in land prices
health issues
people were looking for outside opportunities, never expecting to stay in countries they went to, only to send money back, make fortunes, return home.

5:14 mostly came to W Coast, Canada. 1907 moved south into CA and the Imperial Valley.
5:32 Immigration ended 1908 (large scale) Stopped completely by 1917 Bared Zone Provision and later revocation of citizenship. 1920-1940 3000 illegal immigrants came up through Mexico (Took turbans off, shaved beards, nobody noticed).

6:27 Total 10K Sikhs 1904-1955.

6:45 Initially many had Commonwealth passports, so Canadian citizens. Some early Sikhs served armed forces. Once Canada clamped down after WWI.

7:34 1923 Ozawa case, determined that they could not hold citizenship and as a result of that many people had citizenship revoked. Stateless persons. Stay in US as Alien residents, but couldn’t leave because wouldn’t be able to return.

For 45 years community highly encapsulated in the West Coast mostly CA.

8:26 Against Indian labor…(clarifying a question…)
8:43 When Indians came here, most experience as military or farmers. Not a great deal of possibility to buy land, didn’t come with that kind of money. Employment as farm laborers, mines, logging, railroads. Fairly itinerant population. Many didn’t read.

10:00 Anti asian, anti-oriental legislation in US, particularly virulent in US. 1914,15,16 duer to WWI. People who wanted to get into other areas of labor were kept out of labor unions. Sikhs highly visible, tended to stay toward Central Valleys, working as migrant farmers, ranching. A few managed to buy land, but they weren’t able to lift community out of lower class status.

11:23 Punjab highest percentage of owner-operated farms in Asia. Many were quite valued (Hindu work Gangs 10 guys worked in orchards, irrigation, tilled field). Experience in water management. Useful and transferable skill to CA. Turned hand to any work they could get agriculture, construction.

12:48 Never enough SA in US to constitute a block of laborers as with Chinese or Filipino. Often Indian groups were preferred in small numbers but no place that became dependent upon them. 2 centers: 1) Imperial Valley—Brawley, Calexico (Salton Sea) hugh factories in the field, commercial ag. Climate and winters were much like Punjab. Worked there successfully. Couldn’t buy enough land to become an owner (need several 100 or several 1000 acres) people moved to Yuba City Marysville. That’s where largest ag community outside of Indian. 10K, 11K Sikhs, farmers successful own vast tracts of land there. 90% cling peach production in US comes from Sikh farms.

14:53 Sikhs were non-Christian, seen by dominant pop as non-White. Ate strange foods, spoke lanaguge not understood, English quite diffrernt. Seen as aliens. Same response as to Chinese, japanese. They came along at a bad time in history. A tremendous amount of
Ragheads, turbaned Tide or Turbaned Tribe. Argument, there’s only a few now, India is large, what if 400Million people want to come? Racism and discrimination persecuted far more out of a sense of principle than any sort of economic or political threat to US.

16:54 Exclusions in LA 1911, 1912 that said Hindus couldn’t own property. Alien Law Act started as a response to WWI, directed at Germans, Italians, that American property should be owned by Americans, not immigrants. Some were put on the list: Chinese, Japanese, Asians, Indians, Sikhs in particular. First ones in Nebgraska and Midwest, but shortly put into place in CA.

18:15 Sikhism was founded as a religion by Guru Nanak. Late 1600s reform religion. Outsiders see elements of Hinduism, Xtian, but Sikhs see it as completely new. NOT Hindus. Problem that Hindustan=India at the time. So Hindu refered to Indian, not Hindu religion.

19:21 peak 10K Sikhs up until 1947, 48.

19:44 there was an initial flood, quickly became sociall isolated, driven from towns, Hindu riots in early 1900s. They were caught up in a largely anti-Asian sentiment that was going on. External symbols Turban and beard, highly visible, a target.

20:36 Most of people did not come individually. Several from village or area. An uncle or nephew. Live, cook, work together. Self perpetuating, self-referential community for a ong period of time. Strong faith, needed to endure this, for families, for money to send home, much like migrants do today. Second element early 1900s, increasing up to 1920,30 400 Sikhs married into Hispanic community, offspring, half-Mexican, half-Hindu “Mexidus” A proud heritage. When people started to come from India, they were rejected by Sikhs coming in, estrangement of inter-married. Not unusual to have comadres and copadres, from both Sikh and Mexican communities in Catholic church. Often Sikhs would marry sisters.

24:00 Cultural similarities, you could go too far with that, but lower economic status, darker skin, discrimination. Mex and Indian food is similar roti, chapati. Family honor and tradition. Sikhs couldn’t leave and come back. In some cases had wives back home, but reunificaiton was impossible for 30-35 years, Married here even though had family in India.

25:11 came as male work groups. ½ dozen women on West Coast for first 50 years. Did not expect to be stuck here, either go home or bring families, but couldn’t do it until independe of India in 1947.

26:16 I’m not familiar with that case…well I believe that was early 1907,1908, 1909. Increasingly difficult to go back or own land. Several hundred able to get citizenship, many of those rescinded in 1923 case.

27:13 citizenship denied to a number of groups, dependent on juridiction. 1900-1920s a fairly negative feeling towards Asian immigrantion. First case to deny citizenship to a group Ozawa, detrermined by Supreme Court that Japanese not eligible for US citizens because not Caucasian. On that basis, Bagat Singh Thind, served US Army WWI, TOOK CASe to Supreme Court, Indians, speaking European languages, biologically speaking Caucasians. Justice Sutherland. Decision against them, ineligible for citizenship, they weren’t white people in the normal sense of the word in the mind of the average man on the street. Overtly racist. Intention to remove Asians in general, Indians and Sikhs were impacted more because they were more here and some were already citizens. 1924.

30:02 they couldn’t own land, vote, none of the normal protections that US Citizen would, couldn’t leave US, no passport, no travel. Encapsulated. Ways they got around it, put land in names of the children born in US or Mex-Am wives. Shielded their property.

31:07 many ahd fought for British and also for US. British gov’t didn’t intervene on behalf of Sikhs in US or Canada. Great Britian and US did not have their interests at heart. Their own gov’ts did nothing to prevent these things from occurring.

32:00 many did not apply for citizenship. Many illegal. Foregin residency status. Thind: if you had it we’re taking it away, and if not, you’re ineligible for it. He was doing this on behalf of others. The overall emphasis was to stop immigration for 30 years from undesirable areas of the world.

33:10 If they were in position to buy land, they could hold in own names, legal protections of courts, sign contracts, all advantages of anyone citizen. Sue someone. They had recourse, legal standing, once taken away, much more diff. to assert rights.

34:50 Ghadar=Mutiny in Punjabi. Started by Indian Prof at Stanford U. movement hopefully to overthrough British gov’t. Located in US, CA. Majority members were Sikh farmers of CA. Once of responses to negative social climate and Britian doing nothing to alleviate that. Other movements begun before, Independence Mobement, Ghandi, Indian National Congress 1880. Anti British movements in India from that time forward.
In US, we will try to subvert colonial rule in any way we can support anyone in Indian against British rule.
Published papers in Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, English. Ghadar movement was revolutionary. Major impact 1913-17,18 because what happened was they sent agents worldwide, conspiracy trial in San Fran, major party in trial shot to death. Tie between Germany after WWI was damanging to the movement. Ghadar lived on into Indepdendence. CA-based international freedom seeking recvolutionary movement. Central Valley Sikhs were primary financial supporters.

38:28 a groupd went back on a ship to India joining fight again British, informed upon, arrested and deported for life, incarcerated, a few executed.

39:00 militarily of no consequence at all.

39:22 gave people a sense that they could fight against injustice. All had relatives in Punjab. Living under colonial rule. They had a british education. Which showed them that Indians were being treated poorly. Idea was if british driven out of India, position of Indians worldwide would improve.

41:29 1923 loss of citizenship no substantial immigration after 1908. Largest immigration in first half of first decade in 1900s. Community destined to diminish over time. 1945, not more than 1500 Sikhs left in US. Most in and around NorCal.

42:22 British made it much more difficult. Feared large numbers of immigration to Canada. Started campaigns of White Canada. Canada also restricted immigration, but allowed for early reunification of families. Small amount of population. Immigation closed by US and Canada for same reasons.

43:59 Very expensive and took long time to get to West Coast of US.

44:12 equivalent of $1000 now. A great deal of money.

44:42 they were under the radar, not very many of them, not coming in large groups. Misogynation laws, still very common, on the books in CA. in beginning marriages between Sikhs and Mexican American community. Try to get a license, can’t because this person’s Mex, you’re not white. I’m sikh. Forget it. LA or San Fran occasionally gave licenses anyway. After a while, that was a problem. Creative means: a man took bride to San Diego, refused in La and El Centro. Hired tugboat captain went out beyond 12 miles limit, got married, came back and registered. Opposed in some way figure out ways to make system work for them.

47:30 I’m Not a legal expert…getting into areas way beyond my interest.

47:47 Story from an elderly Sikh gentleman that LaBrack was interviewing. He was in a bar outside Marysville on Sunday afternoon. Drunk man called him a slave, what do you mean. India is run by Brtish, America run by America, you’re a slave. 30 years later, the guy told me, I just hit him and ran away. What it said was the country he came from was not free. Even if he was in America, he was not free. Very resentful of this.
Joining Ghadar movement was a way to counteract this negative position held by others about Indians.

50:24 1917 Barred Zone Provison didn’t’ impact Indians except to bar immigration. But there was none since 1908. A few dozen or hundred would come, illegally. It had greater impacts in other countries than for Indians. Codified what had already happened. Cut off of immigration from India.

51:27 get off, go through immigration, if papers OK, given foreign resident status, walk across the border and never report to anyone again in US. If you weren’t trying to buy land or go to court, then chances were people would leave you alone, do work, get paid, work for cash, off the economy, lots of Americans did that during the depression.

52:23 come through Mexico, mostly illegals, after 1910, 1912 most of illegals came after Barred Zone. 3000 came over 15 years most through Mexico.

53:00 Legally, wasn’t great deal of mechanism to do it. They’d camp in a town, and be driven out. Basic sort of level, driven from place to place, because considered undesirable, by product of anti-oriental discrimination begun with Chinese immigration many many decades before.

54:09 there are several communities, community affected most deeply single men who did not marry. Attached to ranches, menial laborers, very hard difficult lives. Never got muchmoney, never owned land, move to US was disaster. Married into sub-groups? Rich and good family lives. Intact families. Monotheistic, both Xtian (Catholic) and Sikhs, hard work, both loved children, males and females. Those who could settle and have home life, was not a bad place. Rural areas during depression, could get milk from cows, crops, etc. Oakies and Arkies had it harder. May families talked about times as yes poor, butnot unhappy, enough to eat, clothes and place to live. Not a bad life. If not have that social network, probably your only friends were other Punjabis.

56:38 aging population, dwindled from 10K to about 1500 by 1947. If India had not become independent, immigration resumed, very likely that all left would be the offspring of Sikhs and Mexican wives. (Didn’t happen, though)

57:35 you would expect that there would be tremendous movement both ways and there wasn’t. 1947-1965 very little growth in Indian community in US. After independence some went back to villages, others went back (families died) people bringing relatives were numbered in 100s, no more. Opened up immigration to India, limit to 400-500 a year. Absurdly small number. You could be a citizen, when it came to how many could come, number exceedingly small. 1967 legislation signed by Pres Johnson, re-did immigration laws, reconstitution of SAs since then. Population of Indians in US is over one million.

59:47 those that had had immigration status denied, citizens could re-apply and reinstate.
Interesting story, several older men living 35-40 years. I applied once, given citizenship and taken away. If I can get my original papers I will apply, if not, I won’t. They did get it restored. Some did, some didn’t.

61:20 India major allies in war on Asia fight for SE Asia, Burma. Sikhs were major part of Indian Armed Forces. Role allies had played during WWII. (in both World Wars)

62:05 Thind had citizenship during WWI, taken away after. WWII came on British passports. If you are foreign born you can be in armed forces. Many in Iraq now who are not citizens. A handful at best, not a big factor.

62:46Entire story itself is untold. Indian communities today, non-Sikhs. If you ask when were first people who came, very often they have little idea. This is whole part of own history which is valiant. They cam under extreme diff. circumstances, few rewards, stuck it out, did thrive, doctors engineers, lawyesr are Sikhs. Big professional community. Sikhs highest ed levels post-HS and grad education, highest paid immigrants in US.
THE most successful Asian groups in the US. Same people, operating under different sets of rules, different social realities.

65:06 Core values of hard work, responsibility, saving, desire to own land, strong family values, allowed them to survive under circumstances that they did.
Average number of school years completed for SAs that remained in Yuba City Marysville, 3.7 years formal schooling. 1947. Many couldn’t read in their own language.

66:18 shocking blatant when Justice Sutherland comes out and says technically white people (dooor sounds) knocking. You cannot be citizen. I don’t know if you can get more blatant than that. Racist discriminatory.

67:05 I’m Bruce La Brack Prof of anthropology and International studies U of Pacific in CA I have been observing and participating in and celebrating Sikhs in US for last 30 years.

No, Shanty Irish and French Basque for my background.

67:55 I just like to make sure that all material facts are correct, dates and stuff.

Bye bye.

Room tone: Brack’s office 4/15/05 68:30-70:30