The initial wave of Sikh immigrants from Jullundur and Hoshiarpur within the Punjab region of India arrived in North America around 1897, roughly ten years after the first Japanese immigrants. Similar to the Japanese and other Asiatic people, Sikhs found themselves as labourers on railroads. Like other Asians, the Sikhs were located in the Northwestern United States and Canada, having been hired by British agents to work on the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway.
By the 1910s, Sikhs began to face adversity. The Asiatic Exclusion League, an organised labour movement, sought to lobby against foreigners. In the summer of 1907, Bellingham, Washington was the scene of an incident where members of the league sacked the Sikh’s living quarters, forcing them into homelessness and stealing whatever meagre possessions they had in an attempt to drive them away.
Cold conditions in northern lands and colder relations with its natives did not settle well with Sikhs. Toiling labour and poor pay were also contributing factors for their exodus southward to the warmer Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys of California. These lands are fertile and ripe for farming, an agrarian trait their homeland shared.
According to Margaret A. Gibson in her book, “Accommodation without Assimilation,” farming was more of a consequence for Sikh migrants than as an attestment to their skills. Gibson states, “Settlement patterns in other parts of the world suggest that the California Punjabis would have pursued new trades had there been opportunities apart from farming […] Although their agricultural skills may have helped California Punjabis get ahead economically, Punjabis took up farming in America less from cultural tradition than from sheer necessity.” Nevertheless, California become the permanent home for many Sikhs and most made their living through farming for generations.
In 1912, the very first Gurdwara (Sikh holy places) in the United States was established in Stockton, California. The temple was founded by Sikh pioneers and farmers Baba Jawala Singh and Baba Wasakha Singh. Gurdwaras feature the Langar, a communal kitchen where free food is served to all without discretion or regard to one’s faith. There is no hierarchy within the temple and any baptised Sikh may lead a service. The website worldgurudwara.com lists 116 Gurdwaras throughout California. There are 4 gurdwaras, including 2 temples in Yuba City alone, which boasts the second largest Sikh population in North America; the first being Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada.
Despite Sikhs having successes in farming and establishing temples, ownership of land was sometimes in question. Though primarily targeting Japanese immigrants to quell that group’s influence in economic matters pertaining to central Californian agriculture, the state’s 1913 Alien Land Law barred non-citizen Asians, including Indians, ineligible for land ownership. Ten years later, the law was upheld by the United States Supreme Court when it decided that the law did not infringe or violate the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment since non-citizens are not entitled to legal protections reserved for citizens. To make matters more difficult, citizenship for most Asian immigrants was nearly impossible to achieve.
In 1922, the United States Supreme Court heard the case Takao Ozawa v. United States. Ozawa attempted to have Japanese people classified as “white” for all intents and purposes regarding legal processes, including land ownership. The court decided those of European ancestry are exclusively white. Associate Justice George Sutherland made the ruling and further stated that the Japanese were of an unassimilable race, meaning it was impossible for Japanese immigrants to accustom themselves with Anglo culture.
The following year, the Supreme Court heard the case United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. Similar to Ozawa’s case, Thind, a Sikh, was denied naturalisation and thus argued that Indians should be considered white. Thind himself stated that as an Indian of high caste, he was of the Aryan race, and therefore Caucasian; therefore, white.
George Sutherland and the court refuted Thind’s claim, ruling that the term “Aryan” is a linguistic determination referring to Indo-European languages and does not convey common racial origins with Europeans. Additionally, the court rejected Thind’s argument that Indians are Caucasian in the “common understanding” as it related to Europeans with ancestry in Europe proper and cannot be considered white. The court ruled that Indians were not eligible for naturalisation in the same vein that the Japanese were excluded.
In 1952 when the California Supreme Court heard the case of Sei Fujii v. California. Fujii reprised the argument that the Alien Land Law violated the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment but also argued that the law was in direct violation of Articles 55 and 56 of the United Nations charter. Article 55 states that member nations shall promote such things as higher standards of living, social progress and development, international cultural and educational cooperation, and universal respect of human rights regardless of race, sex, language or religion. As the United States is a member of the United Nations, thus bound by treaty to obligate its charter, The California Supreme Court found that the law was in violation of the state and federal constitution.
In the 60s and 70s, Sikhs and other Indians were eager to reestablish their businesses or expand upon whatever they had been fortunate or lucky enough to keep. Sikhs branched out fairly well in the Sacramento valley when it came to farming as more immigrants from India arrived. Many of the older generation of Sikhs had good English skills and some even spoke a little bit of Spanish, having interacted with and hiring Mexican labour to help tend their crops. According to sikhpioneers.org, Sikh farmers in Yuba-County account for 95% of peach harvests, 60% of prune cultivation, and about 20% of almond and walnut farming.
Margaret A. Gibson writes about the ethnic relations Sikhs had with other groups during this time. “Every Punjabi family had experienced prejudice,” she writes, “but it was the newcomers that suffered the most. The old-timers, generally the farm owners, were better established in Valleyside and were respected, albeit begrudgingly, for their agricultural skills and substantial influence in the country’s largest industry.”
In March of 2012, an exhibit founded by medical doctor Jasbir Singh Kang devoted to Sikhs and their incredible journey entitled, “Becoming American” opened to the public. The exhibit is located within The Community Memorial Museum of Sutter county. It chronicles the history of their people and the great contributions they have made to California’s culture and economy.