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By Lakshmi Menon and Padma Rangaswamy

Do You Know Your South Asian History?

Think back. How many of us considered history our least favorite subject in school? Still cringe at the thought of memorizing dates and battlefield trivia? That’s history for many of us: boring, dead, passé.

Fast forward to the present. How many of us want our children to know the stories of the South Asians in our families who first left our homeland for America? Want to see our children take pride in our achievements and contributions to the building of this great nation?

History is a remarkably potent force, a fusion of time past, time present and time yet to come. Its record of what went before shapes current perceptions and attitudes and guides decisions that affect the destinies of future generations. If we don’t tell our own story, someone else will—someone who then has the opportunity to shape a version that fits a different agenda.

Photo by Camilo Morales

Though many Americans of South Asian origin think our community is too young to have a history in this country, now, more than ever, there is a sense of urgency about South Asian American history. While immigrant pioneers can still serve as firsthand resources, before irreplaceable historic documents and objects are discarded or destroyed, we must begin documenting their experiences and preserving the artifacts that tell the story of the people from the South Asian region who have made their home in the United States.

Our own family histories, our adaptation of traditional observances, our connections to the homeland—all this is a part of the lives we live as South Asians. In telling our individual stories, we paint a collective portrait of our community. In sharing our experiences, identifying our challenges and celebrating our accomplishments, our past and present become a blueprint for future generations in this country. Our history helps them understand how they came to be where they are and offers a roadmap for the choices they make through the course of their lives.

Who Are We?

Did you know…

- In the 2000 census, 1,678,765 people categorized themselves as “Asian Indian alone”, 40,013 were Asian Indian in combination with other Asian groups and 180,821 were in combination with other races.

- Early South Asian immigrant men were barred from marrying white women, so Sikh immigrants took Mexican wives and raised Punjabi-Mexican families. Their children, with names likes Carmelita Sidhu and Cirilia Singh, acquired a distinctive bi-cultural identity, and struggled to break free of their strict disciplinarian Punjabi fathers.

We’re Older than You Think

Did you know…

- The first South Asian in the United States is thought to have been a man from Madras who visited Salem, Massachusetts in 1790. Long before the major thrust of South Asian immigration to the U.S. began in 1965, South Asians were trickling into the United States as merchants, adventurers and seafarers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They fought in the Civil War and joined the U.S. Army during World War I and later conflicts. But they became a significant presence between 1904 and 1920 when more than 7,000 Punjabis, mostly Sikhs, came as sojourners to the Pacific Northwest to work the lumber mills and the railroads.

About the Women

Did you know…

- South Asian women were not permitted to enter the United States as immigrants until 1946 when a quota system allowed South Asian men who were already in the country to send for their wives.

- After 1965, South Asian women were admitted in numbers nearly as large as, and in some years larger than, the men. They came as professional primary immigrants in their own right, as students or as accompanying family members.

- South Asian women outnumber men in all categories in the healthcare industry, which accounts for 20 to 25% of all professional and service occupations of South Asians.

- The median earnings of South Asian women at $35,173 are much higher than those of the average U.S. woman at $27,184.

The Sikhs: Struggle, Survival, Success

Did you know…

- Sikhs (who often have the last name Singh) dominated early U.S. immigration from the Indian subcontinent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although they are a relatively small segment of the overall South Asian American population today, their struggle to make good and overcome discrimination is one of the most valuable aspects of the South Asian American heritage. They were a major factor in developing the agricultural economy throughout California. In Arizona, they turned arid desert land into profitable rice fields using farming techniques they had learned at home. They became so prosperous, they were known as the “Hindu rice kings.”

- Post 9/11, Sikhs have been persecuted due to the mistaken perception that they are Muslim or Middle Eastern. There were at least two tragic cases in Arizona where Sikhs, mistaken for Afghans, were gunned down by white men.

- There are many Singh stories yet to be told, but a well-known name in the residential and commercial building industry in Michigan is the Singh Development Company. The company owes it origins to a Sikh immigrant who left his village in India in 1921, headed for California, and came to Detroit before bringing over his grandsons, who founded the successful construction business.

Early Recognition

Did you know…

- Gobind Behari Lal , who attended the University of California, and went on to become science editor for the Hearst newspapers, was a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1937.

- Dhan Gopal Mukherji won the 1928 Newbery Medal, awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children's book published the previous year for his Gay-Neck: The Story of a Pigeon.

The Indo-American Heritage Museum (IAHM) is dedicated to increasing awareness and appreciation of the rich cultural heritage of Indian Americans and showcasing their outstanding contributions to the building of America. The IAHM is a community-based and inclusive institution, a place where visitors can better understand and experience the rich cultural heritage, fascinating immigrant history and important contemporary developments that shape the lives of millions of Americans of Indian origin. IAHM is a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization. Visit us at


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