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Taking Stock

A view of Sikhs in N. America from Yuba City, USA

Jasbir Singh (Kang) Tue Aug 14


So far we Sikhs are treating our problems symptomatically rather than looking for a cure or long-term survival as Sikh-Americans and global citizens.

We are a very diverse and pluralistic group of people so the same remedy may not work for all. We need to look for different options in different settings. Overall I believe that the Americanization of our future generations is inevitable unless we make Sikhism compatible with American ways so both can co-exist.

Let us re-cap what Sikhs have accomplished in America in the last century.

Sikh migration started to this new world-America in the1890's. A study of Punjabi migration reveals that the majority of the early migrants are already lost in the melting pot. Most of their children were born to Mexican mothers and these children grew up as Catholics. The documentary film 'Roots in Sand' captures this period well.

The second group of children born to Punjabi mothers after 1948 took more pride in being East Indians but many of them grew up with no faith since there were very few Gurdwaras and prejudice against them was rampant.

The third larger group migrated post 1965 after liberalization of the immigration laws. These people were able to establish small islands of Punjabi community and took pride in their Punjabi roots.

Post 1980 saw the fourth group of Punjabi migration to the United States . Many of these migrants were victims of the political situation in Punjab . This latter group controls many Gurudwaras in USA .

The most recent migrants, are very westernized in a superficial sense and are the least interested in Sikhism. Many of these new arrivals had cut their hair even before landing in America .

This is a mere generalization of facts for the purpose of simplification and may not apply to every person.

Here are a few facts about our community:

Demographics of Sikhs in USA

The Majority of Punjabi Sikh-Americans live in the State of California , New York , Texas , Illinois and Michigan . The rest of the Sikh Community is thinly spread over many states. White American Sikhs, barely a few hundred families, are essentially concentrated in Espanola , New Mexico and Phoenix .

There are many more Sikhs in Canada than in the USA and their activities and newspapers have a major impact on Sikhs in the USA . So far the langar issue has drained much of our resources in many places. Canada has many elected Sikh officials. But other than Dalip Singh (Saund) and David Singh (Dhillon), who attended church services regularly to reach out to mainstream Americans, no other Sikh-Americans have been elected to high posts so far.


Newspapers: Sikhs have many Punjabi Newspapers (except for two all originate from Canada ) which often contradict each other. There is no major English newspaper and most English readers depend on Indian tainted media sources.

TV: currently most of the Sikhs watch ZEE TV and or TV ASIA. A few cities offer Sikh owned limited coverage TV programs but unfortunately these programs talk little about Sikh or Sikhism and more about Bollywood.

Radio Programs: There are a few very good radio programs but they only serve the needs of Punjabi Speaking Sikhs.

Books and Libraries: Very few libraries have quality Sikh books. Unfortunately very few Sikhs are avid readers anyhow.

Preachers: Most of our preachers are Indian born or have no experience of dealing with children being raised in this country. So they can't effectively communicate with children born in USA . We pay them minimum wages and many quit after getting their green cards.

Internet: There are many good web sites - our only hope. But many web sites are too elite and don't talk about ordinary Sikhs or their day-to-day problems. We are more interested in the ugly politics of Punjab and India .

Museums: So far there are none in the USA , though the Sikh Foundation is working on one on the west cost and the Smithsonian Center is working on one on east coast.

Video/DVDs: There are a few video's available but only on a very limited scale, with nothing available in American libraries. There is as yet no DVD on Sikhism except Shabad Kirtan or a few mediocre Punjabi movies. We have even failed to make widely available a quality video copy of the documentary made by BBC in 1999. This video should be made available to all libraries and schools wherever Sikhs live.

Erika Surat Anderson produced the most watched documentary 'Turbans', which was shown on PBS. However, many Sikhs didn't feel comfortable with last two minutes of the production.

CD-ROM: Encyclopedia of Sikhism by Mr. R.S. Bains, or three more CDs on Gurbani and one animation CD on Guru Nanak.

There is hardly any other computer material for Kids or Adults on Sikhism in English.

In Yuba City , with over ten thousand Sikhs living in a 10-mile radius, not even one hundred Sikhs attend the Gurudwara weekly program. Where as thousands of people show up at cultural festivals and are even willing to pay for the entry ticket.

This year we experimented by offering a bilingual Punjabi American heritage program (the seventh annual Punjabi American Festival). Bhai Dya Singh world music group was our headliner. There were also other cultural performers. We showed documentaries including 'Sikhs' by the BBC and we had an audience of 12,000 plus. We were also able to attract many Americans of other backgrounds, mainly white Americans.

Many Sikhs criticized us for inviting a religious singer to the cultural festival. However, at least in Yuba City it seems that the Sikhs are more willing to accommodate without getting assimilated and they want to maintain Punjabi Traditions.

I often get criticized for speaking in English. I am trying to find a compromise, bilingual model. I even looked at a formula from our local Church offering services in English, Punjabi and Spanish. But our Sangat is different since many parents speak Punjabi and of course their children speak English.

I don't know if it is a good idea to segregate our sangat in separate Sunday divans, as happens in the Church model. Eventually we may have English speaking Gurdwaras. In any event, we have to find a constructive way to Americanize our methods to preserve Sikh traditions and make them acceptable to others without tempering the real essence. At the same time, we can't go deviate too much from the rest of the Sikh world otherwise our own community will see us as outsiders.

I think we need a lot more discussion on this topic. I am not asking for an idealistic or a fast forward solution but rather a pragmatic approach keeping in mind our limitations and our current resources.

I am sure Sikhism is universal and we cannot tie it to Punjabi culture.