Settlers and pioneers figure prominently into the historical imagination of the Pacific Northwest. We picture them as denim-clad adventurers from the 1800s, seeking opportunity in America’s final frontier. But settlers aren’t just a thing of the past. They’re around us every day in the form of vibrant, immigrant communities that make their way to unfamiliar shores seeking refuge or a better life.
This is what “Roots & Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest” reminds us, as it traces the regional history of this community from the early 1900s to today. It also offers a crucial voice and perspective that’s been missing from the story of Asian migration to the greater Seattle area.
Compiling a community-based history
Written by Amy Bhatt, an assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at University of Maryland-Baltimore County and doctoral graduate of the University of Washington, and Nalini Iyer, a professor of English at Seattle University, the book stems from the University of Washington (UW) Libraries’ South Asian Oral History Project (SAOHP) — a digital collection of interviews with immigrants who came to the area from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the 1950s to the 1990s (a foreword by Deepa Banerjee, South Asian studies librarian, details this project).
But “Roots & Reflections” starts much earlier than the 1950s, beginning with the first South Asian immigrants who came as laborers in the early 1900s.
“Most people in the Seattle area associate South Asian immigration with Microsoft, so this will really change their sense of history,” says Iyer.
A desire to tell this untold history is what drove Irene Joshi, the former UW South Asian studies librarian, to first fund the SAOHP in 2005. Her husband Raj immigrated to America in the 1940s, and she feared his generation’s stories would be lost if she didn’t act to preserve them. Bhatt was the project’s oral historian, empowering narrators to record history in their own voices — and is now in this book.
“One of the reasons this book is important is that it offers individuals who are actually part of the community the opportunity to write their own histories,” explains Bhatt. “They haven’t been able to do so in the past.”
Adding a “South” to Asian American
The book also highlights how integral South Asian immigration has been to the history and economy of the Pacific Northwest. Many readers may be surprised to learn that South Asian immigrants first came to the region as farmers and lumber mill workers, but were initially driven out by events like the “anti-Hindu” Bellingham Riots in 1907.
“The Pacific Northwest is seen as the frontier, and it still has that ethic to it. When we think about communities here, the history is closely tied to East Asian immigrants who came to work in lumber mills and railroads,” says Bhatt. “But often the stories about how the South Asian community fits into that larger narrative are hidden. This [book] is an effort to bring that story to the forefront.”
Iyer agrees: “South Asians have been integral to the economic and v political growth of this region. It’s an under-expressed and under-explored history.”
Aside from telling the stories of these narrators, the book also shows the contributions they’ve made as longtime residents of region; they’re doctors, nonprofit founders, early members of Microsoft, religious leaders, and most of all, invested members of their communities.
Rooting today’s immigration debate in history
While “Roots & Reflections” is a history, it’s directly relevant to the immigration debate being waged at a national level. In particular, it reveals how policies such as the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 continue to dictate who gets to come to the U.S. in terms of country of origin, education level, labor skills and economic strata.
“The character of a community is shaped by what’s happening at the national level,” says Bhatt. “[For example], there’s an assumption that all Asians have a cultural work ethic and they’ll be more productive citizens. But these assumptions are the result of carefully crafted state policies that seek out certain kinds of immigrants who already have privileges in their home countries that allow them to come to the U.S. in the first place.”
Iyer adds that looking back at history reveals how little we’ve changed the way we talk about immigration in the U.S.
“When you think about the 1907 Bellingham Riots, which were about cheap, foreign labor, you realize the debate hasn’t changed. The nature of labor has changed — now we debate about H-1B visas instead of lumber mill workers — but the conversation is the same. It means we haven’t found solutions yet.”
Deepa Banerjee, UW South Asian studies librarian, encourages all community members (not just South Asians and academics) to listen to the interviews, which are part of the long-term exhibit at the Ellis Island National Immigration History Museum in New York as well.
“These interviews are being used, not only by South Asian Studies professors, but also by high schools,” says Banerjee. “Students are learning about history, how to create databases, and the long-term preservation of digital data.”
Learn more about this project by visiting www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/BHAROO.html.
Listen to actual interviews from the SAOHP through the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collection at content.lib.washington.edu/saohcweb/index.html.