Pioneering Punjabi

Pioneering Punjabi

Written on 06/22/2022

Kartar Dhillon was a South Asian American writer and activist.  Her father, Mr. Bakshish Singh, was one of the first Punjabi pioneers to arrive in the United States in 1897.  Her mother, Rattan Kaur, later joined him in 1910. The family lived primarily in Astoria, Oregon and, southern California, but her family maintained ties to the Sacramento Valley and father worked in the Sacramento Delta at one time. 

One of the first South Asian families in the US, the Dhillon family agitated for the end to British colonial rule in India and supported the rights of American workers as part of the International Workers of the World.  Kartar Dhillon was also an ardent political activist; she was involved with the Black Panther movement and efforts to organize workers in California.  Her autobiographical essay, “Parrot's Beak,” is a rare glimpse into a young Punjabi American woman’s fraught relationship with her mother.  Given the paucity of primary sources documenting the experiences of Punjabi women who were pioneers in the early twentieth century, her writings and interviews are especially valuable. 

Her granddaughter, Erika Surat Andersen, is a filmmaker and writer whose film “Turbans” documents her family’s experiences living in Astoria, Oregon. 

"They looked upon Sikhs and Indians generally as freaks as we had come out of a circus or something. There was a great cruelty against our people."

Interview with Kartar Dhillon by Dr Jasbir Singh Kang, Oakland, CA from Nicole Ranganath on Vimeo.

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